“Information is the lifeblood of a democracy. Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions, and incompetent or corrupt governments can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.”
Montreal Gazette, 2005
Stephen Harper was commenting on the Liberal government of the day. This is the same Stephen Harper who became Prime Minister not long after, and soon began closing doors, shuttering windows, and building a guard post at the gate to control all and sundry comings and goings. His fellow caucus members in the Conservative/Reform Party are complicit in cutting off “the lifeblood of a democracy.” If for no other reason, this government deserves to fall.
There are a number of tools Mr. Harper, et al, is using to keep Canadians uninformed. One of the more effective is budget cuts. The Access to Information and Privacy divisions of government ministries, departments, and institutions, for example, are legislated to adhere to the provisions of two Acts, plus applicable departmental directives. Using Correctional Service of Canada as a sample familiar to me, when an information request is received at CSC, it returns an acknowledgement that includes this attachment:-
…………………………..Duty to Assist………………………….
The Federal Accountability Act and Treasury Board Secretariat directives apply to the Access to Information Act, and require that all government institutions “make every reasonable effort to assist” individuals making a request for records, regardless of who the requester is. The Correctional Service of Canada is committed to ensuring that we:
• Process your request without regard to your identity.
• Offer reasonable assistance throughout the request process
• Provide information on the Access to Information Act, including information on the processing of your request and your right to complain to the Information Commissioner of Canada.
• Inform you as appropriate and without undue delay when your request needs to be clarified.
• Make every reasonable effort to locate and retrieve the requested records under our purview.
• Apply limited and specific exemptions to the request records.
• Provide accurate and complete responses.
• Provide timely access to the requested information.
• Provide records in the format and official language requested, as appropriate.
• Provide an appropriate location within the government institution to examine the requested information
When applicable, requesters will be given the option of having their request processed informally. However, the requester should know that only formal requests are subject to the provision of the Act, including the right to complain.
For additional information, please refer to the Treasure Board Secretariat’s Directive on the Administration of The Access to Information Act, Frequently Asked Questions on the ATIP page of CSC’s internet site and/or contact the analyst responsible for processing your request.
The Act stipulates there is a 30 day time limit to respond to requests, but a provision permits the head of a government institution to invoke an extension of an additional 30 days under specified circumstances. A “requester” is entitled to complain to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and/or the Information Commissioner of Canada if the process or response doesn’t satisfy. My experience with CSC’s ATIP division has generally been positive, and even when answers to my requests linger beyond the permitted legislated time limits, I know the delays are most likely caused by the information source.
So, what happens when an office, or institution, or department does not follow through on what they are mandated to do, regardless of the reasons? Why, a requester files a complaint with the Commissioner, of course. But, budget cuts to that office means a complaint will wait about six months before an investigator can be assigned. In the meantime, the offending information source knows repercussions are far off, if at all, and the requester may have abandoned the enquiry to boot.
Here’s a suggestion. Reread the paragraph at the top of this post, and the next time you see a television spot in which our federal government is spending tax dollars to promote itself, give it a raspberry……and, remember where the “x” belongs in the 2015 election. Now, that’s not so hard, is it?