Speaking Notes for Nancy Bélanger, Deputy Commissioner, Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada

Canadian Access and Privacy Association (CAPA)

Ottawa, Ontario
November 27, 2017

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Introduction

Thank you for inviting me, Larry. I am always very pleased to take part in your annual conference.

I will begin by admitting something to you. As I was working on this presentation, I had trouble finding a topic or a theme. You are the experts on the issue of access. You are aware of everything that is going on in our wonderful world. I therefore asked myself what could I tell you that you don’t already know.

At the same time as I was struggling to find a topic, my children were reminding me, constantly, that December is around the corner. That holiday spirit has hit them early! So, it dawned on me, December is always a time to reflect on why we do what we do and what will be on our plate in the next year. I will also tell you about OIC’s ongoing priorities.

So why do we care and why do we work so hard to secure access to information for Canadians?

Access to information = building block for democracy

We would all agree that government transparency and access to information is a core principle in a functioning democracy.  

The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized it: you need information to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and this in turn ensures that government remains accountable.

As you all likely know, in 1946, the United Nations General Assembly declared that access to information is a basic human right. Those of you who have participated in the conference on Right to Know Day will remember the presentations of experts who gave a number of examples of its importance to citizens around the world.

We heard that in India, citizens continue to exercise their access rights so they can access their food rations, ensure their children’s schools are built with the required materials and that their children are safe inside these schools.

We heard that access to information gives a voice to women around the world, empowering them in areas such as education, crop production, land ownership and healthcare.

Basically, we see information at the crux of social and economic change. Access to information can inspire and leverage positive changes in terms of every day essentials such as human rights, food, education, pensions, land, safety and criminal justice.

Freedom of information is strongly linked to the success of democracies, national and economic security, business competitiveness, human rights, Indigenous rights, media and personal freedoms, and citizen engagement. It generates dialogue, promotes inquiry and encourages growth and stability.

Access to information ensures that people have a chance to increase their power when dealing with a government institution, at a time when the government’s ability to collect information is increasing exponentially.

We are lucky here in Canada. Our privacy and access to information traditions are relatively strong. Most citizens believe they have a right of access and know how to ask for it. In fact, last year alone, the Government of Canada received over 70,000 ATI requests, and the majority of these requests came from citizens, not media.

But despite this, when I try to explain my work to my mom and dad -- it somewhat goes over their head.  Not because they are not intelligent or interested, but because I guess they have not felt the need to exercise their right, so far.

But when I tell my parents:

  • That many access requests were used by Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle to reveal the high number of “unfounded” claims of sexual assault documented by police forces across the country, they get it!
  • When I tell them that a mother or father uses access requests in order to find out how their child died in a penitentiary, they get it!
  • When I tell them that requests are made for how much taxpayer dollars are being reimbursed following grants and contributions to a huge multi-million corporation, they get it!
  • When I tell them that access requests are being used to understand what is going on in relation to education rights of Indigenous children on reserves, they also get it!

My point is that we can’t get caught up in the intellectual discourse of it all. We need to remember the practical impact that your daily work has on Canadians.  

It’s easy, amidst the volume of requests, the volume of records to process, the lack of resources, to forget the importance of that work.

It is of utmost relevance to Canadians and it is pivotal to a healthy democracy. And Democracy is fragile, so we can never take any of the positive steps for granted and we must continue to push for more. 

So as we look to the future, I ask that you please never forget the contribution that you are making to democracy. Canadians count on you.

What is going on at the OIC

I now would like to take a moment to talk to you about some projects we are currently working on at the Office of the Information Commissioner, and which may be of interest to you and your organizations.

Like many of you, we’ve had a very busy fall. 

We are continuing our investigations and various projects, while making sure that we prepare for the transition that will result from the possible appointment of a new commissioner.

This afternoon, the Commissioner will ask the ETHI Committee to approve the receipt of additional funding to allow us to continue to process our complaints inventory.

The Office of the Commissioner will also publish two advisory notices: one on the use of subsection 10(2), including our notice on those situations where it is permitted not to confirm or deny the existence of files, and the other, on the implications of the Porter decision related to third-party information. We intend to consult the institutions regarding these notices in the near future.

We also expect to go ahead with the launch of our first online complaint form on December 6.

This application was developed in consultation with stakeholders, journalists and coordinators. We received a number of comments that we were able to apply. This online form is a work in progress, and it is still possible to improve it. We would therefore be pleased to receive your comments and suggestions once you have had an opportunity to become more familiar with the application!

We also have several files in litigation. My colleague will talk about them later on this afternoon.

And of course, I cannot go on with my presentation without mentioning Bill C-58. 

Following the tabling of the Bill in June, the Commissioner tabled a report in Parliament. This report examines several concerns regarding the Government’s proposals.

The concerns focus in part on:

  • the specific criteria that must be met for an access request to be considered; section 6 will require that requesters indicate the subject, type of document requested and dates within which the documents are requested.
  • the possibility that fees could once again be required. The Bill provides for the possible adoption of regulations that would allow for the imposition of fees.
  • the new review model that is being considered. The effectiveness of a real order-making model will not be achieved with the proposed model. Moreover, the need for the role of the Privacy Commissioner early on in our investigation processes will hamper the effectiveness of our investigations. 

The committee mandated to review the Bill has made some recommendations that the Office of the Commissioner is examining.

The Bill is still before Parliament, and we are awaiting its third reading. The Bill should then follow the legislative process right up to the Senate.

Concluding remarks

Ultimately, we will need to work together to develop processes and understandings to implement Bill C-58 in whatever shape it looks like when it obtains Royal assent.

We will also need to work together to advance open government initiatives, including open information, with an integrated vision. 

As we look to the future, we count on your continued support for the benefit of all Canadians.

Thank you for your attention and I would be happy to answer any questions.