COMMENTARY: IPC reiterates concerns regarding access to information during Right to Know Week

Diane McLeod-McKay

Special to the News

Right to Know Week is being celebrated this week in many jurisdictions around the world, including Yukon. This week is a time to celebrate our right to access information held by our government.

Access to information is vital to the health and vitality of society, democracy and good government. The ability to access government information allows us to hold government accountable for its decision-making in the delivery of public programs and services. The right to access information is a democratic right and an essential part of our democratic tool kit.

The ability to exercise our right depends on a well-functioning access to information system. It is not enough to have a law. The law must be implemented in a manner that ensures citizens can exercise their right meaningfully.

Our right to access government information comes from Yukon’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, often called the ATIPP Act. The ATIPP Act allows anyone to access any information held by Yukon government (and other public bodies), subject to specific and limited exceptions. When government or public bodies receive an access to information request, they must, within a specified time, provide access to the information requested, unless one of the exceptions apply. Most of the exceptions are discretionary.

A well-functioning access to information system is properly resourced by individuals who are trained on their duties. Processing an access to information request is complex. It involves interpreting and applying the access to information provisions of the ATIPP Act, searching for responsive records across a government department, making decisions about exceptions, and communicating with an applicant to clarify the request. All this work must be done within 30 days, or up to 60 more days, if an extension is authorized.

When I was re-appointed Information and Privacy Commissioner in 2018, I made it one of my goals to improve the access to information system in Yukon. Prior to my re-appointment, my office noted a troubling trend in our reviews of access to information decisions. Our work with the Yukon government and other public bodies demonstrated that those processing access requests did not understand how to apply the access to information provisions of the ATIPP Act because they were not adequately trained. We also found that searches for records were not being done properly, as well as a host of other problems which I highlighted in my 2018 and 2019 annual reports.

I know that those processing access to information requests are doing their best. It is not their fault that they are struggling to process these requests in accordance with the requirements of the ATIPP Act. The system is faltering because there is a lack of commitment by those at the top of Yukon government public bodies to ensuring that the access to information programs within their respective departments are functioning properly.

To support those responsible for processing access to information requests in the Yukon government and other public bodies, my office issued two guidance documents earlier this week.

One document outlines the steps to conducting searches for records in response to an access request. The other is a guide to help staff responsible for processing access to information requests understand how to apply the access to information provisions and what to expect during a review by my office of a decision made about access. Both documents can be found on my website at www.yukonombudsman.ca.

Sometime before the end of 2020, I anticipate that the new ATIPP Act will be brought into force. This act establishes a new accountability structure for processing access to information requests that involves the head of each public body. The act also modifies some of the rules for processing access requests and the exceptions to the right of access. I strongly encourage Yukon public bodies to familiarize themselves with these provisions and to begin training their employees on the changes to ensure that the access to information provisions under the new ATIPP Act are administered properly.

Under the new ATIPP Act, I am required to deliver educational programs that inform the public about their rights and inform public bodies about their duties under the act. In the coming years, I will be working to ensure Yukoners understand their rights and can exercise them within a properly functioning access to information system.

Right to Know Week is an opportunity for Yukoners to learn more about their rights under the ATIPP Act.

For more information about your rights, visit my website at www.yukonombudsman.ca or contact my office at 1-867-667-8468 or toll free at 1-800-661-0408 (ext. 8468) where my staff will be pleased to answer your questions.

Diane McLeod-McKay is the Yukon Information and Privacy Commissioner.

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