Access to Information reform: “Let’s get it right”

by Anne Kothawala

(Remarks to the Riley Information Services Seminar on Access to Information, Ottawa, September 8, 2005)

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Tom, I have to say first of all that I am really impressed with the quality of individuals that you have brought together here today. And I don’t just mean the speakers, who are impressive in their own right. I mean all our participants, in this room.

It’s a privilege to be among you, and I thank you for letting Canada’s daily newspaper industry engage with you in dialogue. For that is what I hope this day will achieve – a dialogue. I will know we have been successful when views from all sides get discussed in depth. And so I hope that none of you see yourselves as passive listeners, but as active participants, warmly encouraged to join in.

Tom referred to a national discussion on access to information reform, a discussion that the Canadian Newspaper Association has been encouraging for close to a decade. Let me say a few things about how we see this issue from our perspective in the newspaper industry, and in so doing give credit to some of the people who I think have helped us solve a mystery.
Information is the raw material of news. Freedom of information and freedom of the press are two freedoms hewn from the same stone. To impede one is to frustrate the other. To deny access is to prevent us from playing the watchdog role that citizens tell us is our core function and also their main expectation from us. We hear this from citizens across the social spectrum, from ordinary people reading their daily newspaper at the bus-stop, to the people on the bench of the Supreme Court of Canada.

It’s also a fundamental underpinning of our democratic system. No other industry I know is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The drafters of our Charter understood that an informed public is a critical strand in the DNA of democracy.
The CNA has been lobbying for reforms to the federal Access to Information Act since 1997. Our purpose has been to remove barriers that journalists encounter when seeking information about government decisions, information the public has a right to in law.

We are not alone in this campaign, but it’s not a crowded field either. I want to give credit to several people - you will actually hear from some of them today. They are not the only ones who have worked to move the national discussion on ATI forward. But each of the people I will mention has contributed one of the pieces to solve a puzzle that has preoccupied newspapers for some time.

Ann Rees, journalism instructor at Kwantlen University College in Langley, British Columbia, and a former journalist as well as Atkinson Fellow, found the first piece of the puzzle. Her ground-breaking research into the federal government’s Access to Information management systems revealed for the first time how media requests and others deemed “politically sensitive” are flagged for special treatment. If you have not read Ann Rees’s work, published in the Toronto Star in the Fall of 2003, I encourage you to do so.

Next: an academic and scholar who has worked closely with CNA on a number of projects and whose forthcoming book on new challenges to open government is eagerly awaited across North America and around the world. You must have guessed I am talking about Alasdair Roberts, formerly of Queen’s and now Associate Professor in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. We are honoured that Al has found time to share his insights with us today. Few scholars have explored the Byzantine pathways of Canada’s federal bureaucracy as painstakingly as he has, armed with nothing more than a pencil flashlight, cool intellectual curiosity, and an unwavering belief in the public’s right to know.

Among Al’s many res