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 Concordias 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 cant have access to information if information isnt
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
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 dont keep information, then you cant find it when you
need it, he told students after his presentation. Digital
format is interesting, but its extremely fragile.