ACCESS TO INFORMATION CRISIS LEAVES JOURNALISTS, CANADIANS IN THE DARK AMID COVID-19 SECOND WAVE
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HALIFAX/ TORONTO — As the COVID-19 pandemic’s second-wave continues to sweep across much of the country, the federal government has maintained a very cavalier approach to meeting its legal obligations under Canada’s Access to Information Act.
According to a 21 October report in the Winnipeg Free Press, less than half of federal access to information offices are currently operating at full capacity. This is because many departments have de-prioritized the processing of access to information requests, which has not been treated as “a critical service”, resulting in serious backlogs and no clear guidelines about when requests will be answered.
The pandemic is not an excuse for the government to ignore access to information legislation. In fact, with other accountability systems operating below par, and decisions of the utmost importance to our health, our rights, and our economy being taken regularly, government transparency is now more important than ever.
“In a pandemic, information can mean the difference between life and death,” said Brent Jolly, President of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ). “Under no circumstances can the pandemic be an excuse for undermining democracy.”
Canada lagging behind
All of the many actors which have conducted reviews of the Canadian access system over the past twenty years — including journalists, civil society organizations, successive Information Commissioners, and parliamentary committees — have concluded that Canada’s archaic Access to Information Act needs to be reformed. Plagued by overbroad exclusions and prohibitions, as well as discretionary and frequently abused grounds for delays, Canada ranks a dismal 50th place out of the 128 countries around the world with access to information laws, according to the Global Right to Information Rating produced by the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD).
“The current government has made expansive promises to reform the Access to Information Act both as part of its election manifestos and to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an…