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EDITORIAL: Access delayed

Locked folder, for use with editorial content regarding access-to-information.
Access to government information has been stymied by COVID-19. — 123RF Stock photo

When COVID-19 arrived on Canadian shores, many federal and provincial functions were abruptly put on hold.

The public’s right to know was one of them.

Federal, provincial and municipal access to information and freedom of information systems were slowed or stopped entirely as access staff found themselves working from home and separated from their normal routines and systems.

The federal explanation sounds reasonable enough: “The COVID-19 crisis has affected the processing of requests in many ways. Most federal employees, including Access to Information and Privacy Office staff, are working from home, and are unable to access the office to retrieve paper records or electronic records on higher-security networks that hold records classified as secret or above. … In many cases, ATIP offices are also unable to consult third parties outside government concerning the release of records they have provided to government, since those third parties are also affected by the crisis.”

Some Canadian cities and police forces have put freedom of information requests completely on hold.

But while that may be the logical and reasonable case, Canada’s federal information commissioner, Caroline Maynard, has warned the federal government that access law is in crisis and “may soon be beyond repair.”

There were already huge backlogs in requests long before COVID-19’s arrival. Now, Maynard warned in a letter to federal Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos, “My office anticipates that the delays we already see will only become worse the longer that alternative work arrangements are in place. Further, we anticipate that some Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) units will be completely overwhelmed when they resume their full duties.”

Not only that, Maynard pointed out that Canadians will expect and deserve a full and through explanation — including public disclosure — of the federal government’s actions during the pandemic. A properly functioning and reasonably prompt access to information system is clearly part of that disclosure — but even before COVID-19, we didn’t have that at the federal level.

But it’s not only the federal government.

Some Canadian cities and police forces have put freedom of information requests completely on hold. Some provincial governments have granted themselves lengthy or indefinite exemptions to legislated deadlines for providing requested information.

And still, cabinet ministers, communications staff and other civil servants seem perfectly comfortable with using access to information legislation to block access, refusing to provide details of government decisions while arguing “You’ll have to go through access to information for that.”

That response is still coming on a regular basis, even though the people directing you to the access system know full well that the system is virtually paralyzed.

In an Orwellian twist, access to information law — which gives the Canadian public the right to access government information, except for specific and limited exemptions — is giving politicians the functional ability to completely block that access.

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