FOI in Canada: delays and denials block FOI system

When journalists from across Canada asked government officials for 85 public records ranging from court documents, to local water-quality reports, to federal food-safety warnings, the answer was no nearly half the time.

Even after filing formal written requests under information laws, journalists were still unable to pry basic public records from government filing cabinets in 41 per cent of cases.

Findings from the third annual National Freedom of Information Audit illustrate how government secrecy undermines the public's right to know, says Anne Kothawala, president of the Canadian Newspaper Association, which conducted the audit.

“Year after year, newspapers show through this exercise that many Canadian governments have a flawed understanding of the importance of transparency to the democratic system,” she said. “But transparency is exactly what underpins the accountability principle at the heart of it all. You can't have one without the other.”

“A lot of people are very frustrated,” said Michael Dagg, an Ottawa-based researcher who files hundreds of information requests a year on behalf of clients. “Recently a client paid fees in the thousands of dollars for records and the department then said they were giving themselves an extension of 365 days.”

Mr. Dagg said Canadians face a culture of secrecy in government: “[Information] requests are a bit like mosquito bites. Until there are thousands and thousands of them, the system won't change. The problem now in Canada is we don't have enough requests. There's not enough pressure on the system.”

Delay, denial and stonewalling still clog FOI system (Globe and Mail, 22 September 2007)