OTTAWA — Reporters are abandoning the federal Access to Information Act as a research tool because turnaround times are terrible and getting worse, veteran journalist Dean Beeby told MPs studying the federal law.
Beeby was among the media members and researchers who painted a sorry picture of the state of Canada's access system Wednesday for a House of Commons committee.
The federal access law allows people who pay a $5 fee to request documents — from internal emails and expense claims to briefing memos and reports — but it has long been criticized as antiquated and poorly administered.
Government agencies are supposed to respond within 30 days or provide valid reasons why they need more time to process a request.
The law has not been significantly updated since its introduction almost 40 years ago, and many users complain of lengthy delays as well as heavily blacked-out documents or full denials in response to their applications.
By Beeby's count, the Commons committee's review is at least the 16th broad study of the federal act since it was passed.
Beeby, an independent journalist who spent much of his career at The Canadian Press, said bureaucrats now realize they face a much bigger blowback from releasing information than from withholding it.
In addition, the law provides a rich menu of excuses to keep things buried, he said. "So when stale-dated access documents finally do arrive on a reporter’s desk, they’ve been picked clean of meaningful contents."
Canada's access-to-information system is broken, said Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
For decades, the association has devoted an exceptional amount of resources to helping member journalists with training on how to wade through the many layers of opaque rules, exemptions and limitations that have served to unite generations of Canadian journalists "in utter frustration and dizzying dismay," Jolly said.
"And 40 years is frankly, well, a long time without making any concerted efforts to solve the problem," he told the MPs.
"So let me put it another way: Don't put duct tape on a Formula One race car's broken chassis and expect it to put in competitive lap times, let alone win races or world championships," Jolly said.
"What I would suggest you do is retire the car, get it fixed properly for the next time out and start over again."
Andrea Conte, an independent researcher who uses the access law to try to obtain historical records, said the system has too many root problems to be reformed.
He noted the act nullified the previous system of periodically declassifying records, creating "a disaster" for those doing historical research, especially on issues involving prisons, police and the military.
For instance, archival records from the 1930s about the Communist Party of Canada are still heavily redacted, Conte said.
The access law was intended to shift power to citizens, providing them with a tool to learn what their government is doing, but it failed, he said.
"And now we have 40 years of evidence that show this."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press