The Canadian government’s lack of transparency is reflected in law enforcement agencies’ delays handling of access to information requests, a Calgary journalism professor says.
Sean Holman calls access to information officials “blackout bureaucrats.”
“Their job is to apply exemptions and exclusions in under the Access to Information Act,” the Mount Royal University academic said. “That’s not access to information; that’s censorship.”
Both the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency say the number of requests they receive under the act outweighs their ability to respond and meet legislative requirements.
“There are so many opportunities to violate the spirit of the law that you don’t need to break the law to violate the sprit,” the former Victoria-based investigative reporter said.
“Law enforcement in this country have never been fans of freedom of information,” he said. “The police lobbied against it. They are not supportive of freedom of information.”
But, said Natalie Bartlett, spokeswoman for the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, complaints about systemic delays have been a feature of the system since 1984, the year after Parliament passed the legislation.
Bartlett said In 2017-2018, the office received 1,249 delay or time extension complaints, compared to 1,312 exemption complaints and 37 cabinet confidence exclusion complaints.
The 10 federal institutions that receive the most complaints are:
• RCMP – 435;
• Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada – 227;
• Canada Revenue Agency – 213;
•Defence – 175;
• Parks Canada – 147;
• Canada Border Services Agency – 137;
• Privy Council Office – 110;
• Global Affairs Canada – 88;
• Health Canada – 83, and;
• National Energy Board – 79.
The office of the Information Commissioner for Canada said the RCMP has been among the top five institutions complained about the past five years.
The number of complaints against the force, 74% of them for not meeting legislated response times, jumped from 185 in 2013-14 to 435 in 2017-18
The commissioner’s office last year said personnel and financial resources greatly affect an institution’s ability to respond to requests in a timely manner.
The office said the RCMP received 4,826 access to information requests in 2016-17, but had insufficient resources to respond efficiently.
“This has resulted in an increase of access complaints against the RCMP,” the office said.
Canada Border Services Agency
The Canada Border Services Agency received 7,466 requests in 2017-18, an increase of 19.2% compared with the previous year. The agency responded to 7,219 requests, or 81% of the total number of requests received and outstanding from the previous year.
“With the exception of the 2014–2015 reporting period, the CBSA has consistently received more requests than it has been able to close each year; this has created a backlog of files that require processing,” a report on agency requests said.
The agency said 1,928 extensions were applied for 2017-18, a 91.1% increase in comparison to the previous fiscal year.
“This is reflective of the increased volume of requests received, which has made it more challenging for the agency to process files within the 30 day legislated time frame,” the agency said.
Spokesman Nicholas Dorion said the agency has increased staffing levels to deal with backlogs.
“The backlog, which was at its peak in June 2016 with over 1,000 requests, has been reduced significantly over the last few years,” he said. “For the 2017-2018 reporting period, the CBSA’s backlog of access requests consisted of 475 files.”
He said as of Feb. 28 (in fiscal year 2018-19), 94.3% of requests were closed on time.
This rate has increased over the reporting period of 2017-18, when the rate of on-time completions was 86.8%,” Dorion said.
Those requesting information were more patient with the agency than with the RCMP, though. Only 113 complaints were filed against the agency in 2017-18, a 9.6% decrease compared to 2016–2017.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s intelligence agency, received 851 access requests in 23017-2018, up from 491 in 2016-17 and 669 in 2015-16. The service managed to close a significant number of requests – 791 in 2017-2018.
For the 2017-18 period, the bulk for requests came from the public (440), business (137), media (127) and academia (82).
Of requests received in 2017-18, most were completed in less than 30 days.
Only 19 requests went over the deadline.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner said some requests to the service would be refused in order not to compromise ongoing investigations.
Canadian Coast Guard
The Canadian Coast Guard operates as an agency within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
The number of requests the department received declined from 466 in 2017-18 from 504 the previous year. Of those 45 were Coast Guard specific last year compared to 80 the previous year. It has no backlog and 69% were responded to in 60 days or less.
Holman said the agencies pay for information access departments from their own budgets and bear some responsibility for allocation of resources.
“Is resourcing an issue? Yes. Does it compromise response times? Yes,” he said. “If you’re not committing resources to this as an agency, that’s an easy way to frustrate access.”
But, Holman explained, to understand the resourcing issue, it’s first necessary to look at law enforcement agencies’ cultures to see if they are supportive of access to information. The answer, he said, is No.
He said if the government were to set about revising information laws, things might shift. That, however, needs another shift in political culture to happen first.
“Every party promises to be more open than its predecessor but none of it actually happens when they get into government,” Holman said.
The 2015 federal Liberal platform promised reform of the laws.
“Together, we can restore a sense of trust in our democracy. Greater openness and transparency are fundamental to accomplishing this,” the platform said.
Bartlett said current commissioner Caroline Maynard is working with institutions to ensure more timeliness and a better quality of responses.
The public and the media do not escape Holman’s criticism. He said it’s not much of a priority for the public.
“If the press made more of an issues of it than they do, we might have more open government,” he said.
Reporter Jeremy Hainsworth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org