OTTAWA, Oct. 1 /CNW/ - A new report co-sponsored by the Canadian
Association of Journalists says Canada's access to information laws lag behind
those of countries such as India, Mexico and Pakistan, meaning the public's
right to know is slowly eroding.
On International Right to Know Day, the CAJ calls upon the leaders of the
country's political parties to detail how they would improve the Access to
Information Act to ensure greater openness and accountability to citizens.
"Canada used to be a global model of openness, and now we're backsliding
into the dark ages of government secrecy, obfuscation and denial," said
CAJ President Mary Agnes Welch. "It's national Right to Know Day, but the
public's right to know is seriously at risk."
The 392-page document, "Fallen Behind: Canada's Access to Information Act
in the World Context," found that, on 12 key points, Canada's act fails to
meet the international standards of freedom-of-information (FOI) law endorsed
by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression.
It found that Canadian reporters wait many months or even years for
replies to their ATIA requests, whereas the average national FOI legal
standard for replies is 14 days. Some nations also have strong penalties for
delays, which are lacking in Canada. And Canada's federal information
commissioner lacks the essential power to order the release of information --
unlike his counterparts in five provinces. That key power, which was promised
by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is just one among a list of promised reforms
to the country's access to information regime that were not fulfilled.
There are also more than 100 quasi-governmental agencies -- including
bodies dealing with blood services and nuclear waste -- that are not obliged
to follow the Canadian law, unlike similar bodies in most other nations.
Strong access to information legislation guarantees the public's ability
to scrutinize the activities of government. Since the act came into force in
1983, Canadian journalists have used it to produce hundreds of articles on
risks to health and safety, the environment, law and order, and the proper use
of taxpayers' funds -- articles that would not have been possible without
Last month, through ATIA, the Globe and Mail revealed that in 2006, the
Canadian government strongly opposed tougher U.S. rules to prevent listeria.
In May, the Ottawa Citizen found about 1 in 20 gas pumps in Canada was pumping
less gas than indicated on the readout, according to Measurement Canada
The new report was prepared by Stanley Tromp, a Vancouver-based freelance
reporter and co-ordinator of the CAJ's freedom of information caucus. It was
sponsored by the CAJ, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association,
the Canadian Newspaper Association, the Canadian Community Newspapers
Association, and members of two Vancouver law firms. The full report can be
found at: http://www3.telus.net/index100/foi.
The CAJ is Canada's largest professional organization for journalists
with more than 1,500 members across to country. The CAJ's primary role is to
provide public-interest advocacy and high quality professional development for
( BACKGROUND - FYI )
Canada's rusty freedom-of-information law fails to meet global standards:
Below are some findings from the report Fallen Behind: Canada's Access to
Information Act in the World Context. It is available at
www3.telus.net/index100/foi, along with a chart contrasting each part of the
ATI Act with the freedom of information (FOI) laws of 75 nations and the
Canadian provinces. The site also has an index to global FOI rulings, to allow
applicants to find precedents for their FOI appeals.
- On 12 key points, Canada's ATI Act does not meet the international
standards of FOI law which were set out in the 1999 document
The Public's Right to Know: Principles of Freedom of Information
Legislation, by Toby Mendel of the London based human rights
organization Article 19. These principles were endorsed by the
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and
- Canada's ATI Act also fails to conform to many central
FOI recommendations from at least ten other global political
organizations, such as Commonwealth Secretariat, the Council of
Europe, the African Union, the World Bank, and United Nations
Development Agency (UNDP).
- The Conservative Party of Canada's 2006 election platform statement
Stand Up for Canada promised to grant the Information Commissioner
the power to order the release of information, a pledge that was not
- Yet this order-making power is held by the information commissioners
of five Canadian provinces and 16 other jurisdictions including
Mexico, India, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (our parliamentary
- Amongst the world's FOI laws, the average request response time is
two weeks. At least 60 other FOI nations in the world prescribe
shorter timelines than in Canada, and some have strong penalties for
delays. Yet under the Canadian ATI Act, public bodies must respond to
requests within 30 days, and may extend this for another 30.
- Delays in responding to ATI Act requests have truly reached a true
crisis level. Some departments are so backlogged that they
automatically add extensions of more than 100 days to most, if not
all, requests. Others agencies coolly grant themselves a 240 day
extension, for in the ATI Act the limit may be stretched for an
unspecified "reasonable period of time." In a recent report, the
Information Commissioner validated a 2005 complaint by the
Canadian Newspaper Association that agencies red-flag and further
delay ATI Act requests by the media.
- The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge to "expand the
coverage of the Act to all Crown corporations, Officers of
Parliament, foundations and organizations that spend taxpayers' money
or perform public functions." This promise was only partially
fulfilled by the new inclusion of several entities in the
- But more than 100 quasi-governmental entities are still not covered
by the ATI Act. The exclusion of such entities such as the
Canadian Blood Services and the nuclear Waste Management
Organization blocks transparency could impact public heath and
- On this topic Canada has fallen farthest behind the world
FOI community. The FOI laws of 29 nations cover legal entities
performing "public functions" and/or "vested with public powers," and
the statutes of the United Kingdom, India, and New Zealand also
provide good models.
- The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge to "provide a general
public interest override for all exemptions." Today the FOI laws of
38 other nations - and all but one of the Canadian provinces and
territories - contain much broader public interest overrides than are
found in the Canadian ATI Act.
- The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge to subject all ATI Act
exemptions to a "harms test," where the government must prove that an
injury would result from releasing exempted records, such as those
regarding law enforcement or trade secrets. Seven ATI Act exemptions
still lack harms tests, a situation which falls seriously short of
accepted world standards.
- Only in Canada and South Africa are the records of cabinet
discussions completely excluded from the scope of the ATI Act law,
and Canada's Information Commissioner does not even have the legal
right to review such records.
- Yet ten Commonwealth nations, including the United Kingdom, have an
exemption instead of an exclusion for these records, meaning they can
be reviewed by an appellate body and released. More than 50 other
national FOI statutes have no specific exemption for cabinet records
at all. As well, such records can be withheld for 20 years in the
ATI Act, but for only 10 years in Nova Scotia's FOI law.
- The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge to "oblige public
officials to create the records necessary to document their actions
and decisions." It is well known that the pernicious trend towards
"oral government" has spread in Canada: officials often fail to
commit their thoughts to paper and convey them verbally instead,
mainly in an effort to block the information coming out under FOI.
Several other national FOI laws prescribe record creation, and the
duty to file records in a way that facilitates access.
- Today there are more than 50 other provisions in other laws that
override the ATI Act. The Conservatives made an (unfulfilled) pledge
to fix this problem, and so make the ATI Act supreme on disclosure
questions. Several Commonwealth nations - including India, Pakistan
and South Africa - establish that their FOI law will override secrecy
provisions in other laws.
For further information:
For further information: Mary Agnes Welch, CAJ president, (204)
943-6575, Cell (204) 470-8862; John Dickins, CAJ executive director, (613)
526-8061; Stanley Tromp, Vancouver, (604) 733-7595, firstname.lastname@example.org