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N.W.T. will soon have most progressive access to information law in Canada

On Thursday MLAs unanimously gave final approval to the first major overhaul of the territory’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act since it became law 23 years ago.

Municipalities to be subject to access to information provisions

On Thursday N.W.T MLAs gave third reading to a revamped Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the first major overhaul since it was introduced 23 years ago. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The Northwest Territories will soon have the most progressive access to information law in the country.

On Thursday MLAs unanimously gave final approval to the first major overhaul of the territory's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPP) since it became law 23 years ago.

One of the most significant changes is a major increase in the authority of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

"I will no longer be making recommendations, I will be making orders, which can be filed with the court and enforced as a court order," said Elaine Keenan-Bengts.

People who file requests for information with a government department and disagree with the department's decision on what information should be released can appeal to Keenan-Bengts to review the decision. Under the old law, the commissioner could only make recommendations to the government.

The newly-revised act gives Information and Privacy Commissioner Elaine Keenan-Bengts the authority to order the release of information, rather than only making recommendations. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

"Over the years, the respect given to the recommendations made by my office has gone downhill," said Keenan-Bengts. "I've heard it said that there is in many parts of the government the feeling that, 'There's nothing she can really do except make recommendations, so don't worry about it.'

"They won't be able to do that anymore."

Under the new law, Keenan-Bengts decisions stand unless the government goes to court and convinces a judge to overturn them.

Public interest trumps secrecy

The act still includes a long list of exceptions to the general rule of public access to government information, but now they will all be trumped by the public interest.

But now, regardless of the exemptions, the heads of government departments and other senior officials will be required to release information when it is clearly in the public interest to do so.

Another part of the same clause requires immediate release of information about risks of significant harm to the environment, the public or a group of people, whether a request for information had been made or not.

"I think it will probably take a while for public bodies to realize that this new provision requires them to take certain steps in certain circumstances," said Keenan-Bengts, who said the N.W.T. is one of the few jurisdictions in the country with such a sweeping public interest clause.

All municipalities subject to access law

One of the biggest public organizations in the territory, the City of Yellowknife, has never been subject to access to information law — under the revised act that's going to change.

All municipalities, as well as local housing organizations, are eventually going to be subject to the act.

Before that can happen, though, smaller communities and housing organizations will be given a chance to develop the capacity to respond to access requests.

"The ATIPP Act was passed two years before it came into effect to give the government of the Northwest Territories back in the day time to get ready to implement it," said Keenan-Bengts. "I think it's only fair to say that municipalities are going to need some time to figure it out for themselves and to put in the appropriate resources."

Last week, MLAs urged the government to develop a plan, including cost estimates, to help municipalities prepare to comply with the revised act.

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