ANALYSIS: 3 pages, 520 days of delay, and Canada’s busted access-to-information system

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This should have been a simple request.

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Filed electronically, the access-to-information request asked for a memorandum from the Department of Granthshala Affairs Canada (GAC), identified not only by title, but by the departmental tracking number used by the GAC, in which foreign diplomats A program has been described to provide organized tours. Canadian Arctic Region.

Memos should have been easy to find, easy to process, and easy to release.

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But the GAC’s system for responding to access to information is so broken that it took 520 days, or nearly 18 months, to process the request, producing a three-page memorandum that contained a single word blacked out by government censors. had not been.

The pandemic has made things worse but the GAC was failing its legal obligations to provide the requested records within 30 days long before the pandemic. for example:

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  • As of Wednesday, it has been 836 days and counting since a request was made in August 2019 – months before the pandemic hit – for a briefing book by then trade minister Jim Carr preparing meetings in Chile with other trade ministers Used to do Not a single page has been released yet.
  • It took 550 days to issue the 10-page briefing note prepared for then-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, ahead of a May 2019 phone call she held with her Mexican counterpart.
  • It took 513 days to issue a briefing book, the then Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne took with him to the G20 meeting in November 2019.
  • It took 330 days to release the heavily censored eight-page memo that requested in June 2020 how China was tackling plastic pollution.
  • Another request for records made in February 2020 was issued to Granthshala News after more than 18 months. It detailed a significant development in Canada’s continuing discussions on whether to allow gear made by China’s Huawei on Canada’s network.

There are dozens of instances in which records requested by the GAC by document number and title, which must be issued in 30 days or less, routinely take 200 days or more to process.

On Monday, Granthshala News emailed the office of new Secretary of State Melanie Jolie to ask whether she thought this standard of performance was acceptable. His office accepted a request for comment but did not respond.

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The GAC may be one of the worst offenders but it is not alone. Long delay in disobeying the time limit prescribed in the law access to information act There are routines for requests filed to the Departments of National Defense, the RCMP, Statistics Canada, Crown-Indigenous Relations, and the like.

The Trudeau government came into office in 2015, promising to fix the access-to-information system used every year not only by journalists but by thousands of researchers, non-profit groups, businesses and everyday Canadians. The process It is an important tool for transparency and accountability. And yet, a system already notorious for delaying the end of the Harper era is now worse after six years of the Trudeau government.

Still, Mona Fortier, the new chairman of the Treasury Board, has vowed to fix it. In an email, a Fortier spokesperson said reviews are underway to improve access to information across all government departments. The Treasury Board Secretariat is the government department that provides rules and manuals to all government departments when it comes to the interpretation and administration of the Act.

His first task may be to compensate for the damage caused by the pandemic.

When the pandemic first affected government institutions in early 2020, none of the employees working in government access-to-information stores were considered essential workers and, therefore, all non-essential federal government employees. Like, they were sent home. But the computer systems they need to process excessive requests are often on secure networks that can only be accessed from their workplace.

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And so the extreme system stops. Again, that was in early 2020. And while many, if not most, government employees have been able to return to their offices for months, departments continue to use the pandemic to delay the release of records despite Federal Information Commissioner Carolyn. Maynard, an independent parliament official, quickly ruled that the pandemic could not be used as an excuse to delay production of the requested records.

“The right to access, a quasi-constitutional right, cannot be suspended because of the pandemic,” Maynard told lawmakers on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Projections last February, “Government transparency is the foundation of a strong democracy and has never been more important during this crisis.”

Fortier, the chairman of the Treasury Board, agrees with Maynard.

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“Responding to extreme and personal information requests is a legal obligation for all institutions. The Access to Information Act does not allow institutions to delay access to information requests due to a pandemic or other emergency,” Fortier’s press secretary Isabella Brisson said in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday.

And yet, online portal Where any Canadians can file a request for records, the site continues to post warnings about “potential delays in treating your request” at the top of the site because of the “extraordinary measures” taken to combat COVID-19. because of.

And when departments receive a request, a standard acknowledgment letter is issued within a few days and those acknowledgment letters also contain regular warnings of delays due to COVID-19, for about 18 months.

“Considering the importance of the right to access to information, which is a quasi-constitutional right, and the period that has elapsed since the onset of the pandemic, one would expect that institutions would have the right to adjust their operations to the new reality. will have time to do. And such warnings should still not be used as boilerplate excuses from institutions,” Commissioner Maynard spokesman Lawrence Crete said in an email this week.

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