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Canada: Submission to Access to Information Act Review

The Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) are today releasing their joint Submission to the formal review of Canada’s federal Access to Information Act (ATIA), launched in June 2020. Many of the recommendations for change raised in the Submission have featured in previous submissions by CLD, the BCCLA and various other stakeholders, demonstrating the need for the federal government to abandon its piecemeal approach to amending the ATIA in favour of root-and-branch reform.

There is an unfortunate continuity to many of the problems that have plagued the ATIA for decades now,” said Toby Mendel, CLD’s Executive Director. “This review is an opportunity for the federal government to act in good faith with Canadians and finally engage in far-reaching reform so as to give Canadians the modern accountability mechanism they deserve.”

Although Canada was one of the early countries to adopt a law giving individuals a right to access government documents or right to information (RTI) law, in 1982, the ATIA has not been significantly reformed since then. According to the RTI Rating, CLD’s internationally recognised methodology for assessing the strength of RTI Laws, the federal Canadian law scores 93 out of 150 possible points, placing it in 52nd place out of the 129 countries currently on the RTI Rating, far behind leaders such as Mexico, Sri Lanka and Slovenia.

The joint submission makes several recommendations to reform the ATIA, including:

  • The scope of the ATIA should be expanded to include all executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; constitutional, statutory and oversight bodies; Crown corporations; and any public or private entity, including corporations, which is owned, controlled or substantially funded by a public authority or which performs a statutory or public function.
  • Much stricter limits on extensions of the deadline for responding to a request for information should be imposed, such as a hard cap of 60 days or a requirement to get permission from the Information Commissioner for extensions beyond 30 days.
  • The regime of exceptions should be fundamentally revised, to include the following changes:
    • All class exceptions, which exclude categories of information entirely from the coverage of the Act, should be removed.
    • In case of conflict between the ATIA and a secrecy provision in another law, the rules in the ATIA should prevail.
    • Exceptions should be: narrowly tailored to protect only interests which are legitimate under international law; apply only where disclosure would pose a risk of harm to a protected interest; and not apply where, notwithstanding the risk of harm, the public interest in disclosure outweighs that harm (the public interest override).
    • Exceptions which protect a public interest should cease to apply after a maximum of 20 years (known as a sunset clause).

The Submission can be found here.