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February 16, 2011

Freedom of Information, for real?

Reuel S. Amdur

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"We only get as much an open government as we demand," said Jim Bronskill, in a presentation to the Ottawa Council of Women on February 15. He was describing the current state of affairs with availability of information from the federal government. His major areas of interest as a Canadian Press journalist are security, intelligence, policing, and justice.

Currently, Bronskill is trying to get the complete RCMP file on Tommy Douglas.  Some four years ago he got 1,142 pages, with hundreds of pages whited out. Two years ago, the Information Commissioner ruled that that was all he was entitled to, so he is now pursuing the matter in federal court. The decision is expected on February 23.

He got the Douglas documents using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). 

You can ask for information under the act on payment of a five dollar fee. Sometimes they charge more, but the trick is to be as specific in your request as possible and to limit the time frame as much as possible. 

Yet, “Processing requests seems to be the last thing on the bureaucrat’s to-do list. Rarely is the statutory deadline of 30 days met.  Often even extended deadlines aren’t met.” 

Bronskill finds that security-related information is harder to get since 9/11. 

“Few records are released and it takes a long time to get them.”  Yet, during the last election campaign the Tories promised to implement proposals by the then- Information Commissioner, John Reid, but their Accountability Act fell far short.  In fact, Reid charged that no government had set up a “more retrograde and dangerous set of proposals” on changes to access to information.

While the Tory Access to Information Act did add some crown corporations to the purview of FOI, the law included “exemptions and loopholes,” he said. It also limited previously available access to federal draft audits and working papers. 

Many of the changes Reid called for have been put into a 2006 discussion paper and shuffled off to the Commons Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.  It is hard to imagine that the discussion paper will ever lead to anything. Remember the Conservative caucus rule book on how to disrupt committee procedures? 

According to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, “It is the government’s hope that the committee will seriously review the issues raised in our discussion paper and hear from all key stakeholders on these important matters, as this work is essential before further amendments are considered.”  Yeah, sure. 

As an example of the value of FOI legislation, Bronskill cited the sponsorship scandal.  “Many of the documents that brought to light details of the affair came out under FOI.” 

Currently, the problem is not just with outdated legislation. It is, he said, “the way in which the law is administered.”  Offices administering FOI “seem to be the first places cut.”

A member of the Ottawa Council of Women related her daughter’s experience from when she worked for a time administering the federal FOI.  Most of her initial orientation was focused on how not to provide information.  The work load was overwhelming, as a result of which staff turnover was an ongoing issue.  Her daughter also spoke of the resistance of the various federal departments to release of documents.

It is not just journalists and the general public who are having trouble getting information from this government. 

Kevin Page, the federal government budget watchdog, appearing before the Commons Finance Committee on that same day, complained that MP’s were losing the ability to make meaningful decisions on proposed legislation because of Harper government’s obsession with secrecy.  As an example, he cited the refusal of the Harper government to come clean on the cost of its “tough on crime” program.

Bronskill did not advocate opening up everything to general scrutiny.  There are, he argued, justifiable limits to FOI, to protect privacy and avoid the possibility of identity theft. Privacy could be protected by depersonalizing information, removing names of persons and other identifying material.

Several women present were interested in attending the court session when access to the RCMP Tommy Douglas case is to be decided.  Bronskill welcomed their attendance.

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