Ottawa consultant Michael Dagg is appealing to the federal court, asking a judge to order Library and Archives Canada to expedite his request for freedom of information.
The federal institution originally cited Dagg as an 80-year processing time for his 2018 request. This meant that the now 73-year-old would not see his request fulfilled until at least his 150th birthday.
“I was shocked because what they have done is tell me that my right of access does not really apply,” he told CBC Radio’s Day 6. “Basically, they use a bureaucratic trick to deny me my right to access important information.”
Dagg requested documents related to the RCMP’s Project Anecdote, a money laundering and public corruption investigation launched in May 1993. “Project Anecdote was a big project,” he said. “They spent 10 years investigating it. We have a right to get answers.”
No charges were filed and the Mountie archives were handed over to government archives.
According to his lawyer Paul Champ, Library and Archives Canada had “no intention of actually giving him the file,” since not much work has been done on Dagg’s case since the first request from 2018.
Dagg runs a small information business and is a frequent user of the Access Act. He has previously challenged decisions made under the law, including a landmark case in 1997 that went to Canada’s Supreme Court.
“For many people who use Canada’s access to information systems, it’s often a bad joke,” said Champ, a human rights and constitutional lawyer in Ottawa.
“This one is just so absurd, it’s farcical.” In a response to his 2018 application, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) told Dagg that it took 29,200 days – which would see the files delivered in 2098 – to process at least 780,000 document pages for review, in addition to audio and video recordings. It also said that additional time may be needed to consult with various public authorities.
Last March, the timeline was revised to 65 years.
In his application to the federal court, filed last month, Dagg says the LAC “has not been able to establish any valid basis for the extraordinary extension of time” for his request for access to information. Champ expects the case to be submitted to a judge by the fall.
Federal access to the Information Act requires state institutions to respond to requests, either by providing records or a valid reason for an extension, within 30 days of receipt. Experts say the rule is routinely ignored.
In a statement, the LAC told CBC Radio that they could not comment on the case as it is before the courts.
Canada’s FOI system plagued by problems
When it comes to the Dagg case, Mike Larsen, chairman of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Associaiton, says the slow response time points to the “weakened information value” of the request.
Basically, the information Dagg has requested about Project Anecdote has far more value now than it will for decades to come.
“It is something of public interest, perhaps something that is relevant in the current context. It will probably not have the same value in 80 years, so a system that gets it to him in that time frame is just broken,” said Larsen , who is also co-chair of the Criminology Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC
Larsen called Dagg’s experience a violent example of the obstacles that can arise when accessing public information that damages public trust.
“It does not do what it is intended for. It is intended to provide timely and comprehensive access to information, public registers, which are the property of the public and are kept by public institutions,” said Larsen
Canada’s access to the Information System (ATI) has been plagued by delays, and what experts say is increasing secrecy for years. There is also no upper limit for extensions, says Larsen.
The Treasury Board of Canada, which tracks performance standards for ATI requests across the federal government, found that just over 30 percent of requests were “closed beyond [the] statutory timeline, including extensions “ in the financial year 2020-2021. That figure is slightly lower from 2019-2020, but an increase of 11 percentage points compared to 2016-2017.
In 2016, the Liberal government removed processing fees for the time it takes to fulfill large requests, in addition to the standard application fee of $ 5.
It should be seen as a citizenship right, and it allows us to know something about the behavior of the government that we would not otherwise– Kevin Walby, researcher and professor at the University of Winnipeg
Before she appealed to the federal court, Dagg filed a complaint with Federal Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard in 2018.
In an October 2021 decision, Maynard ruled that the LAC’s request for an extension was unreasonable and that Dagg’s complaint was “well-founded.”
“The LAC did not meet the requirements for an extension of time … therefore its extension of time was invalid,” Maynard wrote. “In the absence of a valid extension of time limit, the institutions are required to respond to a request for access within 30 days, which the LAC has not done either.”
Maynard’s report made two recommendations, including that the LAC should end the processing of Dagg’s request. The LAC’s Chief Librarian and Archivist replied that “this is simply not possible without having a serious impact on the LAC’s operations, and in particular its capacity to maintain fair services in responding to requests from other Canadians.”
Bad for democracy: professor
Part of the problem with access to the information system is a chronic lack of resources, says Kevin Walby, an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Law at the University of Winnipeg.
“When I call an FOI office and they only have one person working as a staff, or maybe two, but they are a giant entity, they obviously will not be able to keep up with everything,” Walby said.
“More importantly – and more officially – many FOI commissioners have in their annual report marked this as a problem for years.”
Experts also say that the law, which was introduced in 1983, has seen few updates that would ensure that it keeps pace with changes in technology.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned to improve access to the information system back in 2015. So did former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But in addition to waiving large fees, little has changed since.
“Laws on access to information look very different … when people want to start making requests for action from yours government, “said Champ.
A public consultation on the federal access to information system started in March 2021, and the Finance Council released a preliminary report in December. Participants recommended the release of additional information, proactive publication of documents, and improvements to system capabilities.
On its website, the Danish Bankers Association lists a number “key actions” taken by the government, including a $ 12.8 million commitment in the 2021 budget to improve access to information.
“The government has committed itself to a full and complete review of access to information and will take the time it needs to fulfill this commitment,” said Finance Council spokesman Martin Potvin. “The next step includes engaging with indigenous organizations and people, which the government will also report publicly on.” A president’s report to parliament will be released in 2022, Potvin said.
In the end, the system’s problems damage democracy, Walby says.
“It should be seen as a civil right, and it allows us to know something about government behavior that we otherwise would not,” he told CBC Radio.
As problems with the system continue, Larsen believes the idea that Canadian governments lack transparency is becoming normalized.
Written by Jason Vermes. Interviews with Michael Dagg and Paul Champ produced by Pedro Sanchez.