Tories kill access to information database
The federal Conservatives have quietly killed an access to information registry used by journalists, experts and the public that users say helped hold the government accountable.
The Coordination of Access to Information Requests System, or CAIRS, is an electronic list of nearly every access to information request filed to federal departments and agencies.
Originally created in 1989, it was used as an internal tool to keep track of requests and co-ordinate the government's response between agencies to potentially sensitive information released.
Now, users mine the database to do statistical studies, fine tune phrasing on new requests and discover obscure documents — often using the information against the government.
"It was really a tool designed to make government more open," said CBC investigative journalist David McKie.
"Now that it appears as though this is no longer going to be available it is very disappointing indeed and people are really wondering what the real motivation is."
Last week, a notice to civil servants from Treasury Board stated that effective April 1, "the requirement to update CAIRS is no longer in effect."
A Treasury Board official confirmed to the Canadian Press on Friday that the system is being killed because "extensive" consultations showed it wasn't valued by government departments.
Instead, "valuable resources currently being used to maintain CAIRS would be better used in the collection and analysis of improved statistical reporting," said Robert Makichuk.
Since 2006, McKie has operated a website that publishes the monthly reports released through CAIRS on a publicly accessible website, www.onlinedemocracy.ca.
He took over from Alasdair Roberts, a political scientist at Syracuse University in New York, who built a version of the database by requesting CAIRS electronic records through access to information requests and then updated the site with the monthly reports.
The online database allows the public to quickly search thousands of requests from over the years by typing key words into a search engine.
The documents are not available online, only the wording of the original access to information request, date, department, file number and general information about whether the requester was with the media, business, academic or other.
But users can then make a written request for a copy of the already released documents by citing the file number.
Monthly paper lists have also been made available since the 1990s for public consultation at a central federal office in Ottawa.
Public Works, which operates the database, spent $166,000 improving it in 2001. Federal officials in 2003 had been working on a publicly accessible online version.
"To do this now after the CAIRS' usefulness has been proven over and over again is indicative of the extent to which government will go to stifle the access regime," said Michel Drapeau, a lawyer who frequently uses the system and is a co-author of a reference work on access law.
"This is terrible and I consider this to be yet one more step in making records less accessible," he told Canadian Press.
New Democrat MP Dawn Black also condemned the Tories for shutting down the system.
"It's another example of the Harper government's talk about accountability and transparency — they talk the talk but they don't walk the walk," said Black, who said her office often uses the database.
With files from the Canadian Press