The Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada (“OIC”) has released its yearly report for 2016-2017. The report contains the usual information—ranging from developments in departmental efficiency to ongoing legal challenges related to the OIC—while also strongly criticizing government inaction on promised amendments to the Access to Information Act (“AIA”).
When the Liberal party came to power in late 2015, they promised that the AIA would be updated for the twenty-first century. In keeping with the spirit of that promise, it eliminated all fees relating to the access to information process (save for a $5 filing fee) and provided a temporary boost in funding for the OIC. With this, the OIC was able to address its backlog in investigations and complaints: the OIC saw a record-setting 3,010 complaints carried over from the previous year, without any corresponding increase in the number of complaints made during that period.
However, the government announced in March 2017 that the AIA reform package was to be delayed. Further, as Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner of Canada, notes, “Budget 2017 contained no funding for transparency measures and, sadly, there is no direction from the head of the public service regarding transparency, likely meaning there will be minimal impact on the culture of secrecy within the public service.” (page 2) These deferrals led to her comment that “the year is ending with a shadow of disinterest on behalf of the government.” (page 2)
The report was not, however, entirely pessimistic. Much of the report presents an optimistic picture of the power of the OIC to shed light on government operations that would otherwise remain obscured. For example, in 2013 the RCMP received a request for communications relating to its decision not to pursue a perjury investigation against its own officers in relation to the investigation into the death of Robert Dziekański (also known as the Braidwood Inquiry). When no documentation of the RCMP’s decision was forthcoming, a complaint was launched. The subsequent OIC investigation revealed that the RCMP had, save for a single letter to outside counsel, no documentation at all for their decision.
This anecdote, the report states, is “especially problematic in light of the fact that the four officers at the centre of the inquiry were criminally charged with perjury by provincial authorities on the recommendation of a special provincial prosecutor.” (page 14) Further, it points to the fact there can be no accountability without records, which then emphasizes the Liberal government’s inaction on reform: the moral of the story is the need for a statutory “comprehensive legal duty to document, with appropriate sanctions for non-compliance” (page 14).
In that sense the report is not a castigation of Parliament or a watchdog’s griping over a broken promise; the report is, first and foremost, a signpost pointing towards a more transparent government.
This blog post was written by a CCLA summer student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA.