Government cover-ups. Destroyed documents. Manipulated records. It sounds like an episode of The X-Files. But for people using Canada's freedom of information laws to search out potentially damaging government information, it's an all too real scenario.
Two examples: In 1989, there was a request made under federal freedom of information laws for minutes of the Canadian Blood Committee, the group that managed the blood system during the early years of AIDS. The requested records were purposely destroyed by staff at the department of health to obstruct the request.
And in the early 1990s, when many freedom of information requests were made to the Department of National Defence in light of reports of military misconduct in Somalia, DND officials were found to have deliberately damaged or altered records to avoid releasing incriminating information.
But these are the rare, dramatic examples of corruption of Canada's information laws, says Alasdair Roberts, an associate professor in policy studies at Queen's University and author of the new report Limited Access: Assessing The Health Of Canada's Freedom Of Information Laws.
The real threats to our access to government information, Roberts says, are much more mundane and commonplace. "There's been a quiet, gradual undermining of the laws, that's allowing the government to make it harder for people to access information. Many of the older laws don't cover certain public institutions. And some governments have changed their laws to restrict access to certain records. And the situation is just getting worse."
Roberts' fascinating report (available at http://qsilver.queensu.ca/~foi/) provides a critical look at Canada's freedom of information (FOI) laws. The federal government and all provinces except Prince Edward Island have an FOI law. These laws keep governments honest and accountable by allowing citizens to find out, for instance, whether a program to remedy unemployment is really working, or how much relief money is being sent to a war-torn country.
Although journalists, businesses, legislators, unions, and interest groups regularly use these laws, the most common requests come from individuals who simply want to find out what the government has on them.
One of the major problems with the laws, Roberts notes, is "adversarialism", a kind of hostility toward the laws by bureaucrats and civil servants. That's led to a "sense among Canadians, if they even know about these laws at all, that these laws don't work. They don't believe it is an effective system. They don't believe that the government wants to co-operate."
Cutbacks have increased the already notorious delays. (Outgoing federal Information Commissioner John Grace calls delays in handing requests a "festering, silent scandal".) In Ontario, the number of requests for information handled within a month has dropped from 63 per cent of total requests to 39 per cent since 1992.
Governments also are beginning to contract out or delegate the delivery of public services to organizations and businesses not subject to FOI laws.
Governments also have begun raising the cost of requests - which led to a drop in requests - and they've started selling information. And information that's available for sale tends to be exempt from FOI laws.
For example, in 1994, an environmental advocacy group in British Columbia filed a request to the provincial ministry of the environment for terrain and resource inventory maps for the entire province. The ministry denied the request, telling the group it could buy the information for $30,000.
Roberts says FOI laws also tend to be badly monitored and reviewed, if they're assessed internally at all. "How are we supposed to know whether the laws work, if no one is tracking the most basic information?"
To remedy the situation, Roberts suggests "a principle of government openness as the public sector is restructured. We need to see how these changes will have an impact on FOI laws."
More important, he also says information commissioners need to be much more pro-active in overseeing FOI laws. "They need to do regular performance monitoring. Right now, they're like judges, they wait until there's a complaint to do something.
"But they need to go out on the beat and take action on agencies and individuals who are systematically undermining and abusing these laws."