“Rock Bottom”: Canada’s Access to Information Laws

Posted: January 16, 2011 in Canada, Law and Politics
Tags: ,

It’s a weird last straw, I suppose, but this article has been enough to revive my interest in freedom of information, enough to start writing about it instead of just griping in the comfort of my own home. I’m curious to see how long this blog lasts. Think of it as an experiment in electronic freedom. More philosophy later, though.

Although my main focus is intended to be international, and therefore is inevitably going to gravitate towards the United States, I can’t ignore my own backyard. In Canada, our freedom of information rights are governed by a piece of legislation called the Access to Information Act. This Act, in a word, sucks. The Globe & Mail recently covered some of the problems on the implementation side, though in my opinion the basic principles are fundamentally flawed:

In the past decade, the percentage of cases in which Ottawa discloses all the information requested has dropped to about 16 per cent from 40. In the past eight years, the percentage of cases in which federal officials complete requests within 30 days is down to 56 per cent from nearly 70.

The article quotes Michel Drapeau, at the University of Ottawa, referring to the system as a “bureaucrat’s dream.” This is only half true — and that half is largely confined to the senior ranks, who have as much of an interest in secrecy as the government they serve. In my experience, the lower levels actually regard their obligations under the ATI as unbearably tedious drudgery.

They can be forgiven for overlooking the fact that the government — and by extension, the “public” servant — is supposed to serve the people. The bottom line is that our governments are not interested in providing the funding or human resources necessary to meet what they are legally required to even by the menial standards of today’s ATI. Despite all the stereotypes about lazy bureaucrats, most of the fault here lies with the ministers’ offices, not with the civil servants.


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