GOLDSTEIN: Trudeau’s government is neither open or transparent

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While the Trudeau government committed itself to freedom of information when it was elected in 2015, it’s acting as if what it really believes in is freedom from information, based on the testimony of federal Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard before the Commons ethics committee this week.

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She said government agencies, legally required to respond to FOI requests within 30 days, miss that target almost 40% of the time, ignoring the public, the deadline and the law.

In testimony first conveyed by Blacklock’s Reporter, Maynard said that as a result, her office is receiving thousands of complaints about the lack of timely responses to FOI requests — 1,000 this month alone — adding to a backlog of 4,000 cases awaiting decisions going back as far as 2010.

(New Democrat MP Matthew Green said one of his constituents has been told he will have to wait 80 years for the RCMP to release the information he wants.)

Maynard said departments are using the pandemic as an excuse for even longer than usual delays in releasing information under FOI and the government has not shown leadership in addressing this unacceptable excuse.

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“Across the federal access to information regime, government institutions have had more than two years to adapt to the reality of a pandemic and the challenges it brought to our daily lives and our work environment,” she said. “This is not acceptable, institutions must live up to their legislative obligations.”

Last year, exacerbated by the pandemic, Maynard’s office received 7,000 complaints from the public about delayed FOI requests, a 70% increase over the previous year. While her office de ella was able to close nearly 6,800 cases the backlog keeps growing.

“In concrete terms, this means that Canadians are not getting timely resolution of their complaints for access to information requests,” Maynard said. “We are at risk of not being able to provide even the most basic minimum service to Canadians… All of this paints a bleak picture of the state of access in 2022.”

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Aside from a lack of staff, expertise and technological resources to handle FOI applications—some agencies are still using paper records—Maynard said the larger problem is a culture of secrecy within the government as opposed to openness and transparency.

That means it only considers releasing information that should have been released as a matter of course if someone specifically asks for it and then only reluctantly.

Another major problem is the automatic prohibition on releasing documents labeled “secret” and “top secret” going back decades, with no one in government evaluating whether they still need to be kept secret today, or establishing a review process so that such decisions can be made in a timely way.

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Given the reluctance of the Trudeau government to release information under FOI requests — and this is my observation, not Maynard’s — it calls into question the credibility of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claims of “national security” and “cabinet confidentiality” when he refuses to disclose information on issues such as his decision to invoke the Emergencies Act and his conduct in the Lavscam scandal.

While the problem of excess government secrecy predates the Trudeau government, it was Trudeau himself who said in his 2015 election platform that “government data and information should be open by default, in formats that are modern and easy to use” and pledged to “update the Access to Information Act to meet this standard.”

It’s hardly the first time he’s talked the talk, but not walked the walk.

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