Canada ranks last in freedom-of-information effectiveness

In a study comparing the effectiveness of freedom-of-information laws in five democracies, Canada ranked dead last. New Zealand ranked number one, The Canadian Press reports.

“Above all, an effective FOI regime requires strong government commitment and political will. Officials cannot do it on their own,” says the paper. “Canada comes last as it has continually suffered from a combination of low use, low political support and a weak Information commissioner since its inception.”

The study, conducted by Robert Hazell and Ben Worthy of University College in London and published in the journal Government Information Quarterly, ranked countries based on official statistics regarding court decisions, appeals, delays and other factors that prevented government data from reaching the requesters.

The study follows an informal one by CBC’s David McKie, who found that access-to-information requests by journalists is down 23% over last year, in part due to the overwhelming bureaucracy that drags wait times past reasonable deadlines.

The researchers critcized Canada’s FOI law as outdated, the CBC reports, “that generally prevents citizens from filing requests electronically and compels them to submit paper cheques to cover fees.”

Canada was one of the first countries to pass an FOI law (in 1983). The Acess to Information Act allows Canadian residents to request government information (i.e. a minister’s expense claims) for an initia $5 fee, although the application is “subject to a range of exemptions,” The Canadian Press reports.

The Canadian Press adds:

“The journal’s findings echo another global study, completed in 2008 by researcher Stanley Tromp for the Canadian Newspaper Association and others, that found the operation and enforcement of Canada’s Access to Information Act rates poorly when compared with those in many other countries, including the United States.

“‘Canada used to be in the vanguard on this issue,’ said Alasdair Roberts, a professor at Boston’s Suffolk University Law School and an expert in freedom-of-information.

“‘But now Canada at the very best is in the middle of the pack. It’s
not an outmoded law.’

“Other countries “don’t look to Canada for an example of how to do business anymore,” Roberts said in an interview [with the CBC].”

The Canadian Press quotes Canada’s information commissioner Suzanne Legault, who isn’t surprised that Canada ranked last. “Only about 16 per cent of the 35,000 requests filed last year resulted in the full disclosure of information, compared with 40 per cent a decade ago,” she said.