A Comprehensive Framework for Access to Information Reform

Message from the Minister

First, I wish to congratulate the House of Commons for establishing this Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. I wish to encourage its early participation in modernizing the Access to Information Act to ensure that the Act continues to meet the needs of Canadians and to further strengthen government integrity and transparency.

Canadians have benefited from laws governing access since the Act was introduced in 1983. Canada was one of the first countries to enact access legislation and continues to be among the world's leaders in governing in a transparent manner. During the past 20 years, the federal government has taken steps to ensure the Act keeps pace with society. For example, the Government conducted a review of the Governance Framework for Canada's Crown Corporations during 2004. Also, the Government announced new policies on the mandatory publication of travel and hospitality expenses for selected government officials, of contracts over $10,000, and of information concerning the reclassification of occupied positions in the Public Service.

But many things have changed in the administration of government, throughout Canadian society and in the world since the Act was passed. Citizens have been calling for greater involvement in the decision-making process of their governments and rapid advances in information technology have changed the way governments create, store, manage and communicate information.

To address this changing environment, a government Task Force was created to study and report on the possibilities for access reform. The 2002 report of the Access to Information Review Task Force, entitled "Access to Information: Making it Work for Canadians," included many recommendations that addressed these concerns. As well, some Members of Parliament have introduced Private Members Bills aimed at reforming the Act. The Government of Canada agrees that the Act must be modernized, and agrees with many of the suggestions put forth in both the Private Members' Bills and in the Task Force report. Many of these reform issues addressed in the Private Members' Bills and Task Force report are complex and would benefit from careful review by the Parliamentary Committee before the Government proceeds with legislative reforms.

We share a common goal - to have the most comprehensive and workable access to information legislation possible. This specially-constituted Committee should be given an opportunity to study the issues and provide its input and advice prior to legislation being introduced in the House of Commons.

Therefore, I have decided that the most appropriate action at this time is to present this Committee with this discussion paper outlining the Government's views on access reform issues for the Committee's full and deliberate consideration. Through this discussion paper and the active engagement of Parliamentarians on the issue of access reform, the Government affirms its commitment to transparency, accountability, integrity and democratic reform.

The Supreme Court of Canada has described the Access to Information Act, which allows citizen access to government information, as a pillar of our democracy. At the same time, we must appreciate that certain limitations to the right of access to government information are reasonable and necessary – for example, protecting the privacy of individual Canadians and sensitive matters of national defence. Striking the appropriate balance between openness and confidentiality in access reform is an important part of this exercise. It is important to listen carefully to stakeholders' concerns and to weigh competing interests, and particularly the views of the Information Commissioner. That is why it is so important to engage this Committee before any reforms are made.

By its very nature, the Access to Information Act is all about openness, transparency, accessibility to Canadians, and accountability. I believe this requires a thorough, open and inclusive process, with broad opportunity for Parliamentary and public engagement on what the reforms to the Act will look like. Canadians need to be fully engaged in reform of an Act that is about their rights of access to government information.

This discussion paper has been guided and inspired by the recommendations made by the Access to Information Review Task Force, recent Private Members' Bills, and the Information Commissioner and international sources. I wish to express my gratitude to the Committee for its earlier work that prepared the way for this discussion. I trust that the Committee will benefit further from the perspectives and concerns expressed by various stakeholders and, through debate, inform the future work of the Government in developing an access to information reform package.

Considering the importance of the Access to Information Act, we must come together as Parliamentarians to discuss it, we must hear from expert witnesses, we must consider all elements, all angles, all people. Once the Committee has completed its important work, the Government will be in a better position to move forward with a reform package.

Irwin Cotler
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada