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The Freedom of Information Act

August 1, 2012

The Freedom of Information Act

urgent reform – “…This failure by the Commonwealth is seen as a decay that has set in to the body of the organization and one that will occasion the association’s irrelevance — if not its actual demise — unless it is promptly addressed,” says the report compiled by an 11-member Eminent Persons Group, which includes Canadian Senator Hugh Segal and former Mozambique cabinet minister Graca Michel, wife of Nelson Mandela. Time for Urgent Reform originally was scheduled for release well in advance of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth but an apparent dispute among member nations over its contents has delayed the official release until Oct. 28, the first day of the Australia summit. Some members of the Eminent Persons Group are said to be furious, seeing the delay as an effort to limit discussion and something symptomatic of the problems they say ail the Commonwealth. “There has been growing criticism that the Commonwealth does not take a stand, at least in public, on violations of its values by member states, other than in the case of the unconstitutional removal of governments,” says the in-depth analysis commissioned by Commonwealth leaders two years ago …” (Human rights abuses could kill the Commonwealth: report)

far inferior – “…The title of the new law was only its most obvious distinction from the Freedom of Information Act passed sixteen years earlier in the United States. In the US, the act’s name inextricably linked information with freedom, granting it the status of inalienable right. In Canada, citizens could be granted “access” to information by the government, if they followed certain rules set by that same government. As open government advocate David Eaves points out, this follows from a tradition in which sovereignty resides with the Queen. Government data “isn’t your, mine, or ‘our’ data,” he writes. “It’s hers. It is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared.” In the United States, the American Revolution put an end to any such notion. That said, freedom of information was not universally embraced at first in the US either, but it gained traction because of the country’s diffusion of power among the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches. In the 1950s, a frustrated Democratic Congress, seeking access to Eisenhower’s records, began pushing for a transparency law, with strong backing from the media. Then, in the mid-1960s, a young Republican congressman named Donald Rumsfeld, annoyed that the Johnson administration was withholding information, began fighting for the same. “That was before he never met a secret he didn’t love,” says Dan Metcalfe. Indeed, by 1974 Rumsfeld, in his capacity as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, was advising the new president to veto a post-Watergate amendment to the act that mandated judicial review of executive secrecy claims, among other improvements. Congress ultimately voted to override the veto, crystallizing a strong, if imperfect, act. In Canada, the adequacy of the act has been in question from the outset, and it hasn’t improved much since the 1980s. “Compared with the US and Britain,” says University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran, who has worked on several recent high-profile cases involving transparency issues, “Canada’s system of disclosure is far inferior.” A 2008 study by the caj and the Canadian Newspaper Association actually ranked this country’s access law behind those of India, Mexico, and Pakistan. Among the most significant problems the report cited were the information commissioner’s inability to compel the government to release documents, and the exclusion from the act of about a hundred important government-affiliated bodies, including Canadian Blood Services and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization. The study further found fault with Section 21 of the act, which gives ministers broad rights to withhold records on the internal decision-making processes, deliberations, and advice of government…” (The Dark Country)

Freedom of information in Canada describes the capacity for the Canadian Government to provide timely and accurate access to internal data concerning government services. Each province and territory in Canada has its own access to freedom of information legislation…Canadian access to information laws distinguish between access to records generally and access to records that contain personal information about the person making the request. Subject to exceptions, individuals have a right of access to records that contain their own personal information under the Privacy Act but the general public does not have a right of access to records that contain personal information about others under the Access to Information Act…From 1989 to 2008, requests made to the federal government were catalogued in the Coordination of Access to Information Requests System. The federal legislations do not apply to the provinces or territories however, these levels of government also have access and privacy legislations…” (Wikepedia)

Canadian privacy law is encapsulated within multiple acts, and the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms. They are listed below in chronological order. (PIPA and PIPEDA were enacted simultaneously)…The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (abbreviated PIPEDA or PIPED Act) is a federal Canadian law on the topic of data privacy. It governs how private-sector companies can collect, use and disclose personal information. The Act also contains various provisions to facilitate the use of electronic documents. PIPEDA was passed in the late 1990s to promote consumer trust in electronic commerce, as well as was intended to assure other governments that Canadian privacy laws were strong enough to protect the personal information of citizens of other nationalities. PIPEDA includes and creates provisions of the Canadian Standards Association’s Model Code for the Protection of Personal Information, developed in 1995. In PIPEDA, “Personal Information” is specified as information about an identifiable individual, that does not include the name, title or business address or telephone number of an employee of an organization… (Wikepedia)

RELATED READING:
Sometimes the Freedom of Information Act means Disinformation
Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act
Access to Information Request Form
Getting Your Medical Records
What is Freedom of Information (FOI) and how do I make an FOI request?
A “How-to Guide to Canada’s Access to Information Act”

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