Access to Information reforms fall short, pro-openness voices tell MPs

A Liberal government bill to modernize the Access to Information Act would create new barriers for people seeking federal files, transparency advocates told MPs studying the measures.

First Nations group worried bill would hinder accessing records needed to help settle land claims

A heavily redacted Access to Information Request obtained by CBC North. The government is promising to give more teeth to Canada's access to information watchdog. (CBC)

A Liberal government bill to modernize the Access to Information Act would create new barriers for people seeking federal files, transparency advocates told MPs studying the measures.

The access law allows applicants who pay $5 to ask for government documents ranging from expense reports to briefing papers, but it has been criticized as clumsy and antiquated.

Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association told the House of Commons information, ethics and privacy committee the government's proposed updates are deeply disappointing.

"This is not the open and transparent government that Canadians want and deserve, and it's not the overhaul of the access act that is clearly needed," Zwibel said Monday.

Peter Di Gangi, director of policy and research with the Algonquin Nation Secretariat, said it's "a bad bill" that will interfere with First Nations' right of access to records needed to help settle claims.

The bill would allow a federal agency to refuse to process a request unless the applicant states the type of record being sought, the subject matter and the time-frame in which the documents were created.

It would also permit institutions to reject requests considered vexatious, made in bad faith or otherwise an abuse of the right to make an application.

The bill gives the information commissioner, an ombudsman for requesters, the power to order the release of records. But the commissioner's orders could be subject to wide-ranging challenges in the Federal Court — cases that sometimes take years to resolve.

"The commissioner needs robust order-making powers," Zwibel said.

In its election platform, the Liberals said government data and information should be "open by default" and that the access law would be updated to meet such a standard.

'Lost opportunity'

They also promised to extend the law to the offices of the prime minister, cabinet members, senators, MPs and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

Instead, under the bill these offices and institutions would be required to regularly release certain types of records, such as hospitality and travel expenses and contract information.

"This is not a substitute for a strong access regime," Zwibel said. "The proactive publication regime established by the lets the government to decide what Canadians can see."

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch, a group that long pushed for improvements to the law, said the Liberal legislation would be a "big step backwards" for access rights.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison is in charge of changes to the Access to Information Act. It act allows Canadians, for a $5 fee, to request copies of government documents. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The public has been consulted numerous times on changes to the law, there is a consensus on what needs to be done and there is no justifiable reason for further delay, Conacher said.

Gord McIntosh, representing Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, called the bill overall a "lost opportunity."

The government touts the bill as the first real advancement for the law since it took effect in 1983. It has also signalled an openness to considering any changes the committee might propose.

Critics lament the bill would not narrow the many exemptions in the law that permit agencies to hold back information related to areas including national security, legal privilege and business dealings.

Many applicants complain about lengthy delays in processing requests as well as blacked-out passages — or entire pages — in records that are eventually released.

Heather Scoffield, Ottawa bureau chief with The Canadian Press, told the MPs that while the law has helped with important stories, it is "also a constant source of frustration for our reporters."

The news agency's journalists spend a lot of time challenging redactions to records due to the law's exemptions, she said.

"The new legislation would not address that."