Canada's crisis in Access to
Information [http://www.PoliticsWatch.com Updated 2:15 p.m., September
|PoliticsWatch received pages of documents
from a federal Crown corporation in 2004 that had virtually
all relevant information blacked out. Nearly three years later
and the Office of the Information Commissioner has yet to
provide a finding on the case.
OTTAWA — Canada's
Information Commissioner has confirmed a backlog of 532 complaints
dating back to 2002.
In an exclusive interview with PoliticsWatch, Information Commissioner Robert Marleau described the backlog
of outstanding complaints as
His office has failed to provide rulings on 532
The backlog includes three complaints that have been with the office
for over 5 years, 32 for three to four years, 43 complaints that have been with the office for three
to four years,
164 for two to three years and 290 for one year
to two years.
In Canada, access to information applicants seeking recourse cannot
take a government institution to court to release documents
before receiving a finding from the information commissioner and
there is no time limit on how long an investigation can take.
The backlog raises concerns about just how effective Canada's
Access to Information Act is when it comes to obtaining information
from government institutions and who do Canadians go to when
the people whose responsibility it is to have information released
under the act fail to get timely results.
"I think we are part of the problem," Marleau told PoliticsWatch. "I will admit that. I don't for a moment try to diminish the fact that we're part of the problem, but it is also a
Marleau said resolving the case backlog is his "top
priority" and he plans to go to Parliament "cap in
hand" next year to ask for more money to rectify the long-term
backlog. However, things may get worst, as he is also expecting an
increase in cases due to additional government institutions being
subject to access to information under the Federal Accountability
The information commissioner said his predecessor made Parliament
aware of the backlog problem in 2005 and received more money in the
2005-06 budget to hire five more investigators. The new staff had
"made a dent" in the backlog, according to Marleau.
Since coming to power, the Conservative government has made no such
increase in funding for the information commissioner's office
despite significantly increasing the scope of the Access to
Marleau said he has already made management structure changes to
further address the case backlog, but questioned whether the
internal service standards set up in 2004-05 of 30 days for
administrative complaints and 90 days for "more complex"
complaints are "realistic."
When asked if his office should have prescribed timelines to resolve
complaints, Marleau said he wasn't sure that it should be written
into the law because "each complaint has its own
The information commissioner has made no secret of his reluctance to bring access to information
complaints before the Federal Court.
During an appearance before the House of Commons access to
information, privacy and ethics committee last year, Marleau told
MPs he preferred finding "common ground" and working on
agreements with parties.
"I can tell you that I have and will have a bias against going to
court," he said. "It usually costs the taxpayer a lot of money and the outcomes are typically unpredictable."
Marleau stood by his position in his interview with PoliticsWatch
when asked if there should be an alternative route for complainants
to go to court before his office issues a finding.
He said going to court isn't necessarily quicker than waiting for a
ruling from his office and noted that the 78 cases out of 5,000
complaints that have not been resolved after three years represents
a small number.
Professor Amir Attaran, Canada Research Chair at Ottawa University,
who has made headlines with his access to information research on
human rights in Afghanistan, told PoliticsWatch he currently has an outstanding complaint
regarding the Canadian International Development Agency that
that has been with the information commissioner's office for over a
The law professor said he has used access to information and freedom
of information in Canada, the U.S., UK and South
Africa and said Canada's Access to Information system is "the worst" of the
"The fundamental problem to me is that in this country you have to wait for the information commissioner to play out his
role," he explained.
"The information commissioner can take literally a year and quite a number of more days to do that during which time you are
statutorally barred from going to court. In effect, you can get an information commissioner who thwarts the ability of cases to go to court."
"Oh my God," Bloc MP Carole Lavallée
told PoliticsWatch in interview.
She was not aware that some complaints have been
with the information commissioner's office for more than a year.
The Bloc MP said, however, she was "not surprised."
"We have to change the Access to Information Act," she
said. "We have to modernize it. We have to improve it."
Lavallée said setting timelines for the information commissioner to
provide findings is "a good idea," but said she would like
to hear the information commissioner's views on the concept before
NDP MP Pat Martin, who is a member of the access to
information committee, has pushed for the committee to make
recommendations for the removal of restrictions for applicants to sue
the government for access to documents, including waiting for a
ruling from the information commissioner.
PoliticsWatch is among the 532 complainants who have waited more
than a year for a finding from the information commissioner.
On August 5, 2004, the federal Crown Corporation Defence Construction Canada
(DCC) received a request for information about the clean up of sites on Canada's Distant Early Warning (DEW)
Line. DCC still has not released basic information on which Inuit firms have received subcontract
DCC released pages of heavily redacted documents (see photo
above) in 2004 where Section 20 of the Access
to Information Act was used over 80 times to sever information,
including the exemption of company names.
PoliticsWatch's complaint about heavily redacted documents has been with the
information commissioner since January 2005.
The Information Commissioner's office told PoliticsWatch its
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