Public’s Right to Know in Failing Health in Canada

CNA Access to Information Study Slams Bureaucracies that Block Requests

For Canadians trying to get answers about how governments make decisions affecting their daily lives, odds are high that their requests for information will be denied. Success in accessing public information can depend on where you live, who you are, and how much money you are prepared to spend. That’s among the findings of a national audit of Canada’s freedom of information systems conducted by the Canadian Newspaper Association. The results were released today in 45 newspapers across Canada.

The CNA study found that while the federal government as well as Canada’s provinces and territories all have freedom of information legislation, in many cases compliance with these laws falls short. The CNA collected the experiences of reporters from 45 newspapers in ten provinces, acting as private citizens, who tested how bureaucrats obey laws guaranteeing the public’s right to know in their communities. Reporters visited city halls, police forces, school boards and federal government offices seeking public records on such routine matters as employee sick days, classroom sizes and road repairs. Government officials granted the information requested in just 32 per cent of in-person visits. Even when reporters paid fees for formal access requests, the information was fully or partially released in only 62 per cent of cases.

"This audit provides documentary evidence of something that newspapers have long suspected and we now know to be fact," said Anne Kothawala, President and CEO of the Canadian Newspaper Association. "The public’s right to government information that has an impact on our lives is in failing health, and will get worse unless we start fixing it."

Problems of red tape, poor disclosure, prohibitive fees, and incompliance with statutory time limits for responses can be found across all levels of government, although some jurisdictions perform better than others. Information that is free of charge in some provinces and municipalities can cost thousands of dollars in others. Reporters found huge inconsistencies in freedom of information policies across the country, ranging from poor disclosure in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick to a 93 per cent response rate in Alberta , which updated its freedom to information laws in recent years.

"Provinces that have better access laws show better results," observed Ms. Kothawala. "Perhaps this is not a coincidence."

A disturbing trend identified in the audit was the degree of questioning by bureaucrats aimed at people requesting information. In some cases, officials became more forthcoming once they learned the person seeking information was a reporter. Canada’s information laws stipulate the identities of those making requests and their reasons for wanting information need not be provided to access public records.