Justice Minister Rejects Much-Needed Reforms to Canada’s 26-Year-Old Transparency Law

16 October 2009

Recommendations Called for Broad Expansion of Information Commissioner’s Mandate

Ottawa, Canada — In June 2009, the House of Commons Committee on access to information, privacy, and ethics made recommendations to modernize and expand the scope of Canada’s 26-year-old Access to Information Act. However, Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson rejected these recommendations as cumbersome and unnecessary, sparking complaints that the Conservatives are reneging on campaign promises.

Several recommendations from the Commons Committee would have greatly expanded the powers of the Information Commissioner. The committee urged changes to the law to provide the Information Commissioner with order-making power for administrative matters and with the discretionary ability to investigate complaints, to propose legislation, and to engage in public education and research.

According to Justice Minister Nicholson’s October 9 letter to the Commons Committee, expanding the powers of the Information Commissioner would create a shift in the nature of the Information Commissioner’s office from an Ombudsman model towards a quasi-judicial model, which would not be consistent with other Agents of Parliament.

Other recommendations called for the extension of the Access to Information Act to cover records related to Parliament and the courts, while still another recommendation would have expanded the scope of the Act over Cabinet papers.

The Commons Committee had also recommended that requesters be allowed direct recourse to the courts to litigate denials of information. But, according to Nicholson, these changes would increase the caseload burden on the Federal Court.

Suzanne Legault, interim Information Commissioner, pointed out that there is an “urgent need” to reform the Access to Information Act, because the Act has not evolved along with the drastic changes in modern information sharing and technology. “We really live in a world of digital information and the system hasn’t adjusted,” Legault said.

Similar problems plague the Privacy Act, as experts warn that Canada’s outdated Privacy Act does not account for modern technology, such as video surveillance or DNA testing. Currently, the Privacy Commissioner does not have any recourse to the courts when the government inappropriately discloses personal information.

“We’re very disappointed, actually,” said Chantal Bernier, Assistant Privacy Commissioner. “While we agree with the minister that privacy is well protected in Canada, we feel we can do better.”

by Yvette M. Chin

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