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CAJ remarks at committee on Bill C-58

CAJ President Nick Taylor-Vaisey appeared at a meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on Oct. 25. The committee is studying Bill C-58, which would amend the federal Access to Information Act. These were his opening remarks:

Thank you for inviting us to appear here today. I’m Nick Taylor-Vaisey, the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists. I’m here today in that capacity, and do not speak on behalf of my employer. Today, I’m speaking to you from Toronto, but our National Board represents almost every corner of Canada. The CAJ is a truly national association of working journalists with members all over the country, and across all forms of media.

Before we offer you our thoughts on how this committee could proactively improve the access-to-information reform on the table in the form of Bill C-58, I’d like to tell you a bit about the CAJ.

The CAJ was founded in 1978 as the Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organization that encouraged and supported investigative journalism. Over the years, we broadened our mandate, and now offer high-quality professional development, primarily at our annual national conference; and outspoken advocacy on behalf of journalists.

Our members include some of the most dogged investigative reporters in the country—journalists who have read freedom-of-information laws back and forth and actively use them to inform their stories. They serve the public interest by digging up information their readers require to be informed citizens.

As you know, because you see it every day, excellent journalism reshapes public policy and improves people’s lives. An effective access-to-information law allows journalists, and by extension the broader public, to be better informed. At an even more basic level, a good law serves the public’s right to know.

This committee is well aware of the need for access to information reform. You’ve studied this issue exhaustively and made important and necessary recommendations to the government. You now have before you a bill that the government has called “the most comprehensive reform of Access to Information in a generation.”

Of course, the information commissioner’s opinion is different. She has said C-58 would “result in a regression of existing rights.” Heather Scoffield from the Canadian Press told you earlier this week that her Ottawa bureau, one of the most active in Canada when it comes to using the law, is “alarmed” to “see more ways for the government to turn us down and deny us information.”

The CAJ hopes the committee will work to change several damaging aspects of C-58.

1. The government promised to expand the number of offices, including ministers’ offices, that were subject to the Act. Instead, C-58 subjects ministers’ offices to increased proactive disclosure. You’d be hard-pressed to find a journalist who doesn’t celebrate increased proactive disclosure. The problem is that governments control what is proactively disclosed, and a strong access-to-information law actually shifts that balance of power to the public. The CAJ urges the government to keep its election promise and subject ministers’ offices to the right of access.

2. C-58 would allow departments to decline to act on requests deemed “vexatious or made in bad faith.” Both the information commissioner and this committee recommended the government add a bad-faith clause to the law. But the proposed clause could kill requests that don’t include narrowly defined criteria, including the specific subject matter of the request, the type of record being requested, or the period for which the record is being requested. As journalists go about their work, they will not always have all of that information at their disposal—but to dismiss requests lacking only certain details as “vexatious or in bad faith” is an unnecessary overreach. The CAJ urges the committee to remove the amendments to sec. 6 from C-58.

3. C-58 doesn’t give the information commissioner effective order-making power. The bill does technically enshrine order-making power, but the information commissioner has criticized the toothlessness of that element of C-58. She has also suggested a different approach that would enact real enforceability. The CAJ supports her recommendations.

4. C-58 is a step backwards on fees for access. Early on in its mandate, the government made a decision to waive all fees except for the mandatory $5 application fee. C-58 reintroduces those fees, and only says they “may be prescribed by regulation.” Fees act as a barrier to access, and the CAJ believes the government should follow its interim directive of 2016.

Ultimately, journalists are hoping for an access to information law that shifts the culture within government, including both political actors and the broader public service. C-58 will not get there. It adds new restrictions to the right of access and, outside of more government-managed proactive disclosure, won’t instill a culture of openness by default. Journalists will spend more time clarifying or appealing requests, often with no clear path to a resolution and sometimes at a significant financial cost. And access to information co-ordinators, who are often caught between journalists and citizens who want information and government officials who don’t want to give it up, will continue to have one of the most unenviable jobs in the public service.

Thank you for your time. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about the CAJ’s recommendations.

 

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