By Miles Kenyon
Canadian citizens are getting increasingly nosy. And according to the authors of a new book, that's a good thing. Your Right to Know, written by Jim Bronskill (Canadian Press) and David McKie (CBC), outlines how ordinary citizens can navigate Canada's murky Access to Information (ATI) system. From demanding financial transparency to environmental reports on local drinking water, people have the right to access government documents, an integral aspect of freedom of expression.
Bronskill sat down with CJFE to discuss the book, what prompted him and McKie to pen it, and how he thinks Canadians will benefit from accessing government information.
1. What prompted you to write a book aimed at better informing regular citizens on how to navigate Canada's access to information laws?
A few years ago a woman called me about frustrations in getting information from an agency concerning her deceased son. I told her about the complaints process available to users of the federal Access to Information Act. I'm not sure I helped very much, but the incident stuck with me. My co-author David and I teach these techniques in a journalism class, where we stress that reporters account for less than 15 per cent of requests each year. Statistics indicate average citizens are among the fastest-growing users of the federal law.
2. Are citizens becoming more concerned with being able to access government documents?
We see demands for greater transparency from public institutions of all kinds – people want to know how their money is spent and why decisions are taken. It could well be the influence of the Internet, which has brought a wealth of information to peoples' fingertips. In turn, they expect more from agencies that traditionally have not gone to great lengths to inform the public.
3. What kind of requests do you think citizens want to make? How do they differ from the requests that journalists are making?
Journalists – even ones working a specific beat – tend to request a broad range of information on various topics, including ones that pop up suddenly in the news. Citizens are likely to focus more on something that directly affects them or a particular cause – water quality in a nearby stream, a government project that might change their neighbourhood, or personal information about themselves held by an agency.
4. Since you've worked extensively in this area for years, what frustrates you most about current ATI procedures?
Two things: delays and blacked-out records. Many departments take months or even more than a year to answer requests. And often the records are censored – even though release of the information would not prevent a government agency from carrying out its duties. Sometimes these laws are used as tools to shield information.
5. According to the Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada's ATI legislation currently ranks 57th out of 100 countries. How do you think your book will urge voters to demand the government change its current laws?
We hope the book will encourage people to use the laws. And the more citizens use them, they will decide for themselves what works and what doesn't. We point out that if people are dissatisfied with freedom of information, they can let their politicians know. The old cliché "use it or lose it" is very applicable to the right to know.
6. Access to information requests saw an increase of 28 per cent in 2012-2013. Will more people making more requests tax an already beleaguered system?
The system may not be as beleaguered as some think. It's important to remember that about a dozen federal institutions receive a large percentage of the total number of requests. But many, many federal agencies get very few applications. Some historical perspective: Before the Access to Information Act took effect in 1983, officials estimated that federal departments might collectively receive about 70,000 requests annually, and we're only now seeing such levels. In addition, today's electronic document archives should make it easier for departments to store, retrieve and release records. Ideally, people wouldn't have to use these laws much at all, or only as a safety net. Government transparency would mean a great deal of information – from meeting minutes to ministerial correspondence – was already available on federal websites.
7. What's the most surprising thing you expect someone will discover when reading your book?
People will find it's relatively simple to request information. The access laws may seem complicated and off-putting – kind of like doing your taxes. But if new requesters follow the steps we lay out, they'll get the hang of it pretty quickly. And once they receive a package of records through the mail or in their electronic inbox, they'll be hooked.
8. If there is one thing you would like people to take away from your book, what would it be?
Information held by public institutions belongs to you and me, with limited and carefully defined exceptions. Don't be afraid to ask for it.