Public input sought during review of Yukon’s access to information law

The Yukon government wants the public's input on accessing government information and protecting individuals' privacy, four years after it heavily restricted what documents can be obtained.

The Yukon government wants the public’s input on accessing government information and protecting individuals’ privacy, four years after it heavily restricted what documents can be obtained.

The review of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPP) is mandated by a 2009 amendment that calls for a full review every six years.

But the problem with access-to-information laws across the country is that they were never designed to protect the public’s interest, according to Sean Holman, a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Alberta.

“The problem was that they were designed to maintain the secrecy that is an inherent part of our political system,” said Holman.

“That means you can’t get access to information related the most important decision-making body, cabinet, nor can you get information related to policy advice.”

As a professor and an investigative journalist, Holman has been studying access-to-information laws in Canada and the U.S.

In fact, the Yukon amended its ATIPP legislation in 2012 to specifically restrict briefing notes prepared for ministers, the executive council and its committees from being released.

“In other words, Canadians have no right to know why government makes the decisions that it makes,” said Holman.

“It’s a huge problem that’s present both in the Yukon and elsewhere in Canada.”

Yukon Liberal Party Leader Sandy Silver told the News his party would take the opposite approach the Yukon Party took.

“We would repeal most if not all of what the Yukon Party did to limit access to information,” he said.

Liz Hanson, the leader of the NDP Opposition, said she is committed to changing the act, as she was when she raised concerns over the 2012 amendments.

“It made us one of the most restrictive governments in Canada,” she said.

There have been some positive steps taken across the country in recent years to improve the public’s access to government information.

In Newfoundland the government recently removed the exclusion clause preventing the disclosure of cabinet documents.

And the federal government recently announced it would remove costs associated with filing such requests.

There is no fee for filing access to information requests in the Yukon. But if a request requires over three hours of work from a department employee, the applicant is asked to pay for photocopying pages and an hourly rate for finding and producing the documents.

There are legitimate reasons for a government to exclude some records, Holman said, such as those that may raise national security or law enforcement concerns.

“But legislation across the country goes overboard when it comes to those exclusions.”

Last October the territory’s information and privacy commissioner released a series of recommendations.

Diane McLeod-McKay called the act “antiquated,” saying it was in desperate need of improvement.

The act hasn’t been fully reviewed since it was introduced in 1996.

She also sought to have a public interest clause added in the legislation that could override the long list of documents excluded under the act.

McLeod-McKay proposed to increase the commissioner’s power to investigate potential violations of the act.

“The call for commissioners to have more power is a common one,” Holman said.

The federal Liberals have promised to give the federal information commissioner order-making powers – legally compelling the government to release some documents.

But the Liberals recently introduced the idea of giving ministers a veto over such orders.

The Canadian Press reported that information commissioner Suzanne Legault opposed the measure, saying it would essentially neutralize her role.

“Any significant review of access legislation needs to grapple with the fact that these laws… are censorship laws,” said Holman.

“They prevent the release of broad categories of information the public should have access to.”

Other areas where the Yukon could modernize the act is to move towards a digital model.

As things stand, requests are usually made via fax or mail and requests are typically received on printed paper.

Once a request has been made, Highways and Public Works sends a confirmation they’ve received the request via registered mail.

The federal government is looking at requiring access-to-information requests to be released in a “machine-readable” format, Holman said.

That would mean sending a spreadsheet that can be opened and used on a computer for example, instead of sending a scanned printed copy of the same spreadsheet.

A spokesperson for Highways and Public Works told the News that a web form to submit requests would be live this summer.

Applicants can already request to have public documents emailed to them, said Alicia Debreceni. The current request form makes no mention of that option.

The entire act is under review and the department isn’t pre-supposing any changes, she added.

“No amendments to the act have been determined at this point.”

As part of the review the department is looking at international best practices, she added.

In the U.S. for example, some documents are proactively released, Holman said.

“One thing that is not fully appreciated is how little access we have in this country to records, not even records through (federal) freedom-of-information requests but records government makes available,” he said.

Highways and Public Works Minister Scott Kent, whose department handles the ATIPP review, was not available for an interview on Thursday.

To learn more about the Yukon’s ATIPP review, visit yukonatipp.ca.

The public comment phase ends on July 31.

The department indicated that a document detailing public comments gathered will be released by the end of the year.

-With files from Maura Forrest.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at

pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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