Just how bad are Canada’s access to information laws? According to global rankings from the Centre for Law and Democracy, Serbia is the world leader in providing public access to information. The Balkan nation is followed by Slovenia, while India sits in third place.
Canada, bastion of freedom and totem of democracy that we are, plops in at 59th, behind countries like Belarus and Russia.
“It is not an impressive place to be,” said Toby Mendel, executive director for the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy.
Mendel was one of several panelists taking part in a discussion this past Monday at Halifax City Hall in honour of International Right to Know Week. Moderated by Nova Scotia’s information and privacy commissioner Catherine Tully, the panel stressed that Canada—and Nova Scotia—remain embarrassingly behind the rest of the world in access to information reforms.
“Saying the glass is half-full in Canada is being generous,” Mendel told the roughly 40 attendees.
But while Canada lags behind, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has jumped to the head of the pack. Put it this way: If Newfoundland was a country, it would rank 15th in the world for public access to information.
That’s the result of sweeping changes enacted this past June by Newfoundland’s Progressive Conservative government. Those reforms came about after an overwhelmingly negative response to previous efforts in 2012 to modernize the province’s access laws. Newfoundland deputy premier Steve Kent, along with Sean Murray from Newfoundland’s privacy and information office, were on hand at the Halifax panel to tell their story.
Kent told attendees it was largely media criticism and political opposition that helped Newfoundland’s government realize the errors of its disastrous 2012 legislation. While “still early days,” Kent says his province is committed to getting public information into the hands of the public who want it.
As such, this past week’s discussion coincided with the release of Newfoundland’s open government draft plan, which will be available as a wiki for public input and collaboration over the next month.
Compared to the rest of Canada, Nova Scotia fares slightly better in terms of CL&D’s rankings. But that’s not to say we’re without our own problems.
According to an annual report released this past June by Nova Scotia’s freedom of information and protection of privacy office, the province has seen processing fees and times increase over the last few years, while the proportion of information disclosed to the public has dropped. Nova Scotia is also still missing “essential modern protections” in privacy.
Only residents and legal entities can make requests in Nova Scotia, and many important public bodies remain excluded from legislation. Fees and the lack of an electronic request system also limits who can actually access public information.
The current Liberal government has made no new reforms to Nova Scotia’s FOIPOP legislation since taking power, but there have been some modest improvements as of late. Last year 78 percent of Nova Scotia’s 1,800 FOIPOP requests were completed within 30 days, and Catherine Tully and her office continue to clear out Nova Scotia’s backlog of old cases. This summer, the office also sent out an RFP for an open data portal to allow more information to be published pro-actively online, in turn bypassing the need for the public to request it at all.
Steve Kent says the rest of Atlantic Canada is at a unique moment because of what’s already happened in Newfoundland. He admits no government really wanted to be first out of the gate on sweeping information reforms. But no one will want to be last, either.
Kent is hoping other provinces feel that competitive itch and try to beat Newfoundland at its own game. That’s something the deputy premier says will be increasingly important. There’s going to be more and more public outcry for open data, and governments around the world need to get used to it.
“Governments need to learn to be vulnerable,” said Kent. “Be comfortable being uncomfortable.”