Freedom of Information

Access to information laws need an update: panel

Newfoundland and Labrador overhauled its access to information laws and is now calling on other provinces to catch up

Catherine Tully, Sean Murray, Steve Kent, Maria Lasheras and Toby Mendel at a panel discussion Monday at Halifax City Hall
Catherine Tully, Sean Murray, Steve Kent, Maria Lasheras and Toby Mendel at a panel discussion Monday at Halifax City Hall   Sarah Rae

Newfoundland and Labrador’s deputy premier says his province’s new freedom of information laws are a model for other jurisdictions.

Steve Kent said the province is giving citizens “more and better tools for public and government to work together.”

Kent told a panel discussion on government transparency Monday that the province has learned from the mistakes it made three years ago when public pressure, driven by the media, pushed the province to overhaul its legislation.

“If you’re really going to drive cultural change, you’ve got to be bold,” he said.

Kent was part of a panel at Halifax city hall organized by Nova Scotia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner as part of International Right to Know week.

Also on the panel were Toby Mendel, executive director of the advocacy group Centre for Law and Democracy; Maria Lasheras, the chief information access and privacy officer in Nova Scotia; and Sean Murray, from the office of the information and privacy commissioner in Newfoundland and Labrador. Catherine Tully, the information and privacy commissioner of Nova Scotia, was the moderator.

Mendel said with new technology “the information structure of the world has totally changed, and [Nova Scotia’s] legislation hasn’t moved with it.” The Centre for Law and Democracy rates countries based on their right to information laws and ranks Canada 59th out of 102 countries. The highest-ranked countries, he said, are the ones with the newest legislation.

After the Newfoundland legislature passed a bill in 2012 that was heavily criticized, the provincial government accepted all 90 recommendations from an independent committee recommending improvements to access to information laws.

Some of the changes were:

  • eliminating or reducing fees
  • strengthening powers granted to the information commissioner
  • tightening deadlines to respond to requests
  • restricting extensions and denials of requests
  • placing the responsibility of preventing information release on the government

With these changes, among others, Newfoundland would now rank 15th if compared with national jurisdictions, Mendel said. Nova Scotia would rank 51st.

Lasheras was the only panelist who said she thought Nova Scotia’s access to information laws served citizens well, but did agree those laws could improve and said she would be watching Newfoundland and Labrador closely.

Kent is passionate about it because he says he became frustrated trying to access information about his own adoption and time spent in foster care.

Mendel doesn’t believe change will come soon in Nova Scotia. He said it’s not easy to get Canadians riled up and many people don’t see access to information as an essential civil right, as many citizens in Egypt and Myanmar do.

Murray thinks change can be led by Nova Scotia’s law and journalism schools, the Centre for Law and Democracy, and the Right to Know campaign, none of which Newfoundland and Labrador had.

Many audience members at the panel discussion were frustrated with a system in Nova Scotia they said allows “blanket denials” and endless extensions for responding.

Nova Scotia was the first province in Canada to pass access to information legislation in 1977, but it has not been replaced since 1993.