On Oct. 7, the province’s Commission d’accès à l’information handed down its ruling in McGill’s case against a group of 14 students who had made multiple Access to Information (ATI) requests to the university. The ruling rejected McGill’s petition for the discretionary power to deny ATI requests the school judged as being “overly broad” or “frivolous,” while leaving open the question of whether the university can deny 19 specific contested ATIs made by various McGill students and alumni in late 2012. Yesterday, Oct. 21, McGill made public its decision to appeal the ruling. The mediation process of the parties involved is expected to begin near the end of November.
The court’s decision, which was a rejection of the sweeping and arbitrary powers the university was seeking, should be applauded. What was particularly egregious about the administration’s motion to the commission was that it explicitly sought to ban student journalists—specifically the McGill Daily and Concordia’s The Link—from accessing these records, due to their allegedly “abusive” and systemic nature.
While McGill’s dispute will continue to wind through a mediation process at the very least, the troubling issues this case raises about institutional transparency are not limited to the university. Last Thursday, federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault released her annual report to Parliament, with much of her announcement devoted to the state of Canada’s Access to Information system.
Due to a lack of staffing resources, many federal agencies are barely able or completely unable to meet their basic obligations under the Act: in one example highlighted, Parks Canada took no action on a request for documents on a national park for 11 months. For comparison, the original Act requires a 30 day response to the request from the institution. Such slow responses are endemic to federal agencies; Transport Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and Health Canada are also among the entities the Information Commissioner’s report highlights for slow ATI acknowledgements, lengthy deadline extensions, and fully missed deadlines. In the case of the RCMP, the agency does not have the staff to even acknowledge receiving an ATI request within the required 30 days.
The real harm of these delays is that they significantly erode the capacity for the ATI process to act as an accountability mechanism on federal agencies, for average citizens and journalists. When it takes nearly a year for an individual request to be acknowledged, the chances that the immediate circumstances which prompted the request will be substantially different by the time the documents are delivered—if ever—are quite high. Additionally, such a drawn-out process gives the impression to those petitioning information of deliberate stonewalling and evasiveness on the part of the government, even if the real reason for the delays is understaffing.
We have already seen the importance of having robust and functional official channels to hold governing bodies agencies accountable. The case of the continuing National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance revelations stemming from the tranche of documents leaked by Edward Snowden is instructive. In that case, weak or actively stymied congressional oversight, and an increasingly hostile prosecution of those who do bring official wrongdoing to light, created an environment where domestic spying programs were allowed to develop in a manner shielded from substantive debate and ultimately inconsistent with public opinion.
The issue of official transparency is one that is fundamental to any free society. While it remains to be seen how the ATI situation will be settled at the federal level and at McGill, as a publicly funded entity, we hope to see progress towards a more effective culture of openness at both institutions.