Rubin: Exposing Library and Archives Canada’s dismal transparency record

Another illustration of how broken ATIP is:

When I first came to Ottawa in the mid-1960s, I started going to the National Archives to access government records. I met Archives personnel who were trying to get the federal government to adopt better electronic record management to meet the growing demands for information.

But their efforts were largely ignored as more and more government record management came under the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) authority. There, record retrievals became more difficult and descended into a confusing and conflicted state of instability.

This was at a time when government department libraries were disappearing. My ability to freely wander the shelves and stacks and to get reference help ended when the access-to-information regime took over in the mid-1980s. Agency record collections became secret and inaccessible to the public.

By then, the Treasury Board Secretariat had firmly taken control of overall information management policy, with National Archives playing second fiddle. TBS sought to “standardize” and sanitize federal information holdings at a cost of many millions of dollars.

With the 2004 merger of the National Archives and the National Library, the new Library and Archives Canada (LAC) took on the attributes of a regular government agency under the Treasury Board’s tight control, driven by the latest software and ever-increasing secrecy practices.

Just another obedient agency

When Daniel Caron—neither a professional librarian, nor archivist—was put in charge at the LAC in 2009, he accelerated this deference to government powers, acting more like a TBS lieutenant.

He pressed for greater “modernization,” clumsily and at great expense transmitting LAC holdings into electronic file holdings. Caron didn’t fight the cuts imposed on LAC’s professional archivists and librarians, and seemed to relish reining in any staff’s independent actions to help the public. Nor did he fight the Public Works demand that LAC’s auditorium and meeting facilities be reserved only for federally sanctioned events and not for public use (Justice Paul Rouleau’s inquiry on the use of the Emergencies Act is currently taking place in the Library and Archives Canada building on Wellington Street).

Caron’s end came in 2013 after I obtained access to records that showed he was, at taxpayer expense, taking Spanish lessons. When he refused to end the language training, the heritage minister at the time fired him.

Eventually, LAC got a professional head and some of their former information reference service capacities were restored. But it was much too late for LAC to gain an influential central role under the Access to Information Act.

One example of how LAC had become just another obedient agency is how it took little interest in even housing or publicly listing and preserving past completed access-to-information requests.

That task, ignored for 20 years, was eventually done though the so-called open government portal, though the actual records received under access requests were never posted, just the titles of thousands of requests. The result is that much of the unofficial—at times very valuable and of historic record—of what the government did was destroyed without Canada’s retainer agency or historic records, LAC, giving one iota.

Not so well known was that for many years archive authorities had secret deals. One such arrangement that I have written about previously was that ministers’ “personal” and “political” past records deposited at LAC were allowed to remain secret for multiple years—even permanently—as demanded by ex-ministers and prime ministers.

LAC continues to make available public funds, office space, and staff to past prime ministers who assemble their so-called “personal” and “political” records. Such “private donations” get charitable income tax receipts. It’s not clear whether LAC has ever pushed back on prime ministers on ministerial claims made, Trump-style, about those records really being their personal property, a highly questionable practice in the first place.

Another long-standing deal is with the House Speaker, allowing in-camera parliamentary committee records to be hidden and housed at LAC for long periods of time.

A more recent 2018 secrecy arrangement with the Supreme Court of Canada favours many of the judges’ deliberation records remaining secret for a minimum of 50 years or more.

If that were not contentious enough, LAC has also turned its back on acquiring and preserving residential school records. Instead—and likely a better arrangement—many of those government records were sent to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in 2015. LAC, however, still has many residential school records in its possession and has been slow to get those and other federal records processed and out, especially those records held tightly by the federal Indigenous departments.

Which brings us to the 2018 Dagg case where LAC issued consultant Michael Dagg an 80-year wait-time, given the estimated 780,000 records dealing with the RCMP’s Project Anecdote, a 10-year investigation on secret commissions, money laundering and corruption, including in real estate, an investigation which ran out of steam and from which no charges were ever laid.

Dagg complained about the excessive delay to Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard, who then requested LAC take a mere 65 years to respond. The delay issue went to the Federal Court for appeal. Sadly, it was discontinued upon Dagg’s death this past September.

Faster info declassification a good first step to change

LAC, as Dagg, I, and others well-discovered, has become a typical unresponsive and obstinate bureaucratic agency quite willing to severely censor our tax-paid records under legislated secrecy claims.

Maynard’s scathing investigation report on LAC, released on April 26, 2022, readily confirms LAC’s unacceptable long wait-times to access requests, amounting to LAC regularly not meeting its legal obligation under access legislation.

The minister responsible for reporting on LAC activities, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, responded to Maynard’s report recommendations by refusing to take responsibility to correct LAC’s poor access-to-information services. He declined to put forward a strategic plan to quickly correct LAC’s laggard and disgraceful access-to-information record.

Maynard’s report scolded LAC and the Government of Canada (read the Treasury Board Secretariat, the Privy Council Office, and the Prime Minister’s Office) for not taking the lead to quickly declassify records it holds and receives from government agencies. Maynard recommended that the federal government establish a strong declassification directive as a crucial element to the functioning of access legislation.

However, LAC no longer seems up to the task of promptly declassifying those records it has in its possession. That’s even if agencies send any those records at all.

It would be helpful if the information commissioner could get tough on LAC for failing to declassify their records for public use on a timely basis, and if she, along with a rejuvenated LAC’s help, could penalize those government agencies that don’t bother to keep written records, that alter them, or that refuse to hand over records to LAC.

Another serious problem is that LAC quietly follows TBS’s 40-year practice of massive record destruction. Hundreds of thousands of draft records annually don’t make it at all to LAC as TBS orders agencies to regularly destroy draft transitory operational records.

One thing that LAC still does a relatively good job doing is collecting outside legally required deposited information from those publishing and that includes letting the public know about those published records.

Once seen as an arm’s-length agency keeping check on the PMO and the Treasury Board Secretariat’s all-powerful grip on federal records has simply wilted and been cast aside by the same cabal.

LAC has fallen in line with the centralized secrecy commands that rule Ottawa, and has even outdone many other government agencies in their dislike to giving Canadians access to their records on a timely and fuller basis.

Can LAC become more than a secrecy shill for the government? At the very least it would help if LAC, who holds the vast majority of government historical records, gets going in declassifying more records for release. That would be a start.

LAC badly needs to change course and become an independent record manager force with integrity, a pro-disclosure champion for the fulsome and quick release of federal information.

Respect and trust would follow.

Ken Rubin is a long-time observer of transparency and secrecy trends in Ottawa. He is reachable via kenrubin.ca

Source: Exposing Library and Archives Canada’s dismal transparency record

Clark: How your right to know is getting stymied by the Denial Machine

Good commentary on the broke ATIP system and how this impacts service to the public, particularly with respect to immigration (IRCC does a good job in publishing most of its operational data on the government-wide open data site):

Thirty-nine years ago, after a wave of post-Watergate epiphanies about government secrecy, the Canadian government passed the first federal Access to Information Act. Ever since then it is has been building a denial machine.

It would be easy to pin the blame on secretive politicians trying to obstruct the public’s ability to know what is going on inside government, because they have done that. Prime ministers including Justin Trudeau and his predecessor, Stephen Harper, have broken promises to open government.

But it’s not just that. There is bureaucratic aversion to openness, and a default assumption that making the public’s business public would be tricky. Complicated. Impractical.

And there is another problem: The government’s failure to provide information about simple things is gumming up the system.

Take a look at the recent The Globe and Mail story in which Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard is quoted telling a House of Commons committee that every department in government is failing to keep up with Access to Information requests. Should there be reforms? Ms. Maynard told the committee, in a phrase that should leave us all gobsmacked, that “respecting the law as it currently exists would represent an important first step.”

The government’s Access to Information system, which cost $90-milion in 2021, is garnering 10,000 complaints a year, the story noted. And it included a statistic that offers a clue to one big chunk of the problem: Access to Information requests to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada have increased so much they now outnumber requests to all other departments.

Why? Because IRCC is so bad at providing basic routine info that people are resorting to freedom-of-information requests.

The Access to Information law is supposed to allow people to pay a small fee to request federal government records or, at least, records that aren’t covered by the extensive legal exceptions.

The system for implementing the Act – the $90-million machine – is based on finding the requested documents, but heavily focused on applying exceptions and blacking stuff out. Ask for a copy of a government contract and often the prices of items will be redacted, even though the Federal Court of Canada has ruled such information should be released. One huge problem is delays, sometimes of years. With information, access delayed is often access denied.

That’s why the volume of requests to the Immigration department is instructive. Many come from people asking for info on their applications, said Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland. He publishes an immigration-policy newsletter, Lexbase, which is based heavily on access-to-information releases.

IRCC has for decades been unable or unwilling to provide updates to applicants, so Members of Parliament are often deluged with requests for help. Increasingly, their offices file access requests.

If you’re a regular internet shopper, you might recognize those requests as the immigration version of a common customer-service question: “Where’s my stuff?” Companies such as Amazon have online tracking systems that give customers simple answers: whether the order has been received, or shipped, and so on. If they didn’t, they’d be deluged with inquiries. But IRCC doesn’t do that.

Now the government’s failure to provide basic information is gumming up the system that is supposed to allow Canadians to pierce the veil of secrecy.

More broadly, Ottawa’s failure to make openness routine – even though doing so is easy in the digital age – makes getting access to out-of-the-ordinary information slower, and harder.

Requesters sometimes ask for copies of agreements for “grants and contributions” that set out government funding for organizations and groups. These should be automatically published on a website. So should all contracts except in rare exceptions. And so on.

But politicians don’t much care for that sort of transparency. Why let more people see things that might raise embarrassing questions? When the system is clogged up, as it is now, they don’t have to care. There’s no real penalty for failing to respect the Access to Information law.

If the government spent twice the money on a functioning Access to Information system, it would be well worth it. Instead, over decades, Ottawa has built – by design and by accident – a system that is effectively a machine to deny and delay.

Source: How your right to know is getting stymied by the Denial Machine

Rubin: While the Charter lets us dream, the Access to Information Act is a nightmare

Tend to agree, given my much more limited experience from outside government. Of course while in government, I dreaded the extensive vetting I had to do for some files:

Two pieces of once-promising Canadian legislation have turned out very differently 40 years on. One is Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enacted on April 17, 1982, and the other is Canada’s Access to Information Act, given royal assent on July 7, 1982.

Both claimed to advance and protect individuals from the state’s excesses; one by placing Canadians’ rights in a Supreme Court-guided constitutional framework, and the other a government-controlled law claiming to give Canadians new access to government records –while in reality gatekeeping what Canadians are allowed to know.

Both acts were born under Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government, one through his leadership and legal beliefs (the Charter); the other (the Access Act) was delegated to his finance minister Mitchell Sharp, secretary of state Francis Fox, and their senior mandarins. These public officials disliked access-to-information legislation (ignoring the public’s demand for it) but needed a legal secrecy code to protect against the growing government leaks.

As part of the access-to-information lobby group, ACCESS, I remember that debate well.

The senior mandarins were the real winners and birth fathers of restrictive public access to government records. An earlier attempt at an Access Act by the Joe Clark government bore their imprint.

The Access to Information Act allowed bureaucrats to run the show. Public officials and corporations gained special privileges and consultation rights, allowing little leeway for the public to gain a glimpse into Ottawa’s information holdings.

Corporations successfully lobbied for special rights to object and to prevent the release of commercial data held by government.

The provinces also had a hand in drafting the secrecy provision in intergovernmental relations affecting them, making those records mandatorily exempt. They agreed with federal authorities that the vast number of federal-provincial agreements and meeting records were outside coverage of any access acts. In 40 years, it has never been suggested that all jurisdictions should agree to regularly work together to adopt more progressive disclosure terms.

Other special interest groups also gained rights. Lawyers were increasingly granted special secrecy for a range of solicitor-client privileges. Crown corporations, both federally and provincially, negotiated more favourable and broader exemption terms. Law enforcement and security agencies, especially after Sept. 11, 2001, successfully pushed for more secrecy.

And at every turn, bureaucrats broadened their policy advice protection terms. They successfully lobbied for excluding immediate release of draft or final unpublished internal government audit reports, thus diminishing the role of their internal watchdogs.

This in contrast to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, where law enforcement agencies were not given freer rein, bureaucrat and PMO plans received no free passes, lawyers had to make public cases of their arguments, and Crown corporations–even Parliament—could not expect special privileges without a challenge.

Judges blossom under Charter, rubber-stamp under Access Act

The Charter let the courts blossom with progressive purpose interpretations and few disappointments. But on the Access Act side, the courts have mainly sided with the secrecy claims of governments and corporations to the public’s disadvantage.

Just look at the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court which recently ruled the province’s information commissioner has no business in reviewing solicitor-client numerous cases of secrecy (the Newfoundland commissioner is appealing the ruling). Or look at how the Supreme Court of Canada (John Doe v Ontario (Finance), 2014) approved Ontario and other jurisdictions’ application of broader policy advice exceptions. This ruling emboldened provinces like Quebec and British Columbia to amend their Freedom of Information Acts and bring in wider policy advice exemption terms.

Further, in access cases, the courts are unable to review cabinet records or in-camera hearing secret evidence. Even in matters like ministerial mandate letters which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has released for his cabinet, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford wants his kept secret, the courts’ hands are tied. While the Supreme Court recently gave challengers leave to appeal, it is unlikely it will go against the lower courts and buck cabinet confidentiality to order the release of Ford’s mandate letters.

Judges may be seen as too powerful under the Charter, though they mainly take their decisions from precedents, society and from the hope and purpose that the Charter offers. Judges in Access cases have bleak precedents, little leeway and may not even get to see the most key records hived off as cabinet or security-enabled secrets.

What’s also possible in Canadian Access acts aided by the provincial legislatures is the ability of a growing number of laws passed that override access laws. One such act concerns the Canada Infrastructure Bank, whose operations are largely secret.

Passed in 2019, Bill C-58, an Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, neatly hived off whole realms of public information, like records in the PMO, from ever publicly surfacing.

In the early days, the media greeted access legislation as a wonderful tool, giving Canadians legal access to public records. It did not take long, especially once more journalists began using access legislation, to realize that these access laws really did not stand for public disclosures. People like me tried to warn the media that access laws were primarily secrecy laws. Back in September 1975, before joining ACCESS, I presented a brief to the Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations on the federal government’s excessive secrecy. Even then, I realized that legalizing public access to government records would mean officials creating laws very similar to Canada’s vaguely-worded Official Secrets Act.

Over 500 ways to say ‘no’

The dark aspects of the Charter’s notwithstanding clause have rarely come to the forefront, whereas the over 500 ways of saying “no” under access legislation are a daily occurrence. The tools of review under access legislation are kept weak. Access users are considered wards of the state rarely given access to government records. Whereas a litigant under the Charter can use it to challenge prevailing laws and gain greater rights.

The Charter provides a place for sorting out issues that top-down government officials alone cannot handle. Access laws are the exact opposite—they’re an exercise in executive-style government predominating, with only some rights to independent review of record denials.

While the Charter has not brought about, for instance, all Indigenous rights and recognition changes needed, it tries. Canada’s access laws hardly try to allow the public, including Indigenous people, real legislated access or rights. Bureaucrats are in control and do not want access laws being extensively used, even if it is for access to historic data on land claims.

Access laws stifle Canadians’ right to information. Bureaucrats’ daily subversion of public access largely goes on without being penalized and no one effectively challenges their failure to record much government activities.

The Charter is more welcoming and well-regarded. It lets you dream, fight and win better rights that can effect everyday living. In contrast, Access laws only speak of reasonable secrecy and limited service to assist, knowing full well that the public becomes the loser, the state the clear winner.

Rarely have I, in court actions, referred to the Charter. In one case, though, I cited the Charter’s Sec. 15 equality provision in an unsuccessful challenge for gaining equal costs as a lay litigant (Rubin v. Canada (Attorney General), 1990). In another case, in Ontario, I was successful in citing the Charter’s Sec. 2 (b) guarantee of freedom of expression provision in an action that sought to have my filing FOI requests declared as libellous and subject to damages because the commercial party did not like my seeking under municipal FOI his government contracts (Sept. 20, 2019, Ontario Superior Court court ruling, CV-18-595693)).

The Charter protects my right of access to the courts. Most access laws now allow exclusion of users whom they and the information commissioner consider as abusive, frivolous, too-frequent users or as putting in requests in bad faith.

The Charter, in the courts, has been used to challenge governments’ day-to-day controls and has in judgments developed a living doctrine approach to grow and protect individual rights. In contrast, it is government information management directives that limit access, giving marching orders to government agencies to delay, delete and uphold secrecy.

The Treasury Board’s federal directives, for instance, offer dry defensive language designed to say “no” and prevent public employees from serving the public, properly documenting their actions. Daily, I have to contend with getting small morsels of information about the behind-the-scene efforts of hundreds of agencies, third parties and governments.

I would like to see access laws given a constitutional underpinning, an enshrined purpose which would help put Canada on the path to much greater disclosures. Access to information would become a full-fledged public right and a common tool of free expression and inquiry.

While the Access to Information Act and Charter of Rights and Freedoms were born from the same parent a few months apart, they have not acted together as one co-operative friendly force. Forty years have passed and even greater gulfs growing between the two acts.

The Canadian Charter garners international respect as a model to adopt; the Access to Information Act ranks dismally low as a model to avoid.

It’s time to put the two acts on the same page so that Canadians’ rights to know can no longer be ignored, trampled on or based on the state controlling what Canadians get or not get disclosed.

Ken Rubin has followed both the Access to Information Act’s rough 40 years and the Charter’s 40-year evolution. He can be reached at kenrubin.ca

Source: Rubin: While the Charter lets us dream, the Access to Information Act is a nightmare

The Gatekeepers: Where ATIP offices fell short during the pandemic

Of note. Would be a lot easier in some ways for the default to post more publicly on open Canada but changing government culture is difficult (which I remember all too well from my time within government and then my time outside filing ATIPs).

Some of the Information Commissioner’s recommendations are practical and should be doable:

Four months into the pandemic, anyone exercising their right to query the federal government would have received the following message from one of its largest departments, Public Services and Procurement Canada:

Due to the current and evolving COVID-19 pandemic, PSPC’s network is limited to essential and critical services such as pay, pension and procurement. While we are committed to respecting your right of access and are actively looking for solutions to maintain operations, we have little to no capacity at this time. Consequently, the Access to Information and Privacy Office has decided to put all access and privacy requests on hold until the situation returns to normal.

PSPC was hardly unique. When the federal government sent the vast majority of its 300,000 employees to work from home 17 months ago, the decrepit state of its electronic backbone was suddenly exposed, leaving more than 1,000 ATIP specialists in particular to grapple with some unsettling realities.

Most were unable to link securely from home to their offices. Even if the links had been in place, it often wouldn’t have mattered. In nine of the largest departments and agencies, more than one-quarter of the requests completed the previous year were in paper format. At the RCMP, the ratio was more than half.

Laying hands on those documents demands a physical presence. And the offices were mostly empty.

“The right of access, a quasi-constitutional right, cannot be suspended because of the pandemic,” Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard declared earlier this year.

As Maynard elaborated in an interview with this newspaper, she was not implying that ATIP workers should have been forced back to the office to do their duties. Her point was that the government had failed to provide the necessary tools. “Sadly, the pandemic opened our eyes to the issues,” she said. “We have a system that’s still archaic.”

Maynard also noted a disturbing tendency within government generally to give access requests lower priority — not necessarily within the ATIP units, but among employees elsewhere in government who locate and forward the necessary documents.

“It is very difficult to find people who want to work in access to information,” Maynard said before a House of Commons committee.

“You’re dealing with requesters who are eager to get the information, but you’re also dealing with a department that doesn’t want to respond, doesn’t have time to respond or has other more important things to do. It’s not an easy job.”

Eventually departments resumed ATIP operations last year, at least fitfully. But the end result for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2021, wasn’t pretty.

A Postmedia survey of 13 of the largest departments and agencies revealed 23 per cent fewer requests were closed during fiscal 2021 compared to the previous year, ranging from a drop of nearly 60 per cent for Global Affairs to just five per cent for Employment.

The number of requests also slipped, albeit a comparatively modest seven per cent overall. The range was even wider, however: from a decline of 48 per cent at Global Affairs to an increase of 62 per cent at the department of Innovation. There was also increased activity at PSPC and the Privy Council Office, two organizations that, like Innovation, were heavily involved in the government’s COVID-19 response. Year over year declines were slight at Employment and Canada Revenue Agency for the same reason.

(This discussion excludes the outsized influence of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which on its own accounted for three-quarters of access requests last year across government and belongs in a separate category. The vast majority of its access activity involves requests for updates on the progress of immigration or refugee applications. The department received nearly 108,000 access requests last year, down eight per cent, and completed nearly 105,000, down six per cent.)

With a few exceptions, the net result of the access activity within the other large government organizations was an increase in backlogs — dramatically so in the case of Innovation, the Privy Council Office, Public Services & Procurement Canada and Library & Archives. Collectively, the group of 13 received 26,400 access requests in fiscal 2021 and processed just 21,100. As a result, the backlog jumped 40 per cent.

Hypothetically, it would take the group of 12 more than seven months to clear their backlog, assuming processing took place at the pre-pandemic pace and no further requests come in.

Which is to say there is a big problem here.

Global Affairs blamed its egregious performance in matters of access on a classified server that can be used only by employees in the office. The department is developing an “IT infrastructure that will allow remote work on non-classified documents.”

Some departments — the RCMP, Defence and Immigration — have already been investigated by Maynard following complaints about lengthy delays and a lack of disclosure.

The RCMP acknowledges ongoing difficulties related to “insufficient resources” and “antiquated software systems” — compounded by the pandemic.

The number of access requests received by the RCMP in fiscal 2021 surged 18 per cent to 5,300-plus, while the police agency closed just 3,430 — nearly one-third fewer than the year before. This left the RCMP with a backlog representing a year’s worth of pre-pandemic activity.

“The RCMP recognizes that it must modernize its ATIP program,” the agency said in response to queries by this newspaper, “and has developed an ambitious plan and strategy to achieve this.”

Even agencies that have invested heavily in information technology over the years are re-visiting their methods.

Canada Revenue Agency, one of three government organizations (along with Employment and CSIS) that managed to trim the number of outstanding access requests during fiscal 2021, was prompted into action by its early experience during the pandemic.

While much of the agency’s work is already done electronically, its massive computer network wasn’t set up to handle having a majority of its 45,000 employees work from home. Indeed, during the spring of 2020, the only employees allowed to sign on to the network were those performing “critical services” for Canadians, such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit.

Processing access requests was not among those services considered essential, even though many of the requests were related to CERB and other COVID-19 response programs developed by the agency.

When CRA resumed answering access requests last summer, it committed to “a full-scale business transformation” aimed at expediting matters. The agency was vague on the details, but said this would involve changes to the CRA’s “processes, organizational structure and the use of technology.”

Translated into plain language, the agency is figuring out how to create and store documents so they are easier to retrieve. The question of exactly what should be disclosed is a more complicated one, but Maynard has some views on that as well.

The Information Commissioner reckons one of the best ways to cull large backlogs is for departments and agencies to automatically disclose information that is the focus of multiple requests. Training employees in the art of creating documents and records that are more easily searched is another way.

Nevertheless, Maynard recognizes that people seeking information from their government are also butting heads against an entrenched, longstanding culture of secrecy. That is why she is lobbying for changes to the access legislation that would remove some of the enormous discretion now exercised by those in control of the information.

“Where people have a discretionary exclusionary power, they will rarely decide to disclose the information,” she told MPs.

“Rather, they will attempt to redact the information for fear that it may be misinterpreted or cause embarrassment.”

That’s a longer-term war. In the meantime, fixing the ATIP regime’s technical shortcomings in the wake of COVID-19 will be challenge enough.

Source: The Gatekeepers: Where ATIP offices fell short during the pandemic

Immigration: Canada expands non-Canadians’ rights to information and privacy requests

Given the lengthy ATIP processes, particularly for policy-related requests, not sure the degree to which this change will results in material benefits:

Earlier this month, Canada announced a major change to its rules for access to information and privacy (ATIP) in the Canada Gazette.

The change is simple, but the impacts are profound. The Canadian government is going to allow anyone to make an ATIP request under the Privacy Act. This new policy will bring Canada into line with global standards on ATIP. It will also vastly expand the rights of non-Canadians.

Laws such as the Privacy Act allow people to make ATIP requests to the federal government. Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is a federal agency, so it is subject to the Privacy Act.

Currently, there are limitations on who can make an ATIP request through the Privacy Act. One of the items limits the right of access to two groups:

  • Canadian citizens and permanent residents, inside or outside of Canada; and
  • any entity (person or business) inside Canada, whether a citizen or not.

This limitation means that non-Canadians who are outside of Canada cannot make requests under the Privacy Act. There is a way to get around this rule. An ineligible person can get someone who is eligible to make a request on their behalf. However, this process can be expensive and time-consuming.

Having the ability to make an ATIP request to IRCC can be very helpful. For example, an ATIP request can allow a person to access their Global Case Management System (GCMS) notes. These are the detailed records of a person’s immigration case. They will explain IRCC staff’s thinking and decision-making. They can help a person understand why IRCC has decided the way it has. This knowledge, in turn, can also help the person challenge the IRCC decision. For example, the person could show the officer ignored or mis-interpreted something.

IRCC is a popular target for ATIP requests. In fact, there are more ATIP requests for IRCC than there are for any other federal government department combined.

Because this change is so important, IRCC expects it will need time to make sure it goes smoothly. For example, IRCC will have to change forms and processes. It will also likely have to deal with a much greater number of requests. For this reason, the government is delaying when the new rule takes effect. Per the Canada Gazette, the Canadian government changed the Extension Order on July 14, 2021. However, the Gazette also noted that the change takes effect on its first anniversary. This means that on July 14, 2022, the new rule will come into force.

The new rule is a major step forward for non-Canadians. There is a delay in effect. This delay, itself, is because the change is so large and important.

Source: Immigration: Canada expands non-Canadians’ rights to information and privacy requests

Canada has an access-to-information system in name only

Have encountered some of the same frustrations:

The Treasury Board is quietly conducting a long-promised review of the Access to Information Act, which governs how Canadians can obtain records held by the government. Unfortunately, these consultations appear to be more of a public relations exercise than a serious effort to improve Canadians’ right to access.

The original act dates to 1983 and has barely changed since then. It has not kept up with the advent of the internet, nor have fundamental weaknesses been fixed. Changes made by the Trudeau government in recent years have failed to fully open promised classes of records and have not advanced pro-active publication as far as needed.

Today, we have an access-to-information system in name only. A lack of firm timelines means requests regularly stretch on for months, if not years. Broad exemptions mean crucial information is withheld from the public. A culture of secrecy in many departments undermines the act almost entirely. The Office of the Information Commissioner is underresourced to handle the deluge of complaints.

The current review process is not going to fix all that. Unlike in past consultations, the Treasury Board is not releasing any kind of green paper or other consultative document to chart a course for the reforms, nor has the government sought independent expert advice.

A green paper is essential to capturing and conveying the essence of the innumerable public reports on problems with the system, which go back decades. Drawing on outside experts is equally important for any real reform agenda, especially one that might return the Canadian government to an equal footing with many allied jurisdictions. Canada was an early entrant into the arena of freedom of information; now we are a disappointing laggard.

Reform and revitalization of the Access to Information regime must include significant legislative changes, but must also consider the ecosystem in which it operates.

As it stands, the act allows for the government to exempt and withhold information “obtained in confidence,” information deemed “injurious to the conduct of international affairs,” virtually any information relating to defence and security, and nearly every record that could be described as providing “advice” to the government. These exemptions, as currently worded, simply reinforce practices of hoarding records and a culture of entrenched secrecy. We propose strict limitations on these exemptions, and a test that would require the government to prove the harm of releasing such information.

Some records are completely excluded at present, such as Cabinet confidences. These should be brought under the act, with appropriate restrictions so disputes over access to them can be adjudicated by the Information Commissioner. In addition, information practices are changing in government with ever greater reliance on text messaging, verbal briefings and other transitory material. The act should oblige all government agencies to properly document their decision-making processes and retain these records.

Equally important, a real public-interest override clause must be added, with an oversight role for the Information Commissioner.

There needs to be a declassification regime for all government records. Other governments declassify documents after 30 years or less: Canadians are lucky if these files are ever released. Library and Archives Canada, in particular, should play a role in receiving such records and educating Canadians on their importance.

Once processed and released to an individual requester, the information in question should be made publicly available on a consolidated and searchable government database, including both the metadata about the record and the record itself. We should do away with the wasteful cycle of returning records back into the hands of departmental gatekeepers after every request is fulfilled.

These measures need to be accompanied by a major change in culture within government, including a lowering of the walls of secrecy and an alignment between the Access to Information Act and the principles that underscored the National Security Transparency Commitment promised by the Liberal government in 2017.

A broken access system wastes government resources, does not serve Canadians and does not illuminate our governance history and practice. But it is not yet beyond salvation. The Treasury Board review needs to embrace a bold vision for the future and make a deep change to the legislation and administration of the act.

Dean Beeby is an Ottawa-based independent journalist, author and a specialist on freedom of information. Justin Ling is a freelance investigative journalist. James L. Turk is the director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University. Wesley Wark is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-canada-has-an-access-to-information-system-in-name-only/

IRCC’s ‘arbitrary’ automatic extensions on information requests created ‘unfair playing field,’ say immigration agents

Understand the policy rationale given the volume of requests and limited capacity, but underlines the need in IRCC modernization to reduce the need for ATIP requests on the status of individual files:

Some immigration agents filing numerous access to information requests on behalf of their clients are feeling burned by a recently phased-out Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada practice that they say was “arbitrary” and akin to institutional targeting, harming their companies’ reputations and the confidence clients placed in them.

Five unnamed people were highlighted in a recent special report by Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard, who were identified by the department to be subject to automatic delays in requests they made through Canada’s access to information laws. The report, tabled in Parliament on May 25, found the IRCC was out of step with access to information rules. While the Office of the Information Commissioner’s (OIC) probe was triggered by an influx of requests to the department between 2017 to 2020, it learned that five individuals—consultants, agents, or lawyers specializing in immigration—were identified as frequent requesters by the department, which then “automatically” decided an extension was needed on their files.

Under the act, federal institutions have to respond to access requests within 30 calendar days or otherwise request an extension of 60 or 90 days as required. Rules dictate the head of an institution should help facilitate complete, timely, and accurate responses to requesters “without regard to the identity of a person making the request.” In place since 2019, the IRCC policy was scrapped in March 2021, shortly after the commissioner ruled it against the act and recommended it be ended.

The Hill Times spoke with several people who participated in Ms. Maynard’s investigation and said they faced challenges in getting information from the department over those years, some of whom said they filed thousands of requests for information from the IRCC.

Ms. Maynard’s office fields complaints from organizations, businesses, reporters, Parliamentarians, and individuals who encounter difficulties in their access to government records under the Access to Information Act. Complaints are typically related to delays or outright refusals from some institutions.

The Hill Times obtained documents that show IRCC identified the five people in a Sept. 19, 2019, email between IRCC and departmental ATIP workers and, the following day, officials suggested that “by looking at the numbers the first three” should be subject to a 90-day extension while the last two should receive a 60-day extension. The names were redacted, but The Hill Times has seen two names mentioned separately in two sets of documents.

Manmeet Rai, founder of getgcms.com, a website that helps clients request their immigration case files from the department, was listed in one of these emails as among the five. His requests appeared to be flagged to automatically have a 90-day extension added to them, effective Sept. 23, 2019, according to an internal email.

Mr. Rai said he received a “blanket” extension on all requests filed under his name since September 2019, and that development led him to be “concerned about what is going on inside the government.” He learned his name appeared on that IRCC list when he filed an access-to-information request on his own name.

Mr. Rai declined to delve into specific business information, like how many requests he filed each year, but said he submitted more than 7,000 requests in 2019 alone.

He said IRCC’s policy, also revealed in Ms. Maynard’s investigation, was “arbitrary.” Its application, he said, was “a targeted exercise toward a specific group of people who were filing requests to help immigrant applicants who were not otherwise entitled to obtain their information” under the act. His requests were “clumped together” when they should have been treated as independent files.

“Everyone wants the information as soon as possible, because if the information is available to them, they can take some corrective action if their application is in progress,” said Mr. Rai. “But if they are to wait for 120 days from the date they filed the request, that is just absolutely dreadful for anyone.” (As of publication, the department had not yet responded to requests for comment from The Hill Times.)

While Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) accepted and agreed with Ms. Maynard’s findings, he noted in his response to the report, that “bulk requesters take a significant amount of IRCC resources due to their sheer volume.” In 2019-20, an average of 6,157 pages of records per business day had to be pulled for the top five requesters, the minister said, amounting to more than 30,000 pages per week.

“These top five requestors alone made over 10,000 requests last year. Paired with the extraordinary growth in requests … it became apparent that IRCC needed to take steps to support broader access rights in an equitable manner.” He said “nevertheless,” the department would no longer be relying on its policy.

Mr. Rai, who took part in the OIC’s investigation, commended the office for being “co-operative and upfront.” That the policy no longer exists is a testament to it living up to its task as a watchdog, he said, but he still feels the policy damaged his business. Mr. Rai noted over the last several years, there have been a swath of websites offering similar services that have popped up, but which promised deadlines he could not meet given the automatic extension applied to his information requests.

“You don’t have to be licensed to do that, you just have to be in Canada,” he said, noting that may have been why the department saw an “influx of so many requests” in recent years.

According to the OIC’s report, IRCC received a total of 116,928 access requests in 2019-20, a figure 42 per cent greater than the year before. All other government institutions combined received a fraction of that figure, equalling 39,294 requests during the same fiscal year. Out of this figure, 98 per cent were related to immigration case files, coming from foreign nationals or immigration lawyers hoping to get more details on their clients’ files.

Typically, Mr. Rai said his organization serves two types of clients: people filing permanent residency applications, and those looking for temporary residence, like students or visitors.

“The outcome was that instead of the people who were already doing it, there were new websites which came out and said, ‘See, we are doing it better than others because these guys are being targeted and they get an extension, whereas we can provide you the same information within 30 days,’ ” he said.

IRCC should be ‘transparent’ with rejected applicants

IRCC should be more “transparent” with rejected applicants, who are often keen to know why (and file access-to-information requests) so they could course correct moving forward, added Mr. Rai.

“If IRCC is more transparent in giving out information to each individual … people would be happy and would get some solace out of it that something is happening, rather than just keeping quiet after the application is filed,” he said.

It’s a reality the OIC appeared to be aware of. In its report, the office noted the department’s MyAccount portal “provides little information on the status of the processing of an application,” with template letters used to let applicants know if they have been accepted or rejected. IRCC is now looking to do a “comprehensive review of various refusal letters,” with a new temporary resident refusal letter that could be used for the 2021-22 year, according to its response to Ms. Maynard’s report.

But according to the OIC’s report, the department still does not plan to offer excerpts of notes made by the immigration officers assigned to a person’s file, which is a “frequent” request in complaints it receives.

Prateek Sharma, founder of gcmsbuddy.com, also took part in the OIC’s investigation and said he suspected he’s one of the top five identified by IRCC for automatic extensions. Since starting the website in 2017, he said he has filed between 7,000 and 8,000 complaints against IRCC with the OIC.

The bulk of his clients hired him in 2018, and shortly after, the “majority” of his company’s requests started getting 90-day extensions. He agreed with Mr. Rai that the time period coincided with a steady rise in websites claiming they had faster turnaround times.

“Word spreads easily among a small community. There are forums and WhatsApp groups around, and people started complaining that this website is getting all the extensions and another website has just started that’s not getting [them],” he said. “It contributed to an unfair playing field for us, because it was not my fault. People wanted to know about their status, and it was not like I was requesting the same information for the same person again and again.”

Ms. Maynard noted in a May 25 interview that requesters were filing multiple requests for multiple clients; Mr. Sharma said as a result, he felt services like his were singled out and he took a reputational hit. (Citing privacy concerns and the nature of its investigations, the OIC declined to name the five identified requesters and how many each filed.)

“[Clients] are worried about their future because they have a lot of things to plan; moving to Canada and starting a new life,” he noted.

“If some business is doing good, you’re kind of targeting them. The more requests we are sending, that means we are a popular website and we are offering a good service.” According to Mr. Sharma, there were about three or four major websites offering a similar service before 2019, a figure he predicted has since grown to 10 or more. “That prompted people to start new websites and now they are on par with us. All our hard work and everything—our reputation was ruined because of this.” While “thankful” the policy is now phased out, he wasn’t sure “if there’s a way to measure those losses.”

Because of the repeated extensions, Mr. Sharma said his group was subject to “angry customers” who noted other websites were offering a quicker turnaround. “It was a hard time, because the number of emails we used to get asking for status updates increased a lot,” he said.

Think about applicants, not just workers, urges agent 

The Hill Times spoke to another requester who took part in the OIC’s investigation, an associate with gcmsnotes.com who also rancaipsnotes.com. They asked not to be identified by name, but their name was listed in a Sept. 20, 2019, document obtained by The Hill Times. The email named the associate as somebody whose files would be subject to a 60-day extension, effective Sept. 23, 2019, per an internal IRCC email.

The associate said from their clients’ perspective, it was “quite frustrating” not to know why their application may have been refused, especially if those applying are students. Because intake periods for colleges and universities can range from January, May, or September, the associate said many clients wanted to know how to tweak their applications so they could apply in time for the next period, while others may have punted their timelines to start classes to a later semester.

“People are falling behind in their careers, or in starting a career, because of this arbitrary decision on their file,” the associate said. “It had a pretty big impact. … For some of them, they had to make life-altering decisions about whether to postpone their intake. They were disappointed with that.”

The associate supported the OIC recommendation to beef up IRCC’s staff so there are more workers tasked with handling the volume of requests. Ms. Maynard earlier said there are some 200-plus analysts helping the IRCC, which ranks among the bigger units. Her office, which itself is subject to the act, has about three full-time workers.

Mr. Mendicino told her office he agreed with the recommendation, according to the report, though his written response fell short of committing to a number of workers or funding. The department is working to secure more resources “in conjunction with the departmental action plan, while implementing permanent technological solutions,” he wrote in his response to the OIC.

Asked for more information about the IRCC’s policy, IRCC spokesperson Peter Liang did not elaborate in a May 27 email. Thanking the OIC for its “thorough and thoughtful investigation,” Mr. Liang said the department has developed a management action plan in response to the report, though the link he referred to only mentioned that the policy no longer exists. The department did not respond in time for publication to follow up questions about Mr. Rai, the associate who said they were among the five targeted, or how the policy came to be.

“They are concerned about the well-being of the IRCC employees. … Who’s concerned about the well-being of the students and the families who are affected by this?” the associate asked.

Concerns about unlicensed immigration consultants have long persisted in the field, with legislation to set up a new College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants passing in 2019.

In her report, Ms. Maynard noted the department flagged “dishonest actors who are taking advantage of vulnerable” people by, among other things, charging clients high fees for access requests, though regulation of the industry is an issue beyond the office’s “legal jurisdiction” and is not addressed in the report.

When one requester asked for departmental communication “directing ATIP staff to seek time extensions for ATIP requests” between September and December 2019—when the phased-out policy was in effect—they were told there were no records but “all instructions were given verbally,” according to documents obtained by The Hill Times.

The associate questioned whether verbal instructions were appropriate.

“If you’re a large organization handling over 100,000 requests a year, and you are going to get instructions verbally, how are you going to make sure your employees in the department are consistent in their actions? How are you going to hold your people accountable?” the associate wondered. “Somebody has to write them down to make sure they’re consistently applied across the board.”

IRCC defended its practice to Ms. Maynard’s office, her report noted, arguing the Treasury Board Secretariat’s (TBS) policy on access to information, “endorse[s]” the practice they employed. But in her ruling, Ms. Maynard said while the TBS offers “guidance” to institutions on what is considered a large volume of records, “it in no way suggests that a series of unrelated access to information requests can be lumped together.” According to that guidance, a large number of records is generally considered such if it requires more than 500 pages to be pulled and if their production interferes with the institution’s operations.

Citing privacy concerns and the nature of its investigations, OIC spokesperson James Ellard said in an email the office does not identify requesters by name, nor can it offer a breakdown of requests made by each individual. Asked if it was aware of any other government institutions that have identified top requesters in this way, he said the circumstances were “unique” to the department.

“This type of dramatic increase [in access requests] has not been observed elsewhere, nor is the commissioner aware of any other department adopting the practice of grouping requests by individual and automatically claiming time extensions to all requests made by these individuals,” he said, adding Ms. Maynard is “pleased” to see the practice is no longer in effect.

The Hill Times has asked the IRCC who was responsible for the practice’s creation, implementation, and authorization, along with its justification, but did not hear back by publication. The paper also presented some of the sentiments expressed by the requesters to the department for comment.

Source: IRCC’s ‘arbitrary’ automatic extensions on information requests created ‘unfair playing field,’ say immigration agents

Immigration applicants forced to file access to information requests to get answers on status: report

Hopefully, the GCMS modernization announced in Budget 2021 will enable this through an expanded MyAccount portal with increased functionality to both improve applicant service as well as reduce ATIP requests and costs:

The federal department in charge of immigration applications has been flooded with access to information requests because it provides so little information to applicants proactively, according to a new report by the Information Commissioner.

Have you applied to immigrate in Canada and want to know the status of your application? Or maybe your request was denied and you want to understand why? Well, instead of being able to see that information via your unique login on Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) Web portal, you have to file an access to information request (ATIP).

Source: Immigration applicants forced to file access to information requests to get answers on status: report

For the IRCC response, see: IRCC launches efforts to streamline and modernize access to information and privacy system and the related Management Action Plan.

Pandemic pretext: More delays in long-awaited access to information answers

ATIP is far too often late and, as the examples below indicate, sometimes very late, in responding, with COVID-19 providing further excuses for delay:

Federal departments that have stalled access to information requests for three years or more are now citing the pandemic as the reason for further delays.

Emails are going out to people who make access to information requests, notifying them the requests are now “on hold.”

“We cannot send consultations out because most third parties, other government departments (municipal, provincial, territorial and federal) are closed or reduced to minimum employee capacity,” the department now says.

“So until we are given the green light to start processing consultations again, we won’t be able to process any of the records for your request. But in the meantime, we would like to know if you still wish to proceed with your request or if you wish to abandon.”

Rubin says Health Canada owes him answers to about a dozen requests dating back for years — one from 2014 about adverse pharmaceutical reactions including some deaths, one on drug licensing from 2015, others from 2016 and 2017. They now warn him of “possible delays in treating your request,” due to the pandemic.

“Openness, transparency and accountability are guiding principles of the Government of Canada. However, our ability to respond to requests within the timelines mandated by the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act may be affected” by the pandemic, the department says.

The Finance Department wrote him using the the exact same words.

National Defence says it has reduced staff in the access office and hasn’t enough secure lines to handle his requests remotely. They asked for Rubin’s consent to put the request on hold. Rubin said no.

“You have to push back,” he said. “A lot of people don’t consider this a human right. But it’s not just administrative.”

Public Service and Procurement Canada (PSPC) has several aging Rubin files, and he hadn’t heard about them either, until this month’s message that “PSPC’s network is currently limited to essential and critical services such as pay, pension and procurement. While we are committed to respecting your right of access and are actively looking for solutions to maintain operations, we have little to no capacity at this time.”

One department told him: “despite all our efforts, we will not be able to respond to your ATIP request within the legislated timelines.” The legislated timeline ended years ago.

“Our access to information legislation is so flawed that it’s possible for access to information requests to be delayed and delayed and delayed, which turns the whole purpose of the legislation into a joke,” said James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University.

“The fact that people who haven’t heard for a year or two years are now getting a notice that it’s been delayed because of COVID reveals how badly flawed” it is.

“I like Ken’s remark that oh, it’s good to hear from you.”

He also noted that the lockdown shows the unevenness of government services, as some are cut off from paper documents while others shift to digital documents.

This newspaper asked Environment Canada more than a year ago for internal emails involved in sending out a single news release on climate change. This month, after our request passed its first anniversary, we asked how long it would take.
The answer: They were just about to send us the information, and then the lockdown hit.
The department promises a speedy answer once its office reopens.

Source: Pandemic pretext: More delays in long-awaited access to information answers

Access-to-information systems across Canada slowed by COVID-19

ATIP is not the most responsive at the best of times and my experience suggests a further slowing down. Some of the delays may be legitimate given some of the requested records may be hard to access when working remotely:

An international human rights organization is calling on all levels of government in Canada to continue answering access to information requests — and prioritize ones that relate to government accountability.

As governments across the country move to offer essential services only due to COVID-19, some are warning of delays in processing access to information requests, while others have stopped accepting new requests entirely.

It means the public has one less tool to understand how those in power are making decisions during a public health crisis.

“We’ve got, on the one hand, this incredible need for accountability and on the other hand, the institutions of accountability are operating well below their normal levels,” Toby Mendel, executive director of the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, said in an interview.”So, it’s a cocktail for lack of accountability and at this time, the importance of access to information is much, much greater than ever.”

The Access to Information Act allows applicants who pay $5 to ask for documents ranging from expense reports to briefing papers from government bodies in Canada.

‘Canadians will expect a comprehensive picture’

Last week, the federal information commissioner urged federal agencies and departments to “take all reasonable measures to limit the impact on individuals’ right to access.”

She followed it up with a statement on Thursday, reminding public bodies about their obligation to document decisions and actions, even with many people working from home.

“When the time comes, and it will, for a full accounting of the measures taken and the vast financial resources committed by the government during this emergency, Canadians will expect a comprehensive picture of the data, deliberations and policy decisions that determined the government’s overall response to COVID-19,” commissioner Caroline Maynard wrote in the statement.

But some institutions in the already-clogged federal system are halting access to information requests indefinitely.

“The Access to Information and Privacy Office has decided to put all access and privacy requests on hold until the situation returns to normal,” Public Services and Procurement Canada wrote in an email to an applicant last week.

The email didn’t say what part of the legislation allows it to put requests on hold indefinitely or how it would define “normal.”

A spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada didn’t answer those questions, but said it “is prioritizing support for the government’s response efforts, as well as critical services, including administering pay and pensions, and maintaining building safety as part of its service continuity.”

Toronto not accepting new requests

The access to information system is not just slowing down at the federal level.

CBC News surveyed five cities — Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax, Vancouver and Calgary — and found their approaches to access to information during COVID-19 vary.

Calgary, Ottawa and Vancouver say they are continuing to answer requests as usual during the pandemic while trying to minimize delays.

Toronto, Canada’s largest city, says it has “temporarily suspended the intake of any new [freedom of information] requests” so staff can “prioritize COVID-19 response activities.”

“It is not currently feasible to deploy staff resources to conduct the searches necessary to locate records in order to respond to new requests,” City of Toronto spokesperson Beth Waldman wrote in an email.

Waldman said transparency and right to information are still a priority, citing the city’s press briefings and “other communications to the public” during the pandemic. She didn’t specify when the city will start accepting new requests again.

After two weeks of mass closures and aggressive physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, public health experts watch closely to see if Canada is taking steps towards flattening the curve. 3:08

Earlier this week, the Halifax Regional Municipality’s website said it wasn’t accepting new requests for information or routine disclosure requests, where people can request information that’s already been released.

After CBC News asked why that was the case, the website was changed to say the municipality would accept requests, but applicants should expect delays “as municipal staff are working remotely and will not be in a position to search for records responsive to the request.”Provinces are also handling the situation differently.

The New Brunswick Ombud’s Office has granted an extension to public bodies, giving them until May 29 to complete active requests.

But in Newfoundland and Labrador, public bodies are getting indefinite extensions, according to a letter sent to an applicant in March.

“The extension is approved for the time until government returns to normal operations,” the letter says, adding that the extension was approved by the province’s access to information and privacy commissioner.

‘Scrutiny from outside makes things work better’

Mendel said public bodies have been too quick to say they can’t handle processing requests.

“It is not appropriate for bodies to simply say we’re not processing requests anymore,” Mendel said.”We have laws across the country. They set rules for the processing of requests and those rules must either be formally limited by a legal process or they must be obeyed.”

While he said it may be reasonable for public bodies to restrict employees from going into offices and looking for physical files, he believes public institutions should prioritize requests that deal with government accountability, including those from journalists and opposition politicians.

“Scrutiny from outside makes things work better,” said Mendel.

His organization has recently launched a tracker that examines how governments across the globe are handling access to information during a pandemic.

“In Brazil, for example, they sought to suspend the operation of the act and the Supreme Court said, ‘No that’s not legitimate, that is a key accountability institution,'” Mendel said.

“You can see that when the proper rule of law system is being applied to these measures, it doesn’t just allow governments to act as they might wish arbitrarily. ”

Crisis could push access to information to modernize

Organizations that already struggled to respond to access to information requests will likely make access to information “an even lower priority” during a pandemic, according to Jason Woywada, executive director of the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

“That does lead to concerns because those are the same institutions that likely require the highest degree of oversight to improve their processes and operations,” he said.

But it also could push the country’s access to information systems to modernize.

Woywada supports that, as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t put privacy at risk.

Nova Scotia learned that the hard way in 2018, after it was forced to shut down its online freedom of information portal after a privacy breach.

More than 7,000 documents, including hundreds with highly personal information, were downloaded in March 2018, but the breach wouldn’t be detected until a month later.

“The key consideration there is making sure that security is maintained and making sure that the privacy is maintained for the information of the individuals that is being used online, that we aren’t seeing a sudden increase in data breaches,” Woywada said.

Source: Access-to-information systems across Canada slowed by COVID-19