Harper government’s new tactics to keep information secret troubles Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada

Information watchdog overwhelmed by complaints against Harper government by Deen Beeby, The Canadian Press, October 27, 2013, The Globe and Mail

A spokesman for Clement declined to comment, saying communications with Legault are confidential.

Flood of security-related complaints overwhelms staff of info watchdog by Dean Beeby, The Canadian Press, October 27, 2013, Calgary Herald
Canada’s information watchdog has been flooded with fresh complaints that the Harper government is too often citing security to withhold documents requested under the Access to Information Act. Suzanne Legault says that since April, her office has seen a surge in such complaints — prompting her to ask for more specially trained investigators. “I have observed a worrying trend in the number of new complaints of this type in the past four months,” Legault wrote in August to Tony Clement, president of the Treasury Board. “So far this fiscal year, we have received 107 new special delegation (security related) complaints, amounting to 80 per cent of the average number of incoming complaints that my office has previously received over the course of an entire year.” Legault said the problem has been growing over the last five years, but has become acute this year.

She has asked Clement to increase the number of her investigators who have special security clearance to probe these complaints, to 12 people from the current eight. “I believe that this increase is necessary in order for my office to deal with this year’s increase,” she said in an Aug. 21 letter to Clement, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. Clement’s office, which oversees the access-to-information system, has not yet responded. A spokesman for the minister, Aaron Scheewe, said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on any direct communications with Legault.

Legault’s comments suggest a resurgence in the use of these exemptions — Sections 13 and 15 of the Access to Information Act — to prevent the release of security-related documents. Emily McCarthy, assistant information commissioner, said the growing number of these cases is just one aspect of a striking rise in complaints from Canadians this year. “We’re really seeing an explosion in our inventory” of complaints, she said in an interview.

The largest number of complaints are about delays, fees and missed deadlines,
McCarthy says. In the first six months of this fiscal year, the number of complaints is almost 40 per cent ahead of the same time last year. The office currently has 378 security-related complaints either in process or awaiting investigation. Numerous critics have assailed what they see as the growing transparency deficit of the Conservative government, which first won office in 2006 partly on an election promise to improve access to information.

Legault has said the system is rapidly deteriorating, with departments routinely failing to meet legislated timelines in the release of information, and some institutions — such as the RCMP — refusing even to acknowledge the receipt of requests, much less respond to them. “I am seeing signs of a system in crisis, where departments are unable to fulfil even their most basic obligations under the Act,” Legault told a closed-door meeting of bureaucrats last month.

Clement has countered that no previous government has released more material under the Access to Information Act, and that requests are becoming more complex. Under the Access to Information Act, every resident of Canada can request records from the federal government for a $5 application fee. More than 40,000 such requests are received each year, many of them subject to exemptions and long delays. The information commissioner acts as a watchdog, investigating complaints and occasionally taking the government to court, though she lacks order-making powers. Almost 1,600 complaints were received in 2012-2013. The office currently has 41 people in its investigations unit, eight of whom have been given special security clearance by the RCMP to probe sensitive government files. Increasing the number to 12 would require an amendment to the Access to Information Act, amended previously in 2006 to double the number from four. [Emphasis added]

New government tactics to keep information secret troubles Canada’s open government advocate by Dean Beeby, The Canadian Press, September 27, 2013, Calgary Herald
Canada’s information watchdog is rebuking federal officials for dubious new tactics to thwart the freedom-of-information law. In a closed-door session with dozens of bureaucrats this week, Suzanne Legault cited a series of novel measures she says are damaging an already tottering system. “I am seeing signs of a system in crisis, where departments are unable to fulfil even their most basic obligations under the act,” Legault told the group. As an example, she cited a directive in April this year from the Treasury Board warning bureaucrats to steer clear of ministers’ offices when looking for documents to respond to an access-to-information request. The Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling in May 2011 largely protecting documents in a minister’s office, but Legault says the new directive goes much further. “This new component is not found in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision,” she said. “In my view, it is potentially damaging to requesters’ rights.”

The directive imposes strict conditions under which documents can even be requested from a minister’s office, and allows political staff members to make a final decision about whether the information is relevant to a request. Legault drew on other examples of departments that do not bother to retrieve and examine documents before claiming they are exempt or excluded from the Access to Information Act. She cited another case in which National Defence claimed a 1,110-day extension under the Act, and only produced the documents a few weeks before her Oct. 8 court challenge of the extension is to be heard in Federal Court. “This type of case is not rare,” Legault said.

Her remarks came during the annual Right to Know Week, a global event promoting government transparency. Related Ottawa-based conferences and meetings have been open, but Thursday’s session at Library and Archives Canada was closed to the public and media. A copy of Legault’s speaking notes was obtained by The Canadian Press. The speech noted that the number of complaints to her office is up by 35 per cent in the first five months of 2013-2014 compared with the same period last year, to almost 1,000. There has also been a 34 per cent increase in complaints where a department has responded with “no record exists.” … Canada, once a global leader in freedom-of-information, now is regarded as a laggard, with a badly outdated and poorly administered law born in the pre-Internet era. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:

Alberta privacy commissioner pushes for even more openness

New Report: Less than 1-percent of Tar Sands Environmental Infractions Penalized by Alberta’s “Best in the World,” “World-Class,” “No Duty of Care,” spying, lying and law violating ERCB (now AER)

Feds dispute Canada’s dismal ranking in report on freedom of information

LISTEN: New report says Alberta’s FOIP laws worst in country

Woman wins hard fought battle for information

Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner Orders Alberta Innovates to release baseline testing and water contamination investigation information, including draft reports [but the Alberta Research Council, name changed to Alberta Innovates, used the Ernst lawsuit to not comply with the Order and did not release the public baseline water testing data used by the Research Council to dismiss the dangerous methane in water contamination as natural or made by bacteria while not being able to explain where the methane came from]

Alberta among worst in responding to queries

Energy and Utilities Board found in contravention of FOIP

New FOIP documents confirm the EUB hired Private Investigators in past EUB proceedings ]

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