Bill Blair Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair answers a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Info commissioner slams RCMP, Liberals on rampant access-to-information failures

Info commissioner slams RCMP, Liberals on rampant access-to-information failures

OTTAWA — The federal information commissioner has come out swinging against Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and the RCMP for what she says is a complete disregard for transparency and accountability.

The criticisms are in a new report released Tuesday in which Caroline Maynard takes the Mounties to task for failing to address long-standing failings in the handling of access-to-information requests.

That includes a growing backlog of thousands of unanswered requests for information from Canadians, as well problems with processing and responding to such requests properly.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Maynard said she met with RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to discuss the issue in 2018, shortly after the two of them took up their respective jobs.

“I was hopeful that resources were going to be added and the systemic issues would be looked at,” Maynard said. “But it turns out that with time, we noticed there was no improvement. Actually, everything was getting worse.”

While Maynard blames the Mounties’ leaders for not addressing the problems, she also criticizes Blair and the federal Liberal government for seemingly not taking the issue seriously.

That includes a failure to respond as she was carrying on her investigation, which started in January 2019, and developing a credible plan to address the 15 recommendations she makes.

“The RCMP commissioner and the minister both appear to accept the status quo and are only prepared to commit to minimal improvements without a clear plan of action or timelines,” Maynard wrote in the introduction to her report.

“Canadians rightfully expect that the police force for Canada, in charge of enforcing Canadian law, will itself comply with it. The gravity of the situation at the RCMP calls for bold and comprehensive action to turn the tide.”

Blair rejected those allegations of indifference, indicating during a news conference that he did not know Maynard was releasing a report on the RCMP until this past weekend.

He went on to say the commissioner “seemed quite happy and satisfied” with his plan for fixing the problems she had identified after the two talked on Tuesday morning.

That plan consists of ordering the RCMP to work with the Treasury Board Secretariat, which oversees Ottawa’s access-to-information regime, to identify the problems and come up with a strategy within three months for addressing them.

“I want to assure you that I care about access to information,” Blair said. “I think it’s an important obligation — both a legal obligation, but an obligation of government generally, to provide information where we are able in a timely way.”

Tuesday’s report is only the latest from the commissioner to scold federal departments for failing to uphold the Canadian public’s right to government information.

“With the pandemic, it’s even more important for people to know that they can trust governments and get the information about how decisions are being made, how my money is being spent,” Maynard told The Canadian Press.

“When I hear government leaders saying that they want Canadians to trust them, I always think to myself: It starts with information. Provide them with information, show them how you make those decisions.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to agree with that assessment during one of his regular COVID-19 updates on Tuesday as he thanked Maynard for raising her concerns to the government.

“Canadians need to have confidence in their institutions,” he said. “We need particularly to have confidence in institutions like police forces like the RCMP. One of the best ways to do that is to demonstrate transparency and accountability.”

The Liberals first promised during the 2015 federal election to strengthen Canada’s access-to-information regime, but Maynard has said complaints about the system are increasing.

Advocacy groups such as OpenMedia and the Canadian Association of Journalists have also raised concerns about the state of the federal system, particularly as long-standing problems have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s so many problems across other departments, so this is really kind of the tip of the iceberg,” said CAJ president Brent Jolly.

“The public deserves better. And without modernization, I fear for the future of information and the free flow of information and the Canadian public’s right to know, frankly.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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