House of Commons Hansard #41 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was sentence.

Topics

Business of the House

April 26th, 2004 / 11 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

It is my duty, pursuant to Standing Order 81(14), to inform the House that the motion to be considered tomorrow during consideration of the business of supply is as follows:

That, in the opinion of this House, there being a serious democratic deficit in Canada, particularly in the domination of the executive over the House of Commons by providing to the Prime Minister the sole political prerogative to determine when Parliament should be dissolved for the purposes of a general election;

That, unless the government loses the confidence of the House, general elections should be held on fixed dates; and

That the government should bring in measures to establish fixed election dates to be held on the third Monday of the month that is four years after the month in which the polling day for the most recently held general election fell.

This motion, standing in the name of the hon. member for West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast, is votable. Copies of the motion are available at the table.

The House resumed from February 24, consideration of the motion that Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other Acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Roy H. Bailey Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to support my colleague's bill, Bill C-462, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and to make amendments to other acts.

I would like to begin by posing a question. Has there ever been a time in our history since Confederation in 1867 that we needed more timely and quicker access to information than we presently have today? If we were to put that question out there, not only to the House but to the public in general, I think they would say that we need this act very badly.

That is why we in this party will be supporting the bill in principle. When we take a look at the amount of information and what a government does today and compare it to even one generation ago, the business, the budget and everything else, we need that information and Canadians need that information. I am saying that the bill is very important mainly because of the democratic deficit that we are facing in this country.

I want to tell a little story about accountability and access to information. It goes back many years ago when I was principal of a school. My office was at one end of the building and my youngest daughter was in a classroom at the extreme other end of the building. When she would drop into my office to say hello I would ask her what she was doing at this end of the building. She would say that she had come to use the washroom. I would tell her to go back and use her own washroom and back she would go.

I received some information about six or seven years later concerning my daughter. She told me that during those times she had been sent down by her teacher to see the principal and to tell him that she had been misbehaving in class. When she went back to her classroom the teacher would ask if she had spoken to her father and she would say “yes”.

I tell that story because it compares very much to what happens when someone puts in a request for access to information. They want the story. They want everything. Sometimes we get asked, if nothing else, to rewrite the question. The questions in many cases do not need rewriting. It is the answers that are rewritten so as we and Canadians do not get the total information.

For instance, suppose I were to ask questions through access to information about the Saskatchewan junior hockey league at the present time, which receives no salaries, and asked why the only pure amateur hockey league in Canada was subjected to an audit when no other pure junior hockey league in Canada was. Would I get an answer? No, I would not get an answer because there is no excuse for that happening. We need to correct problems like that and I believe Bill C-462 would correct a great deal of that.

The bill proposes 37 different amendments. What we find in those amendments is that Canadians, through their members of Parliament, would be able to get information that otherwise they would not be able to get as individuals.

I will give a case in point. At one of my border crossings, a huge building has been constructed, apparently by the government. The building has now been sold. Was it legally tendered? Nobody out there knows. How many private offers were received? Nobody knows. What did the building sell for? Nobody knows. How much was paid for the building? Nobody knows. That type of information is not doing anything to knock down the democratic deficit, not one little bit.

This bill reflects the work of an all party committee formed two years ago. For two years they have worked on this bill and I think that the two years' work done by this committee deserves the proper attention of this House. I think it deserves the support of every member of this House. Albeit it is a private member's bill, but every member should support this bill so that we can go to the people--it is much more timely now, with an election coming up--and say that we now have an access to information bill through which they can, through their member of Parliament, get the information they want and should have.

I know, and every member of this House knows, that there are certain bits of information that are private. There are certain bits of information that should not be divulged, such as when courts are in session and all the rest of it, but at the same time, the government can manufacture more excuses for not providing Canadians with the information they need.

As I said at the outset, and I will repeat it again, there has never been a time in the history of this country like this, when Canadians need to get that information and they need to get it quickly. Canadians have a right to know what is going on in government.

At the present time, the committee on public accounts cannot even get the information it wants from the people who could and should be giving them that information. This is what is upsetting Canadians today. This information is guarded, it is secret and it is locked away. That has created in this country a democratic deficiency like we have never had before. These 37 amendments would do a whole lot to prevent the government from acting and working in secrecy.

For instance, back in the 1930s, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act was passed to help rejuvenate the three prairie provinces, mainly with pastures, water, dugouts, dams and so on. Do members know that if a farmer puts in a requisition for a deep well, a dugout or a dam at the present time, there is a two year waiting list? In other words, this portion of that act simply does not exist.

We need to know and they need to know why there is such a long waiting list. Is it the funding? What is wrong with this? Why is it not working? The simple answer from a minister that government is putting its money in other places does not really tell the whole story. And this is just one area.

As I said at the beginning, never in the history of this country have we needed information more than we do right now. I want to close by asking a question, not only of the House but of this country. Can any nation that declares itself a democratic nation ever have too much accountability in regard to the operation of government? I do not believe it can.

That is why I am asking all members of this House to take a look at my colleague's bill. It will do a whole lot for democracy in Canada. Let us not turn it down. There is too much good in this bill.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

London West
Ontario

Liberal

Sue Barnes Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-462, which is a lengthy private member's bill that would make a considerable number of amendments to the Access to Information Act. Indeed, I do not think it is going too far to say that Bill C-462 constitutes a major effort to overhaul the Access to Information Act.

Clearly, the member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot once again has focused our attention on the Access to Information Act by bringing forward his extensive bill. Accordingly, my purpose today is to comment on the member's bill, which I intend to do from more than one perspective. Before doing that, I want to take a moment or two to make some introductory and background comments.

I do not know if all the members of the House are aware of how long the member has been working on reforming the Access to Information Act. I believe I am right when I say that he first introduced a private member's bill to amend the act in the fall of 1997. The bill was then numbered as Bill C-264. The member made certain improvements to Bill C-264 and reintroduced it in 1998 as Bill C-206. In the summer of 2000, Bill C-206 was defeated. Prior to this, the member had twice obtained more than 100 signatures in support of his bill.

I want to elaborate on a point to which I alluded a moment ago, which is the importance of access to information legislation. Here in Canada, we are fortunate to have had such legislation in place at the federal level since Canada Day 1983. As so often happens, we have a tendency to take this for granted because we have benefited from the Access to Information Act for more than 20 years.

The Supreme Court of Canada has said that one of the pillars or cornerstones of a democracy is a law that gives citizens a right to gain access to government information. Of course, this right to government information is not absolute or unfettered, and certain government information must still be kept confidential. Some good examples of this are taxpayer information, sensitive and confidential business information that a company provides to the government, sensitive government information such as the contents of an upcoming budget, and information relating to the defence of Canada.

These examples do not detract from the general principle that most government information should be accessible so that Canadians can, if they wish, find out what the government is doing. Put simply, allowing Canadians to check up on the government is an important part of our democracy.

Although many may not realize this, Canada is viewed as somewhat of a pioneer in the field of access to information legislation. Various countries in the world are developing democratic principles for themselves and some of these countries seek Canada's advice on how to create access to information legislation for themselves. In some of these countries, the government can, based on whimsy or whatever good or bad reason it chooses, completely ignore a citizen's request for government information or untruthfully tell the citizen that the information does not exist. Regardless of whether our Access to Information Act is out of date and in need of some modernization, the fact remains that, fortunately for us, the situations I just mentioned are contrary to our federal law.

So far I have attempted to make the general point that we are fortunate to have access to information legislation. I wish now to turn to Bill C-462 itself. What I intend to do in the next few minutes is mention a number of proposed amendments in the bill that are worthwhile and then draw the House's attention to a few proposals that I think require some additional thinking, examination and refinement.

Before doing this, let me say that, as we know, the Minister of Justice is responsible for any reform of the Access to Information Act. The minister does not oppose the general direction of this bill. However, certain concerns needs to be addressed.

In the category of worthwhile amendments that are proposed in Bill C-462, I want to begin with one in particular. As everyone in the House knows, the repercussions of the horrifying attacks that took place on September 11, 2001, are still with us. In this regard, this bill proposes a seemingly small but, in my view, quite important addition to the Access to Information Act.

Currently, section 20 of the act essentially protects trade secrets and other confidential commercial information that a government institution receives from a third party, usually a company. The proposal in this bill is that this exemption be amended to add a specific protection for information relating to critical infrastructure. As I mentioned earlier, the right to gain access to government information is not absolute. Certain information must be kept confidential, and I think that for security reasons information on critical infrastructure falls neatly into this category.

Sometimes an issue arises when a request is made under the act for records subject to solicitor and client privilege. Certainly, the act currently contains an exemption that can be used to protect records covered by this privilege. However, when the government is willing to discuss part of a record covered by solicitor and client privilege, there is concern that the privilege in relationship to the remainder of the material might be endangered. Bill C-462 tries to address this concern by specifying that the disclosure of part of such a record does not constitute a waiver of the privilege in relationship to the remainder of the record. This proposal is worth examining further.

I have one further comment to make in the positive category before moving to some of my concerns. At present, the act states that if a requester is unhappy with how her or his request has been handled, or with the records that she or he has been given, the requester can complain to the information commissioner within one year from the date on which the request was made.

The difficulty that requesters can encounter with this section is that sometimes, legitimately or not, government institutions do not respond to requests until later than one year after the date on which the request was made. The proposal in the bill, which I view as entirely sensible, is to amend this section to say that a requester can complain within 12 months from the date of the request or such other time as the information commissioner may allow.

Turning now to my concerns, the following two proposals concern me because I believe they go further than necessary to accomplish the policy goal. Therefore, at the very least, they need to be very carefully scrutinized. First, the bill is proposing the outright repeal of section 24 of the act. Let me take a moment to described what that section does.

As I mentioned earlier in this speech, the Access to Information Act contains several specific exemptions that serve to protect from disclosure certain types of confidential information. One exemption, section 24, is slightly different. It requires the protection of information that is described as confidential in other statutes.

Attached to section 24 is a schedule that lists the confidentiality provisions in the other statutes of Parliament. Included in the list are, for example, a section of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, the Defence Production Act, the Income Tax Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act, the Statistics Act, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 1992, and sections of the Criminal Code and the Patent Act. In addition to these, the list in the schedule contains about 50 other statutes. I do not believe the complete repeal of section 24 is the correct approach.

No conclusion regarding section 24 should be reached until after each and every confidentiality clause listed in the schedule has been examined and evaluated, and every entity that could be affected, for example, CSIS, Statistics Canada and the anti-money-laundering agency, Fintrac, has been thoroughly consulted. We simply cannot afford to not get this right.

The second proposal that causes me considerable concern again does so because I think the proposal in its current form may well go too far. I am referring to the proposal in the bill that the definition in the act of a government institution be expanded to include not only parent crown corporations but also their wholly owned subsidiaries and “any incorporated not for profit organization which receives at least two-thirds of its financing through federal government appropriations”.

I am not entirely sure what this proposal would mean in practice. It seems to mean that any charity that receives most of its money from the government would be subject to the Access to Information Act. This might require charities to expend time and money on creating the necessary infrastructure to deal with requests under the act. If I am right, is this result desirable? It is a question.

Regarding the wholly owned subsidiaries of crown corporations, we need to have a complete and up to date list of these so we know exactly which entities we are talking about.

Furthermore, a related proposal in Bill C-462 makes it clear that the CBC would be covered by the Access to Information Act. Would this mean that people could send Access to Information Act requests to the CBC in the hope of discovering information about confidential sources or investigative reports? Again, if I am right, is it appropriate and desirable?

I wish to move now to certain points that concern me less but to which I still want to draw the House's attention. We are puzzled with one proposal in Bill C-462. A few years ago, as a result of another private member's bill, C-208, a criminal offence was added to the Access to Information Act to cover essentially the intentional destruction, alteration or concealment of a record in order to thwart the Access to Information Act. Accordingly, I do not understand why the member sponsoring this bill is proposing to add another quite similar criminal offence to the act.

The final concern is related to an issue I mentioned a moment ago, and that is the coverage of crown corporations and their wholly owned subsidiaries.

The Minister of Justice does not oppose the general direction of the bill, nor does he oppose this bill going to committee. However, he strongly believes that certain concerns need to be addressed. I mentioned a few. It remains an open question whether this bill could in fact be repaired at the committee stage. That is the position of the justice department.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to make a couple comments with regard to Bill C-462, a bill which has been worked on for a great deal of time by the member for Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot.

Certainly, one of the areas in which a lot of debate has occurred is with regard to the extension of the Access to Information Act to crown corporations. I would point out that we just tabled in the House, a couple weeks ago, the whistleblower act. The whistleblower act has been referred to committee and the minister will appear before the committee tomorrow. This bill will now also apply to crown corporations. This is the first indication that there is an opening here to consider whether or not crown corporations are in the family of the public service.

I was a member of an all party ad hoc committee that was chaired by the member who sponsored this bill. The committee worked diligently. It set up a website, which I think is still accessible. The witnesses that came before that committee were very instrumental in focusing our consideration with regard to the Access to Information Act, and at looking at opportunities to broaden the exposure and reach of it for the principles for which the act exists in the first place.

The act has not been amended since it was brought in, I believe in 1982. There are very few pieces of legislation in the laws of Canada that have not been reviewed substantively and amended from time to time to take into account the changes that occur within Canada, within the value system, and within the needs that have been demonstrated from time to time.

Therefore, it is very important to understand what has happened in Canada since 1982. There have been significant developments, not only in Canada, but globally, and of course, we are a global nation. With regard to access to information, this has a tremendous significance with regard to the evolution of Canada, its role, not only as a sovereign nation, but as a global nation that participates in matters which affect all Canadians, and in fact people from all around the world.

I simply wanted to raise this issue about the period of time over which we are talking. Clearly, there are some valid issues which should be addressed, not only with regard to whether or not the reach should extend to crown corporations. We had discussions even right down to something as fundamental as what is the relationship between the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and the Office of the Information Commissioner. In most jurisdictions, those offices are combined as one office. The principles regarding privacy are somewhat the complement or mirror image of the Access to Information Act.

In terms of my involvement with the ad hoc committee that we had, reflecting on some of the work we did, there were questions of whether or not there was abuse within the system. I would think that from time to time, no matter what we look at, we will always find that some people are going to find ways to push the envelope a little bit. In fact, I remember one government official that came before us and told us of an information request that required the printing of some two million pages of documents. In that regard, clearly, there is a suggestion that somehow the act was being used maybe beyond the nature for which it was originally intended.

I believe it was Wesley Wark who came before us, who is an expert in these matters. He suggested to some extent that the Access to Information Act, the way it sits now, is being used by a number of people as basically a research tool. It is an opportunity to get others to do the work on our behalf and to look for opportunities to either support other work that is being done by researchers in a variety of fields. Canadians have to be assured that there are no levels of abuse that are occurring with the act.

Having said that, we must also look at whether or not there are restrictions on the application of the act for the purpose for which it was intended. It is very important obviously that members would agree. What is the purpose of the act? How far do we go here? What is public?

We have had cases where applications have been made for the daily agenda, the diary of meetings of the Prime Minister of our country. We ask the question, is it relevant and is it fair ball for someone to want to see exactly what we did every period of the day, who we met with for what purposes, et cetera? I am sure there are some good arguments that would be quite interesting.

However, I also saw examples of things where someone would write to a minister--I think it was the industry minister at the time--and asked for copies of every piece of correspondence he received from the public on this subject matter.

It was fair ball; it was there. However, it also put the government in an awkward situation, or at least the minister under the scope or the rules of the Access to Information Act as to what could done with regard to information that was not solicited but was given out. It theoretically would involve a ministry to go to each of those persons and ask permission to release documents, in some cases. The fact that someone has said something, maybe unsolicited, may be under the purview of a minister that the subject matter may be used for legislation purposes or other things like that. To the extent that Canadians would provide their opinions is kind of interesting.

I have another example. I recall receiving a letter from the justice ministry advising that a letter that I had sent to the justice minister with regard to a constituent's concern was being sought and would be released under the Access to Information Act.

It made me wonder all of a sudden, where does this stop? Where do we start pushing the envelope and where are we providing matters which are in the public good? I almost hesitate to use that phrase because it has been used in some other context which I find a little inappropriate. It has to do with possession of child pornography.

In regard to communications, there must be some comfort level to the extent that there are matters going on in the normal course of business. That is one matter. However, what is happening that may provide influence, or maybe even undue influence, on legislators as they conduct their work? Is the act being used for the purpose for which it was intended and, does it have the scope or the latitude to be able to achieve the goals for which it was intended?

I also recall from our ad hoc committee that we had representations that there was not a significant abuse of the system with regard to people using the system as a research instrument. I also believe that there were some representations for departmental officials that the work involved in providing that information was not significantly onerous on the department that in the normal course of its operations those matters could be handled.

It is important to have that assessment from a broader representation. The ad hoc committee covered a great deal of information. I think what it demonstrated, if nothing else, is that there were a number of questions with regard to the Access to Information Act which legitimately and properly should be addressed by Parliament. As a consequence, I think the bill has given the opportunity, once again, for the Parliament of Canada to look at the bill from that context, to raise these important questions, and to have a committee consider them.

I thank the hon. member for his honourable work.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

John Bryden Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Aldershot, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin and summarize the contents of Bill C-462, so that people watching from outside will see that the proposals in the bill are for the most part very reasonable.

First, the bill would change the name of the act to the open government act.

Second, it would require government records that are more than 30 years old to be automatically opened, except when specifically exempted for reasons of national security, public safety or international obligation.

Third, it would establish the principle that records be provided without unreasonable barriers as to time and cost.

Fourth, it would provide protection of information relating to endangered species and threatened ecological or archeological sites.

Fifth, it would bring cabinet confidences under the act.

Sixth, it would protect information related to critical infrastructure.

Seventh, it would extend the act to crown corporations and agencies previously excluded and to all incorporated not for profit organizations that receive at least two-thirds of their funding from federal government sources.

Eighth, it would make ministers of the Crown, their exempt staff and officers of Parliament subject to the act.

Ninth, it would make travel and hospitality expenses of MPs and senators subject to the act.

Tenth, it would allow the disclosure of retained records pertaining to public health and safety, and the environment to be disclosed in the interests of public safety.

Eleventh, it would specify what cabinet records must be disclosed.

Twelfth, it would give the Prime Minister discretion to release the records of previous cabinets under previous administrations.

Finally, it would provide public access to government records pertaining to third party contracts and opinion polling.

I believe we would agree in the House that the majority of those suggested amendments are not controversial and would vastly improve the effect of the act. However, I would like to address some of the criticisms advanced by the member for London West.

She made three points expressing, I presume, the concern of the government. One was the allusion to section 24, which pertains to all kinds of clauses in various legislation that cite exemptions and protections from the Access to Information Act.

I think she made a very valid point that totally eliminating section 24 could have all kinds of unintended consequences. I say before the House right now that if the bill were to go to committee stage, I would be prepared at the outset to suspend that section of Bill C-462 which would eliminate section 24. I am afraid the committee would be bogged down for months, if not years, discussing the implications of that particular amendment. Right at the outset, let us put it aside now so that the bill can go forward quickly.

The other two points the member made, she expressed the concern that the CBC would be afraid that the confidences of its journalists would be affected by this legislation. I can assure her absolutely, that is a red herring from the CBC itself. The Access to Information Act, as presently constructed, provides all the protections needed for not only MPs' confidences, but also the confidences of journalists and the confidences of the operations of ordinary corporations. That is not a problem.

Finally, she expressed the concern about the provision that non-profit organizations receiving two-thirds of their funding from the federal government would be included in the act. She is quite right. The intention is to capture charities and it is to capture foundations that receive most of their money from the federal government.

I point out that the Foundation for Innovation and the Millennium Scholarship Endowment Fund, which are almost totally funded by the government, have been the subject of a lot of concern in the House because they are not suitably transparent. They are a means of the government to put money aside through a third party agency that is not accountable directly to the people and not as transparent as the government would be if it spent the money itself.

Yes, that is the intention. I would be prepared to defend it in committee. I think the member would find very broad support among Canadians. Wherever federal taxpayer money is spent in large sums, there should be the same regimes of transparency and accountability as exist when the federal government is spending the money directly.

Bill C-462 reflects an effort that goes back far beyond me. The actual origin of the access to information bill was the initiative of backbench MPs. This initiative of bringing transparency and accountability to government has always been an initiative of all members of the House, regardless of party. It has not been an initiative of government.

What we are dealing with here is the recognition by MPs, generally, that transparency and accountability is the heritage of Canadians, it is the right of Canadians. Because backbench MPs are not hooked up with government, as it were, they tend to be more sensitive to this.

I would propose that all backbench MPs in the House, at the very least, support Bill C-462 on principle because it is a principle, I believe, that is in the interests of all Canadians.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Some hon. members

No.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

All those opposed will please say nay.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

In my opinion, the nays have it.

And more than five members having risen:

Open Government Act
Private Members' Business

11:45 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Pursuant to Standing Order 93, the recorded division stands deferred until Wednesday, April 28 immediately before the time provided for private members' business.