Politics

Information commissioner rips RCMP for slow response to information access requests

The RCMP's inability to respond to access to information requests on time has reached a critical point, according to a scathing new report from the federal information commissioner — which has now triggered a new ministerial directive.

In February of last year, 92% of active ATIP requests went beyond the statutory due date

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki is seen during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, April 20, 2020. The federal information commissioner says senior leaders within the RCMP need to take action immediately to fix the access to information system. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The RCMP's inability to respond to access to information requests on time has reached a "critical" point and needs intervention, according to a scathing new report from the federal information commissioner.

"I would like to stress that the situation at the RCMP is critical and may soon be past the point of no return, unless senior leaders within the organization take action immediately," Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard wrote in her special report.

"Canadians rightfully expect that the police force for Canada, in charge of enforcing Canadian law, will itself comply with it. The gravity of the situation at the RCMP calls for bold and comprehensive action to turn the tide."

The Trudeau government signalled today it's taking Maynard's warning seriously. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced he will issue a ministerial directive to start the process of improving the RCMP's access to information performance.

Maynard launched an investigation back in 2019 into the RCMP's access office after getting complaints about it failing to meet statutory time frames under the Access to Information Act for responding to access requests. It also was spurred on by "the consistent failure" of the RCMP to provide responses to her office during complaint investigations, she wrote.

The access to information system — governed by the Access to Information Act and typically referred to as 'ATIP' — is one of the ways journalists and members of the public can get information from government departments and agencies that is otherwise hidden from view.

Backlog is 'shocking:' Maynard

Maynard's review found that in February 2019, the RCMP had 4,532 active access to information requests — and 92 per cent of them had gone beyond the statutory due date for response.

"The size of the request backlog is shocking," said Maynard.

The information commissioner said RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki was one of the first people she met with when she took over the job more than two years ago.

Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard raised serious concerns with the RCMP's access to information request backlog. (Government of Canada)

"We couldn't see any improvement. Actually, things were getting worse," Maynard said in an interview with CBC News. 

"We issued a multiple number of letters so this was not news to Commissioner Lucki, was not news to Minister Blair."

Blair issues new directive 

While the new report — which was tabled in Parliament this morning — said the RCMP told Maynard's office it has implemented strategies to improve its response times, she seems unconvinced those changes will amount to much.

"My investigation revealed that the strategies implemented to date have failed to improve the RCMP's performance. I believe that the RCMP will continue to fail in effectively managing access requests if leaders do not do more to improve the internal culture, along with the current processes and access to information program infrastructure," she said.

Her office came up with six areas for improvement and 15 recommendations, centred on delivering more training and resources.

She also took Blair to task and urged him to make sure the force has the resources it needs to meet its obligations.

"The response I received from the minister falls short on many fronts, particularly when it comes to commitments to improve transparency and timely responses," Maynard concluded.

"He has ignored most recommendations and appears unconcerned by the failings identified within the RCMP's ATIP operations."

Blair's office said that, after speaking with Maynard this morning, he plans to issue a ministerial directive to identify the RCMP's problems and come up with a plan to correct them.

"The RCMP will have three months to respond to today's report from the information commissioner in full, and that report must be validated by Treasury Board officials," wrote Blair's spokesperson Mary-Liz Power.

"We are taking this matter seriously. We have made a commitment to transparency and we must live up to it."

RCMP acknowledges 'challenges' 

Asked about the report today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government will look at its findings. 

"Canadians need to have confidence in their institutions. We need particularly to have confidence in institutions like police forces, like the RCMP," he said during his regular Tuesday briefing. 

"One of the best ways to do that is to demonstrate transparency and accountability. We have seen in the past that there have been challenges on that. I thank the information commissioner for bringing that forward and we will certainly be looking at how we can ensure that Canadians have full confidence in their national police force."

The RCMP said it is facing "challenges in fulfilling our obligations under the Access to Information Act."

"We remain committed to providing Canadians with information in a timely manner," said RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival.

The force said a number of the report's recommendations have been addressed already, including the call to create a specialized unit to triage and track requests in order to ensure timely responses.

"Additional steps include pursuing opportunities to secure additional resources," said Percival.

"We are also in the process of procuring new processing software and other information technology solutions to better address the exceptional volume of requests the RCMP faces."

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