Knowledge is power
If there’s anything this pandemic has shown, it’s the importance of data that’s both accurate and timely.
In a novel and unexpected crisis, there is inevitably going to be screw-ups on the part of our public officials, both elected and unelected. In a functioning democracy, it’s vitally important for the public to know how those in positions of authority are responding to these catastrophic events. Knowledge is power, and knowing what the most powerful people in the land are up to is vital if they are to be held to account.
Canada’s Access to Information system has long been decried by investigative journalists and watchdog groups as not just slow and cumbersome but “broken.”
Departments have around a month to respond to requests for information, but can seek extensions to near perpetuity, leaving many veteran reporters with stories of getting heavily redacted documents years after they were requested. Their one avenue of recourse – a complaint to the information commissioner – only leads to more waiting, as the commissioner’s office is completely swamped.
Back in June, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard told a House of Commons committee that her office needed more staff to be effective. She highlighted the need for information that is timely, which isn’t attainable unless the government makes this issue a priority. “Openness and transparency in government has never been more important than it is during the pandemic,” she said. “The government needs to commit to proper resources and innovative solutions to ensure the right of access for all Canadians. Let’s not forget that access delayed is access denied.”
In another time, this would be a boutique concern, reserved for impatient journalists and researchers. It’s only during a disaster that this stuff gets on the public’s radar. The Liberals came to power with a promise to reform the Access to Information system, but have fallen far short of their stated goal of “requiring transparency to be a fundamental principle across the federal government.”
Yes, they are releasing more mandate letters and other mundane scripts, but they haven’t made a move to make substantial changes or commit more resources. Maynard’s predecessor, Suzanne Legault, was also critical of the government’s lack of transparency, saying that their amendments to the Access to Information Act back in 2017 were actually a step backwards. This gripe isn’t limited to just the feds either; the provinces have needed constant prodding to divulge important information, and even at the municipal/county level there is a tendency towards secrecy that is troubling.
As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and a healthy culture of open information is key to a functioning society.
Caleb Nickerson is the editor of The Equity newspaper serving the Pontiac region. Reprinted with permission.