While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed Ottawa’s handling access to information requests, the country’s law enforcement agencies and defence department are often unable to meet legislated response requirements, government documents show.
Indeed, in some cases, compliance with legal requirements on freedom of information (FOI) is declining.
It’s a situation contributing to a lack of information from the federal government that Canadians need to participle fully in a democratic society, said Mount Royal University journalism Prof. Sean Holman.
He said governments are more in the business of denying information requests than they are about being open.
“We’re actually talking about the censorship of material prior to release,” he said.
And, it’s something Information Commissioner of Canada Carline Maynard identified in an April letter to federal Treasury Board president Jean-Yves Duclos.
“Given the scale of the pandemic response, institutions can anticipate a surge of access requests related to the government’s handling of the response to COVID-19,” Maynard wrote. “Without outstanding leadership and proper planning, we can foresee that the new backlog generated during the current crisis will become another systemic burden, further impeding a system that is already facing major challenges. Simply put, this cannot become the ‘new normal.’”
Glacier Media examined the most recent freedom of information reports from the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Coast Guard.
The reports detail how responsive each of the agencies is to information requests under the federal Access to Information Act (ATIP).
Department of National Defence (DND)
In a report to Parliament July 22, Maynard examined DND handling of requests. In her recommendations, she said other government institutions should take note. Canadians have a “quasi-constitutional right to access government information is not compromised,” she said.
Among recommendations were better record keeping about searches, greater use of technology instead of moving paper, increased communication with requesters, mandatory training in request handling, dedicated response officers in high-volume situations and knowledge of legislation to avoid obstruction problems.
In a February 28 response to her findings, Minister of National Defence and Vancouver South MP Harjit Sajjan wrote, “access to information is a critical right, and the department is committed to open government initiatives and is continually improving its access to information program.”
In 2017-18, the RCMP received 10,199 requests. Some 3,289 were held over from the prior year. For the year, 6,051 requests completed and 7,437carried forward.
For 2016-17,the force received 9,965 ATIP requests with1,454 ATIP requests outstanding from the prior fiscal year; 8,130 ATIP requests completed; and 3,289 ATIP requests carried forward to the next fiscal year
In 2015-16, the RCMP received 8,469 requests. There were 1,200 requests outstanding from the previous year. Some 8,122 requests were completed and 1,277 carried forward to the next fiscal year.
There was no explanation for difference between the 1,277 carried forward in 2015-2016 and the 1,454 outstanding from the same year.
An audit found compliance with the law for responding to requests continue to decline, 78.2% for 2015-16, 65.4% for 2016-17, and 33.5% for 2017-2018.
The number of complaints is also increasing. That number sat at 140 in 2014-2015, dropping to 120 the next year. It rose to 160 in 2016-2017 and leapt to 232 for 2017-2018.
In 2017, the force asked for 61 new employees to handle the caseload. It received 12.
The audit, released in March, said initiatives have been launched to improve effectiveness and efficiency but said “implementation of initiatives appears to be reactive with limited documented analysis to support management’s decision to pursue proposed initiatives.” It said the RCMP “would benefit from the development of a formal plan to manage the implementation of process improvement initiatives and measure their success.”
The 35% response time for 2017-2018 concerns Holman.
“It’s not just how the access offices are being run and the RCMP are being run that is getting in the way of disclosure,” he said. “It’s about the RCMP attitude toward disclosure.”
That, he said, should be a matter of public concern.
Canada Border Services
Canada Border Services said it has closed more files than it received in 2018-19. “Of the 1,362 requests carried over to fiscal year 2019–2020, 1,220 were on time and 142 were late,” the service’s January report to Parliament said.
The service said 94.3% of 2019-2020 requests were completed within the legislated timelines, an increase from 86.8% the previous year.
CBSA said it requested 2,237response time extensions in 2018-19, up 16% over the previous year, a change is attributed to an increase in requests.
For 2018–2019, 150 complaints were filed against CBSA, up 35.4% over 2017-18.
The intelligence agency’s February report to Parliament said it is seeing request increases year over year.
CSIS received 1,146 requests in 2018-2019 up from 851 in 2017-18 and 491 in 2016-17. The bulk come from the public followed by businesses and then media.
Although faced with a significant increase in volume from the previous fiscal year, the service closed 1,181 requests and maintained a high on-time compliance rate of 98.1 % with a 1.9 % deemed refusal rate. As of April 1, 2019, 10 requests received during the 2018-2019 fiscal year were in a deemed refusal situation.
CSIS noted a significant backlog of consultations involving Library and Archives Canada accumulated during the year “due to the immense number of records involving dated RCMP and CSIS security intelligence files as well as the complexity and sensitivity of the information contained therein. The service is working on identifying solutions to address this growing challenge.”
CSIS registered 25 new complaints in the period and closed 61. Some 83 remain active.
Holman said the “real problem” with the ATIP process generally is that it allows for exemptions and exclusions.
He said Canada should be looking at general releases of broad categories of information.
That’s something a group Holman is involved in called for in May, saying Canadians deserve greater information transparency and protection for whistleblowers.