Nova Scotia

Overhaul of Canada's Access to Information Act taking too long, critic says

The federal government promised legislative changes before the end of the winter, but they haven't happened yet.

Feds promised legislative changes before the end of winter, but they haven't happened yet

Toby Mendel, president of the Centre for Law and Democracy in Halifax, says the Liberals have stalled on their promised changes to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

A Nova Scotia human rights organization blames a lack of political will to explain why the Canadian government has delayed changes to the Access to Information Act.

The act, which allows Canadians to request federal government files that would otherwise be unavailable to the public, hasn't been significantly updated since it first came into effect more than 30 years ago.

The Liberal government had promised to make some quick fixes to the law by the end of this winter, with a full review beginning in 2018. 

Maybe some of his ministers don't want their offices opened.- Toby Mendel

Aside from a decision to waive most of the fees, those "quick wins" haven't happened yet, said Toby Mendel, president of the Centre for Law and Democracy in Halifax.

"We know what needs to be done, and now we need the political will to hammer that home," he told CBC Nova Scotia's Information Morning.

Protest letter

Mendel said he wants to see changes that would subject Parliament, the courts and cabinet ministers' offices to the act. He also wants Canada's information commissioner to have the power to order civil servants to release documents.

Mendel's organization was one of more than 50 civil society groups and individuals who signed a letter to the federal government this week, citing their concerns with the delays.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison says an overhaul of the federal Freedom of Information Act is a complicated, lengthy task, as it hasn't been updated in decades. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Government responds

Treasury Board President Scott Brison, who is in charge of the access-to-information file, said his government is not wavering from its commitment to introduce changes to the act, but it's going to take time. 

"We will get this done," he said, and "I would not apologize for taking the time to get it right."

An overhaul is a complicated task, Brison said, especially given the act hasn't been updated in decades.

He said it's important to balance an open government with the privacy of citizens, the objectivity of public servants and the independence of the judiciary.

"These are not frivolous concerns, these are core responsibilities of a government," Brison added.

International examples

While he acknowledges it's important to strike the right balance, Mendel said a person doesn't have to look far to find other countries who have already implemented these reforms, "and they don't have any problems with privacy." 

He pointed to a global right-to-information rating chart, compiled by his organization, which gives Canada a ranking of 49 out of 111 countries.

"Yes, it's complicated, but the main complication in my opinion is political will," he said. "Maybe some of his ministers don't want their offices opened."

Mendel said it's common for political parties to call for better transparency when they're in opposition. But "when they get into power and the skeletons are now in their own closets," their enthusiasm wanes, he said.

"This is not the first opening of this can of worms," Mendel said. "This issue has been debated extensively in Canada, literally for decades."

With files from the CBC's Information Morning.