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Reforming Canada’s Access to Information Laws & Practice

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It’s “Right to Know” week in Canada. It is off to an interesting start.   Canada’s Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, announcement in her Annual Report that she will be engaging in a public dialogue as she prepares to make recommendations to Parliament to revise Canada’s access to information laws (even as the budget for her office has been slashed).

The federal Access to Information Act is 30 years old. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick can claim bragging rights to the oldest access to information legislation in Canada, dating from 1977 and 1978 respectively. In most jurisdictions in Canada, there have been no major revisions to access to information laws (1) to account for the volumes of electronic data, public-private partnerships, and Crown and shared governance corporations that have burgeoned in the decades that have followed or (2) to account for the opportunities that information technologies present for sharing that data with citizens.

However, governments across Canada are increasingly embracing the concept of “Open Government”.  Open Government is an initiative to leverage information collected by governments by making it available to citizens and businesses in a proactive way. At the federal level, Open Government involves three main “streams”: (1) Disclosing information in readily useable formats (Open Data). (2) Proactively releasing information (Open Information); and (3) Engaging Canadians directly in policy development through Web 2.0 technologies (Open Dialogue).

British Columbia may be the furthest ahead in embracing Open Government. British Columbia is already proactively releasing information that is commonly requested. In addition, British Columbia has committed to releasing the results of individual access to information requests. However, it has been a bumpy ride with allegations by the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, that British Columbia is failing to electronically post about 67% of completed access requests.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, Dr. Anne Cavoukian, held a conference last week regarding Open Data. Key to the Ontario Commissioner’s initiative is her “Access by Design” principles. These principles are to inform new government initiatives so that information is “pushed out” to the public more proactively to avoid the overburdened and inefficient access to information process.

Could we be seeing some traction for reform?