OTTAWA, May 11, 2020 /CNW/ - The access-to-information system, an essential service providing Canadians information about the internal workings of government, is at a near standstill. Delays have produced huge backlogs that are overwhelming departments. This comes at a time when the federal government spends billions of dollars in emergency aid with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. The system is often the only means of transparency that allows Canadians to hold their government accountable for its actions such as its rapid-fire pandemic response.
"The system was in crisis for years before the pandemic, with journalists sometimes waiting years on requests. We warned the government many times that it urgently needed fixing, they ignored the problems and now the pandemic has shattered the system," says president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) Karyn Pugliese. "The government needs to recognize the crisis and make fixing it a priority now."
The CAJ appreciates that a wide swath of public servants are now working from home, and many have shifted to working on urgent COVID-19 priorities—all of which has prompted an overnight culture shift that forced ATIP officers to rethink how they gather the information required to fulfill Canadians' requests. But transparency must always be top-of-mind for every federal minister, especially as Canada emerges from emergency.
Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard recently warned Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos in a letter that the federal ATIP system "may soon be beyond repair," and already faced "chronic under-resourcing" before the current crisis. Maynard encouraged Duclos to commit proper funding to the system, proactively disclose more data and bring institutions "fully into the digital world."
Some departments aren't waiting, and are sending responses by email to reduce delays. The CAJ recommends that Duclos enact a ministerial order that provides requesters the option of receiving responses by email from every government institution by default. The CAJ also recommends that as the pandemic response shifts to recovery, the federal government properly funds and staffs its ATIP departments—and emphasizes internally that transparency is at the core of the government's duty to Canadians.
"Minister Duclos should publicly acknowledge the mountain of delays in the ATIP system, and admit that if nothing changes his government simply won't be accountable for the decisions they're making," says Pugliese. "The Liberals have a chance to finally end the culture of government secrecy, and we urge them to do the right thing before it is too late."
The Canadian Association of Journalists is a professional organization with more than 700 members across Canada. The CAJ's primary roles are public-interest advocacy work and professional development for its members.
SOURCE Canadian Association of Journalists