As the 30th anniversary of the federal Access to Information Act approaches, Canada finds itself tied for 51st in the world on a list of freedom-of-information rankings, languishing behind Angola, Colombia and Niger.
After some number-crunching to standardize findings, it turns out Canada is even lower on the list — 11 spots to be exact — than when it was first published last September as part of a groundbreaking project by Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe of Madrid.
"As a country that was once among the world's leaders in government openness, it is unfortunate that Canada has dropped so far down the list. Partly, this is the result of global progress, with which Canada has failed to keep pace," says an analysis accompanying the rankings.
The Access to Information Act, which took force on July 1, 1983, allows requesters who pay $5 to request a variety of records in federal files — from correspondence and reports to briefing notes and hospitality receipts.
Departments and agencies are supposed to respond within 30 days, but often take extensions of up to half a year or more. Often little information is released even after a lengthy wait.
There have been repeated calls from pro-democracy groups and the federal information commissioner's office to modernize the act for the 21st century.
In October 2009, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson rejected a House of Commons committee's call to update the access law, saying it was a strong piece of legislation.
Report notes lack of updates to law
While "cutting edge" 30 years ago, the law has not been significantly updated since its inception, notes the world ranking report.
"Canada's lax timelines, imposition of access fees, lack of a proper public interest override, and blanket exemptions for certain political offices all contravene international standards for the right of access," says the report.
"Canada's antiquated approach to access to information is also the result of a lack of political will to improve the situation."
Toby Mendel, president of the Centre for Law and Democracy, recently returned from Rabat where he spoke with officials devising an access law for Morocco. They asked him what the Canadian government had proposed in the area of access reform as part of the global Open Government Partnership initiative.
Mendel told them Canada had suggested allowing access requesters to apply electronically, dispensing with the current cumbersome practice of a paper form and a $5 cheque.
"Literally, I could see their jaws dropping," Mendel said in an interview. "Because it was incomprehensible to them that a country like Canada would not already have electronic requesting possibility."
Serbia, India and Slovenia top the report's ranking list, while Liechtenstein, Greece and Austria come last among the 89 countries with an access regime.
There have been several attempts to reform and revamp Canada's law, "and all have been defeated in one way or another," the report notes.
"We hope that Canada's poor showing here will be a wake-up call to the fact that global standards for implementation of the right to information have moved past what the Access to Information Act can provide, and will spur our politicians to act in order to give proper implementation to the right to information."
The federal Treasury Board, the department responsible for access policy, had no immediate comment on the rankings.
At the Open Government Partnership meeting in Brazil last April, the Conservative government also promised to create a virtual library of government documents, improve federal record-keeping, make more archival material accessible, and build on efforts to release government data sets.
Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based lobby group, said the federal plan would only make some government information more easily available in electronic format — not truly improve openness or accountability.