Access to information abuses show that Governments are still hoarding their secrets

There have been a series of stories about how the federal and provincial governments continue to abuse access to information laws (also known as freedom of information). These laws are supposed to give Canadians access to government records – records made by people whose salary they pay.

Of course, this isn’t happening the way it should. Governments departments, agencies and universities covered continue to find new and creative ways to deny information to requestors. Sometimes illegally, as it turns out. In Ottawa, the Privy Council Office and other departments have taken to the practice of encouraging people to accept accelerated processes which allow them to exclude documents without proper authority. The Information Commissioner has slapped them on the wrist for this, and many are calling for the legislation to be tightened and penalties made more severe.

Also in Ottawa, the government has basically killed a process that was set up to review and release documents relevant to the Afghan detainee controversy. There were about 40,000 documents to be reviewed – only 4,000 were released. Using this time-tested method – Jean Chretien used the same basic approach with the Somalia Inquiry – they now proclaim themselves vindicated.

In Ontario, the Ombudsman, André Marin, lambasted the provincial government for its secrecy. Marin is one of only a handful of watchdogs in Canada who isn’t afraid to take on the government and fulfill his mandate aggressively.

But until there are real consequences for the bureaucrats and political aides that perpetrate the abuses, things are unlikely to change. And that means the way we are most likely to hear the real story is through a whistleblower.

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Government is too secretive: Ont. Ombudsman
CNews, June 21, 2011
Summary: It’s the public’s information, and as much of it as possible should be released, said Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin.

Secrecy causing problems for Ontario government, ombudsman says
Ottawa Citizen, June 21, 2011
Summary: A spate of cover-ups in Ontario jails is raising red flags for the provincial ombudsman. Andre Marin says his office has received a number of complaints surrounding use-of-force incidents by guards where there is no corresponding report or where pages are missing from reports.

Weston: A consistent move on Afghan detainees
CBC News, June 23, 2011
Summary: In a hail of political spin and censor’s black-out, the Conservative government has announced it is shutting down the latest investigation of Canada’s role in the treatment of Afghan prisoners, calling the exercise a waste of time and money. If nothing else, the move is perfectly consistent with the Conservative government’s promise of transparency.

PCO delivers ‘bad service’ on access to information, ‘antithesis’ of duty-to-assist requirement, says access czar
The Hill Times (Ottawa), July 4, 2011
Summary: In her annual report, Access to Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault slammed the PCO for using a practice, now recently dropped, to prematurely exclude records it thought were Cabinet confidences without going through the proper channels.

Many public servants aren’t standing up to political interference in access act: Drapeau
The Hill Times (Ottawa), July 4, 2011
Summary: Many of Canada’s federal public servants aren’t standing up against political interference in access to information requests and are continually “looking over their shoulders” because there is no support from their senior public service leaders or from their political masters, says one of the country’s leading experts on access to information.

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