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National Newswatch

OTTAWA - Canada's information watchdog is rebuking federal officials for dubious new tactics to thwart the freedom-of-information law.

In a closed-door session with dozens of bureaucrats Thursday, Suzanne Legault cited a series of novel measures she says are damaging an already tottering system.

"I am seeing signs of a system in crisis, where departments are unable to fulfil even their most basic obligations under the act," Legault told the group.

As an example, she cited a directive in April this year from the Treasury Board warning bureaucrats to steer clear of ministers' offices when looking for documents to respond to an access-to-information request.

The Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling in May 2011 largely protecting documents in a minister's office, but Legault says the new directive goes much further.

"This new component is not found in the Supreme Court of Canada's decision," she said. "In my view, it is potentially damaging to requesters' rights."

The directive imposes strict conditions under which documents can even be requested from a minister's office, and allows political staff members to make a final decision about whether the information is relevant to a request.

Legault drew on other examples of departments that do not bother to retrieve and examine documents before claiming they are exempt or excluded from the Access to Information Act.

She cited another case in which National Defence claimed a 1,110-day extension under the Act, and only produced the documents a few weeks before her Oct. 8 court challenge of the extension is to be heard in Federal Court.

"This type of case is not rare," Legault said.

Her remarks came during the annual Right to Know Week, a global event promoting government transparency. Related Ottawa-based conferences and meetings have been open, but Thursday's session at Library and Archives Canada was closed to the public and media.

A copy of Legault's speaking notes was obtained by The Canadian Press.

The speech noted that the number of complaints to her office is up by 35 per cent in the first five months of 2013-2014 compared with the same period last year, to almost 1,000. There has also been a 34 per cent increase in complaints where a department has responded with "no record exists."

The Access to Information Act came into force in 1983, and now attracts well over 30,000 requests each year. Although originally envisioned as a tool for citizens to hold governments accountable, the Act now is mostly used by businesses and lawyers to further commercial or client interests.

Canada, once a global leader in freedom-of-information, now is regarded as a laggard, with a badly outdated and poorly administered law born in the pre-Internet era.

This fall, Legault is set to table a potentially damaging report on political interference at the Public Works Department. The inquiry stems from an incident in 2009 when a political aid to the Public Works minister ordered documents withheld from The Canadian Press, which had requested them.

The aid, Sebastien Togneri, later resigned and was the subject of a scathing report by Legault, who ruled he had no legal authority to prevent disclosure. The RCMP reviewed the case and declined to lay charges.

Legault is also expected to table a broad report this fall on reform to the Access to Information Act.

She indicated in her private remarks Thursday that she will recommend stronger penalties under the law, and that the Act should cover Parliament, ministers' offices and courts administration.

Legault also said she should be given order-making powers. Currently, her office relies largely on moral suasion and the courts.

The Canadian Press
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