Four decades ago, Ottawa introduced the Access to Information Act. It was intended to give Canadians — academics, journalists, researchers, and the general public — the power to request government documents. It was an extraordinary attempt to improve transparency and accountability in government.

Over those decades, the Act has been used to identify systemic underfunding of child welfare in Indigenous communities, reveal how taxpayer-funded government planes are used by politicians, detail how Ottawa permitted the use of intelligence obtained through torture, expose political interference in foreign aid delivery, investigate how dysfunction led to deadly food contamination, and much, much more.

Unfortunately, the Act has barely changed since 1985. It has not kept up with the advent of the internet, nor have its fundamental weaknesses been fixed.

Today, requests frequently take months, if not years, if not a decade. Documents are withheld or aggressively redacted based on flimsy pretexts. Cabinet ministers continue to be excluded from the act, allowing them to hide from public scrutiny. The system’s lone watchdog, the Information Commission, is under-funded and ill-equipped to handle the myriad of problems.

When Justin Trudeau first campaigned to be prime minister in 2015, he vowed to fix the Act and address these very problems: In particular, to lift the “veil of secrecy over the Prime Minister’s Office.” It would make government better, he said.

Eight years later, he has broken those promises. The only reforms to the Act, introduced in 2017, was universally derided as a step backwards, towards more secrecy.

Justin Trudeau promised to fix it. He didn’t. He has made it worse.

In 2021, the government embarked on a review of the Act. In submissions and at roundtable events, the government heard how dilapidated and unusable the system has become. They were told how a culture of secrecy permeates the system. Those who use and understand the Access to Information regime underscored what needed to be done: Significant, substantive, reform and reinvestment.

Yet, when the government released their report — misleadingly named ‘What We Heard‘ — it ignored the sharpest criticisms and mischaracterized what was actually said.

In a final report, the Trudeau government employed lofty language to cover up a basic fact: It intends to do virtually nothing to fix this broken system. There will be no reform to the Act, no effort to improve accountability, no lifting of the veil of secrecy over the Prime Minister’s Office.

Today, we have an access-to-information system in name only. While Canada was an early entrant into the arena of freedom of information, and a sterling example of transparency around the world, we are now a laggard. Journalists, activists, and researchers are hobbled in their ability to keep the government honest.

This system can be fixed without further consultation or study — indeed, decades of reports and studies have laid out exactly what must be done. Either the government, or the opposition parties, could introduce legislation to significantly and substantially improve the Access to Information regime today.

Users of the system agree what needs to be done:

  • Limit the exemptions in the Access to Information Act
  • Expand the Act to cover ministers’ offices, including the Prime Minister’s Office
  • Create a public interest override, so matters of national importance can be made public
  • Create a system to declassify historical records
  • Mandate a duty to document, so departments cannot escape scrutiny from the Act.
  • Give the Information Commissioner the resources and powers necessary to keep the system working as designed.

As it stands, the Access to Information system is both wasteful and ineffective. It is not doing the job it was designed to do. There is no real transparency on the federal level in Canada.

If the Trudeau government won’t fulfil its promise to bring in this necessary transparency, then Parliament should act. It’s time we ask our politicians to stand up and stop this erosion of our right to know.

The clock is ticking.

Your right to know is disappearing.

Click here to email Treasury Board President Mona Fortier
Click here to email Pat Kelly, chair of the committee for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Click here to email Iqra Khalid, vice-chair of the committee for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
Cliquez ici pour envoyer un courriel a René Villemure, vice-président de le comité sur l’Accès à l’information, de la protection des renseignements personnels et de l’éthique