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Secrecy in Government in Canada

Access to Information Meets Excessive Secrecy in Canada


Dateline: 06/21/01

A Culture of Secrecy in the Canadian Public Service

Canadian Information Commissioner John Reid says that after 18 years some major federal government departments are still having problems delivering the federal government access to information program and that a culture of secrecy pervades the public service.

In his 2000-2001 annual report to Parliament, the Commissioner describes the relationship between the Office of the Information Commissioner and government departments as adversarial and confrontational. He says that the access to information process is plagued by delays and improprieties, including improper records-handling practices, using fees and extensions as a barrier to public access, inadequate searches and political interference.

The Commissioner says there is excessive secrecy in the federal government, and that officials follow a philosophy of "if in doubt, keep it secret." He also reports that there isn't a single government department doing a content analysis to see what they could make public on a routine basis.

Reform of the Public Service of Canada

Reid is especially concerned that a blue-ribbon panel set up to give recommendations on reforming Canada's public service could do more harm than good. He says he would rather see the Access to Information Act left alone than be made more "government-friendly."

The Information Commissioner says that public service reform will require a fundamental change in culture, moving the emphasis on values and ethics beyond lip service. He also says one of the government's highest priorities must be the resuscitation of an information-management structure that is terminally ill.

Access to Information Act

The Access to Information Act was passed in 1983 and gives Canadians the right to apply for and obtain copies of federal government records, including letters, memos, reports, photographs, recordings and computer files. The Act is based on "the principles that government information should be available to the public, that necessary exemptions to the right of access should be limited and specific and that decisions on the disclosure of government information should be reviewed independently of government."

Information Commissioner of Canada

The Information Commissioner of Canada, who reports directly to Parliament, investigates and mediates complaints from those who feel they have been denied rights under the Act. The Commissioner can also make recommendations to the federal government.

John Reid, Canada's Information Commissioner, served as a member of parliament from 1965 to 1984, and was the Minister of Federal-Provincial Relations in 1978-79. He has served as the Executive Director of the Forum for Young Canadians and as President of the Canadian Nuclear Association. He began a seven-year term as Information Commissioner in 1998.

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