INFO WATCHDOG’S PARTING SHOT ECHOES PAST CRITICISM

Suzanne Legault isn’t the first and likely won’t be the last information commissioner to give the federal government a parting shot. (Graphic by Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada)

During her last week as Canada’s fifth information commissioner, Suzanne Legault excoriated the federal government’s secrecy and the Liberals’ failure to make it more open.1Daniel LeBlanc, “Information watchdog blasts Liberals ahead of her retirement,” The Globe and Mail, February 21, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/information-watchdog-blasts-liberals-ahead-of-her-retirement/article38060282/ (accessed February 22, 2018). But she’s far from the first commissioner to do so on their way out of office, a reminder of how long the federal freedom of information system has been broken and the equally long chances of it ever being fixed. For example:

  • in her final annual report, which was released on May 18, 1990, Canada’s first information commissioner Inger Hansen wrote that she remained convinced “the political will in support of freedom of information could be stronger,” “the bureaucratic resistance to freedom of information could be stronger” and “the tendency to withholding government information should give way to attitudes favouring disclosure;”2Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1989-90 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1990), 2.

  • in his final annual report, which was released on June 4, 1998, Canada’s second information commissioner John Grace wrote, “A culture of secrecy still flourishes in too many high places even after 15 years of life under the Access to Information Act. Too many public officials cling to the old proprietorial notion that they, and not the Access to Information Act, should determine what and when information should be dispensed to the unwashed public. If bold boasts are to be believed, some have taken to adopting the motto attributed to an old New York Democratic boss: ‘Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink;’”3Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1997-1998 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 3. and

  • in his final annual report, which was released on June 13, 2006, Canada’s third information commissioner John Reid wrote, “After almost 23 years of living with with the Access to Information Act, the name of the game, all too often, is how to resist transparency and engage in damage control by ignoring response deadlines, blacking-out the embarrassing bits, conducting business orally, excluding records and institutions from the coverage of the Access to Information Act, and keeping the system’s watchdog overworked and under-funded.”4Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 2005-2006 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 6.

Even Robert Marleau, who failed to finish his seven-year term as the country’s fourth information commissioner and was criticized for being “more lapdog than attack-mutt,”5Greg Weston, “PM is the biggest muzzle master yet,” Whitehorse Star, March 16, 2009. wrote, “Much more is needed to bring about a true culture of openness and transparency, and allow Canada to regain its status as a leader in the area of access to information.”6Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report 2008-2009: Maximizing Compliance for Greater Transparency (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 2009), 1. As such, the question isn’t when the government will do that, since both the Liberals and Conservatives have repeatedly demonstrated they won’t. The question is whether Canadians care.

References   [ + ]

1. Daniel LeBlanc, “Information watchdog blasts Liberals ahead of her retirement,” The Globe and Mail, February 21, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/information-watchdog-blasts-liberals-ahead-of-her-retirement/article38060282/ (accessed February 22, 2018).
2. Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1989-90 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1990), 2.
3. Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 1997-1998 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 3.
4. Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report Information Commissioner 2005-2006 (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 1998), 6.
5. Greg Weston, “PM is the biggest muzzle master yet,” Whitehorse Star, March 16, 2009.
6. Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, Annual Report 2008-2009: Maximizing Compliance for Greater Transparency (Ottawa, ON: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 2009), 1.

2 thoughts on “INFO WATCHDOG’S PARTING SHOT ECHOES PAST CRITICISM

  1. Dean Beeby

    Thanks, Sean, for your always helpful perspective. It remains to be seen whether the new information commissioner is more lapdog than watchdog. I am worried about how her appointment, by the government, may be intended to dampen criticism of Bill C-58. If that legislation passes, I am convinced our work as journalists using ATIA will be made much more difficult.

    Reply
    1. Sean Holman Post author

      Thanks Dean! Her appointment worries me too. In a different time, there might have been a hue and cry over how a bureaucrat will now be watchdogging the secretive system they once worked in. But times change and not always for the better.

      Reply

Leave a Reply