CBC gets an A from information watchdog

The CBC has moved from an F or failing grade to an A, according to Suzanne Legault, the information commissioner and watchdog for the federal government's access to information laws.

Most government departments handing over documents faster, Suzanne Legault says

Suzanne Legault, Canada's information commissioner, has issued report cards for CBC and Canada Post on how they comply with access to information requests. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The CBC has moved from an F or failing grade to an A, according to Suzanne Legault, the information commissioner and watchdog for the federal government's access to information laws.

At a press conference in Ottawa Thursday, Legault issued her report cards on two institutions that were brought under the Access to Information Act when federal accountability legislation was passed in 2007.

The act allows for anyone to submit a request, for a $5 fee, to a government department or Crown corporation covered by the act, and ask for specific documents, as long as the information requested does not violate privacy, national security, cabinet confidences, or other considerations such as journalistic sources or solicitor-client privilege.

Legault had been highly critical of the CBC's performance when it first became subject to access to information laws.  Last year, she successfully took the CBC to court over its refusal to allow her office to review certain documents that the corporation insisted were protected for journalistic reasons.

However, on Thursday Legault upgraded the CBC, observing that the corporation now takes an average of 36 days to respond to an information request as opposed its previous average of 158 days.

Legault singled out CBC president Hubert Lacroix as the catalyst behind CBC's higher marks. Lacroix has "incorporated access to information compliance into the performance management agreements of the senior management cadre, and communicated the importance of transparency and compliance with the act to all staff," her report card said.

In contrast, Legault gave a failing grade to Canada Post which, although it is no longer in a zone she designates as "red alert," nevertheless still gets an F. The postal corporation has taken some steps towards improving, she noted, but it is still "far from achieving optimal compliance." She said Canada Post has reduced its deemed refusal rate for information requests by 39 per cent, but its refusal to hand over information is still at a rate she called "unacceptably high," at 44.9 per cent.

Legault did note that in October Canada Post announced a dedicated plan to improve its performance.

Sounding a warning

Overall, Legault said she has noticed a general improvement in the way access to information requests are handled across the system. The upswing in the number of requests answered in less than 30 days is small at .8 per cent, she admits, but is still the best performance in the past 10 years.

But Legault sounded a warning that budget cuts may mean that the system will suffer, something she can't determine now because the statistics she works with are two years old. But new statistics will be available soon, she said.  

"Should I find signs of deterioration, I will not hesitate to bring my concerns to Parliament’s notice and take any appropriate action, including re-instating the report cards earlier than planned."

Legault also reiterated her concerns that  national security or cabinet confidences are being used too frequently as reasons to deny access to information. She said that her office is dealing with 300 complaints from those denied information for national security reasons.

As she’s said in the past, Legault repeated that she would like to see all automatic exclusions for certain kinds of information eliminated, and said Canadians should be advocating for that change in the legislation. Legault has recommended that the government review its Access to Information Act, but so far this has not happened.

Legault said when the access to information act was ushered in 30 years ago, Canada was seen as a leader in the world. Now it is not even in the top 50, according to the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy.

"Now we are considered to be laggards, and I don't think any Canadians should be happy with the situation," she said.