Agencies lack resources to answer Access to Info requests, information czar says

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government has not provided the resources that departments and agencies need to answer the steeply growing number of requests for records from the public, information commissioner Caroline Maynard says.

Maynard told a House of Commons committee Friday the COVID-19 pandemic has created other problems for getting Access to Information responses out to requesters, given the technological hurdles of working from home.

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Meanwhile, Maynard's office is struggling to handle a backlog of complaints from disgruntled information applicants.

She would like another 20 to 25 investigators to bolster her current roster of 62 people who look into complaints from dissatisfied information-seekers.

"I need more resources and other institutions do as well," she told the MPs.

"Openness and transparency in government has never been more important than it is during the pandemic. The government needs to commit to proper resources and innovative solutions to ensure the right of access for all Canadians. Let's not forget that access delayed is access denied."

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to request an array of federal files — from briefing materials to expense reports — but the law has been widely criticized as antiquated and slow.

Government agencies are supposed to answer requests within 30 days or provide a valid reason why more time is needed. Many users complain about lengthy extensions, missed deadlines and, when records are released, deletions that mean passages or entire pages of documents are kept under wraps.

Conservative MP Kelly McCauley said he and a caucus colleague regularly use the access law and had been waiting three years for answers to some requests.

McCauley joked that one of his applications will "soon qualify for the MP's pension, it has been so long."

"What do we need to do to light a fire under people to make them understand this is a basic right for Canadians and members of Parliament?"

Access must be seen as a priority, Maynard said. "It has to be every public servant's commitment to Canadians."

The number of access requests has increased 225 per cent in the last six years without an accompanying rise in staff across government to process them, she said. "The resources have not followed through."

Michael Dagg, a long-time user of the law, testified about lengthy waits for answers to requests.

During an emergency like the pandemic, the need for information increases, said Sean Holman, who teaches journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

The federal government has tried to provide such information, but there are many other instances where it has failed to do so, Holman said. "And because of our broken Access to Information system, there is no easy or quick means for Canadians to challenge these refusals and obtain records or data the government won't voluntarily disclose."

The government is inviting Canadians to say what they think of the access law, but it could be weeks before people know exactly how they can provide feedback.

Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos announced a review of the act late Thursday, as the federal government had pledged to do.

Last year it introduced a requirement for regular access-to-information reviews every five years, with the first one to start by June 21 of this year.

In a statement, the government said it would take advantage of new digital approaches to engage with Canadians.

"More details about engagement opportunities will be shared in the coming weeks."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2020.

—Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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