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October 26, 2000 Information Commissioner decries 'culture of secrecy'



by Kate Shingler

The nature of government in Canada has changed in the last five years, according to Information Commissioner John Reid.

“When governments downsized, they got rid of all their experts,” Reid told about 150 Journalism students at Concordia’s Bryan Building recently. “The information-handlers have all been fired.”

This visit took place before the National Post published his charges last week that the government was stonewalling his staff.

Reid, a nuclear-energy lobbyist and former Liberal cabinet minister, helped draft the Access to Information Act, which was passed in 1983 under the Trudeau administration. The Act provides Canadians with the legal right to obtain information on federal government institutions. The Privacy Act, which was passed in the same bill, accounts for 13 narrowly described exemptions to the Act.

“You can’t have access to information if information isn’t in a coherent setting,” Reid said. The problems with the system today stem from new civil servants who have neither the experience nor the knowledge to organize and file pertinent information.

Reid, who acts as an ombudsman, was appointed by Parliament in 1998 to investigate claims that the government has abused rights under the 17-year old Act. “We are the problem,” he said forcefully. “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

A passionate believer in the need for open, accountable government, Reid spoke of his own frustrations with the Act in the past few decades in a speech made to the Canadian Newspaper Association in November of last year.

“I was struck by how many hurdles we face in this country in reaching the open government promise Parliament made when it passed the Access to Information Act,” he said. “At the top of the list, there is the hurdle of attitude within the public service. Even after 16 years, the culture of secrecy is alive and well; the access law is, all too often, administered as a secrecy law rather than an openness law.”

Reid did not address the issue of cabinet secrecy in his speech yesterday, but spoke more of the difficulties of information retention. “If you don’t keep information, then you can’t find it when you need it,” he told students after his presentation. “Digital format is interesting, but it’s extremely fragile.”