An Act to amend the Access to Information Act (Crown corporations and the Canadian Wheat Board)

This bill was last introduced in the 37th Parliament, 1st Session, which ended in September 2002.

Sponsor

Rick Borotsik  Progressive Conservative

Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)

Status

Not active, as of Feb. 7, 2001
(This bill did not become law.)

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Access To Information ActPrivate Members' Business

April 23rd, 2001 / 11:30 a.m.
See context

Canadian Alliance

David Anderson Canadian Alliance Cypress Hills—Grasslands, SK

Mr. Speaker, I have just come back from southwestern Saskatchewan where the new crop year is beginning. Ranchers are out in their fields and calves are just being born. They are watching their new crops come to life. Farmers are beginning to go into their fields now to start their farming year, and within the next month will start to see their crops come to life, in the same way that western Canada is trying to come to life economically.

We are having a tough time in agriculture and producers are trying to respond and be successful. As we move into a new season and see it come to life, it is fair to ask: Should producers know about their product?

When growing a product there are some questions that are fair to ask and we should be able to get answers to those questions. It is reasonable to ask where the product is being sold and where the market is for it. It is reasonable to ask how much a product sold for, how is it blended and mixed out and if a maximum price was received. It is fair for the producers to ask if they got a fair price for their product. It is also fair to ask how much other people are benefiting from production.

These are a few of the areas that producers need to know about. They know very little today because of the lack of information coming from the system. Producers should know this, and the bill today begins to address that problem and process.

Bill C-249, an act to amend the Access to Information Act particularly with respect to the Canadian Wheat Board is important for several reasons.

First, we continue to live in a democracy. As we saw this weekend, people have the right to participate in and be a part of a democratic process. Farmers can be trusted. They do not need to be shielded from information about their own industry.

Second, producers need and can use this information. Farming is changing very rapidly these days. The old days when we trusted those above no longer exist. The days when everything was done in secrecy are not acceptable to producers.

The wheat board was developed during the war years to provide Europe with its source of cheap grain. It did that job. The wheat board did a good PR job from the beginning but there has been a culture of secrecy around since it was put in place. Basically farmers were told to trust it and not ask questions.

I remember as a young person on a farm being in a situation where farmers did not know what freight rates were and what they were paying to get their product to the market. They did not know what deductions were being taken off their crops. They did not know where their production went or how it was priced. Those days are over. It is not good enough any more.

It is only in the last 10 or 15 years that producers have realized that the wheat board and other organizations have not necessarily been looking after their best interests. One of the best examples I saw was in the early nineties with some frozen feed wheat. We were told by the board that it did not want it. It was not prepared to market much of it that winter. Farmers went out and found markets. They took their wheat across the border and arranged for pricing. They found out it was not quite as bad as it was thought to be in Canada.

They were prepared to go through the buyback system from the board. It was not the board that contacted them. It was the grain company in the United States that phoned and said it did not want to buy their wheat at the price which had been negotiated. It said it could get as much as it wanted at 85 cents less than what the farmers had negotiated.

It became obvious to the people who knew what was going on that our interests were not always being looked after but we could not get the information in any way, shape or form to prove it. I think we could agree that government organizations that withhold information have seen their day. We saw a good example of that this weekend.

Once it was stay at home and let someone else make decisions about the farm, but not anymore. The era of “we will look after you” is over. The farmers who are succeeding in agriculture today are some of the sharpest and most successful business people. They are usually the people who insist on managing their own resources in order to be successful.

Farming is a tough business today. Success means being on top of the industry. It means having all the information available to make decisions. Virtually every other commodity allows that. Wheat is one of the few that does not because we cannot get the information from the wheat board.

An example of an industry that has grown phenomenally and where people can get information is the pulse industry. Over the last few years pulse acres have grown by 2,000%. That industry continues to grow in western Canada. It is interesting that it has been one of the industries which has had the least government involvement of any industry in western Canada.

Producers need information which deals with the products they are growing. We need this bill for a number of reasons.

First, there is a desperate need for accountability at the Canadian Wheat Board. It has a long history of denying access to information. Without information there can be no accountability. Anyone who thinks about that statement will realize it is accurate. Without information no one can be held accountable.

There has been an information wall, almost a code of silence. We heard the member for Brandon—Souris speak about trying to get generic information and was absolutely stonewalled. It is a process familiar to those of us who have tried it.

The second area in which we need information is the buyback system. Over the years if farmers wanted to market their own grain they had to sell it to the wheat board and buy it back at an inflated price. This restricted and did not help producers. In particular it restricted diversification.

The western Canadian economy is struggling right now. One of the things we absolutely need is value added processing and diversification. The buyback which the board has in place hinders that in every way. There is a restriction on getting information on how the buyback is calculated and why we should have to pay the price it is asking. Producers are not allowed to question the figures.

I believe that the beginning of accountability would be to open up the Canadian Wheat Board to the Access to Information Act. There is a principle which applies here. People should be able to make their own choices and be educated enough to make them. The only way to ensure accountability is to let people participate voluntarily. I would suggest that while this bill is a good start, we need to go further. We need to take a look at voluntary marketing of our wheat.

I will give three examples of producers who are hurt by the current system of forced participation and the inability to get information from the Canadian Wheat Board system.

The first example is western Canadian farmers who have been able to contract their grain. Farmers who have found markets for it have been restricted by the Canadian Wheat Board from marketing the grain themselves. Ontario farmers have a choice when it comes to marketing grain but not western Canadians. Not only can we not get information but we have no freedom to market.

The Liberals are sending out a task force to talk to western Canadians about agriculture. Maybe they can start with this. One reason why there is alienation there is that people are treated differently in different areas of this land when it comes to marketing their products.

The second example of producers who are hurt by the current system is the organic farmers. They do a very good job of selling to niche markets. In the last few years the wheat board has tried to step in and take that away from them. Organic farmer organizations have a tough time marketing their grain because the wheat board does not sell well to niche markets.

The third example is producers who want to add value to their communities. Right now, because of the buyback system and the entire wheat board system, there is an inability to diversify in rural communities. We absolutely have to do that.

We have no opportunity, no information and no choice. I believe we should have a voluntary marketing system that would remove the problem of not being able to get information. However I do not see anything that progressive coming from the government.

I conclude by saying that I do not think there is a need to oppose this bill. The Access to Information Act gives adequate protection to the Canadian Wheat Board. If it does not want to release information it feels is commercially sensitive, it does not have to. If people have ever seen an ATI, they will know that there are more black felt pens probably used than there is clear ink on the page.

I encourage the government to have the guts to use this bill as a good beginning. It leads to greater freedom and autonomy for producers. I call on the government to go further in establishing a voluntary Canadian Wheat Board.

My challenge to the government is that it quit being afraid to lead. It is time to treat western Canadians as grown-ups. We are all familiar with the Berlin Wall that surrounded its people. The results behind that wall were inefficiency, a huge bureaucracy, an air of intimidation when it was challenged and no accountability. I encourage the government to get over that mentality concerning the Canadian Wheat Board.

I fear the wheat board, with its lack of openness to its policies, will drive the prairie wheat producers into the ground. I ask that this bill be supported. Although I know it is not votable, I ask that its provisions be brought to reality in the House.

Access To Information ActPrivate Members' Business

April 23rd, 2001 / 11:20 a.m.
See context

Timiskaming—Cochrane Ontario

Liberal

Ben Serré LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Natural Resources

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-249. If passed, the Canada Wheat Board would fall under the Access to Information Act.

I can only say that such a scenario, if realized, would be completely unacceptable, not because the government is not open to accountability of its agencies and departments, as it most certainly is, but because it would run contrary to common business sense.

One wonders if the hon. member who put forward the bill and represents a western Canadian rural riding does not realize how the Canadian Wheat Board operates.

The Canadian Wheat Board is not a government department, not a government agency or even a crown corporation. It is a rather unique entity in Canada and perhaps the world in that it is a single desk marketer founded by federal legislation but not funded by taxpayers. Rather it is co-operative in style and is paid for by the farmers whose grain it markets. It is financially accountable to those farmers rather than to Canadian taxpayers.

It is also a business. By no means is it an insignificant business. It is a huge, highly successful commercial operation selling billions of dollars worth of Canadian wheat and barley each year to scores of countries around the world. Its success, which I hasten to add could not have been attained without the high quality wheat and barley our western farmers produce, makes it both the envy and the bane of its competitors.

As a business it competes with the Australian wheat board and major transnational companies that are similarly huge, such as Cargill, ConAgra and ADM. It is run by a board of directors, two-thirds of whom are elected directly by prairie farmers. As a business and a single desk marketing organization, the Canadian Wheat Board is probably subject to more audit scrutiny than any corporation either public or private could ever be.

Suffice it to say, to suggest the Canadian Wheat Board should fall under the same information legislation as government departments is quite frankly ludicrous.

If it is to advance the interests of farmers it serves, the Canadian Wheat Board must remain competitive in the global marketplace. Certain commercial or strategic information, if known to its competitors, could be used by them to gain commercial advantage, much to the detriment of Canadian grain producers.

Notwithstanding, the hon. member or any farmer, or any Canadian for that matter seeking information about the dealings of the Canadian Wheat Board, has several easily accessible options to pursue.

First, there is the CWB annual report, a comprehensive document which in terms of the information disclosed goes above and beyond the annual report of the Canadian Wheat Board's commercial competitors. The most recent annual report is 60 pages long and includes detailed information about stocks, market trends, export volumes, client countries and so on.

The Canadian Wheat Board, as with any other business, is audited every year by an independent, internationally known accounting firm. Detailed results of that audit are also part of the Canadian Wheat Board's annual report.

No, the Canadian Wheat Board does not release any information that would pertain to specific transactions or that would identify individual customers or shareholders. Nor do any of its competitors.

Farmers need to be knowledgeable about their wheat board and have every right to information pertaining to the CWB's performance and to facts that will help them make decisions about their own operations. The Canadian Wheat Board provides much of this information through market commentary, delivery related information, pool return outlooks, et cetera.

Farmers can also obtain facts about the Canadian Wheat Board through their elected directors. Directors have access to any and all of the Canadian Wheat Board's sales data and any other information pertaining to the wheat board's operations.

As with any business, nothing is off limits to those who sit on the board of the Canadian Wheat Board. It falls upon the directors to use their best judgment as to which pieces of information should be public and which should not.

Again I go back to a key point, which is that the Canadian Wheat Board is a commercial operation in a dog eat dog world. In these troubled times for grain producers, why would we add to their worries by making the board more vulnerable to its privately held secretive competitors? That is not to say that the Canadian Wheat Board is any less transparent than its competitors. To the contrary, it is more so.

Hon. members might recall that when the government made changes to the wheat board in 1998 it was with a view to making it more open and accountable to the farmers it serves.

Among the many actions the Canadian Wheat Board has taken to become more responsive and open to the farmers it serves was the development of an information policy. Let me be clear. This is a policy created by the board of directors in order to be directly accountable to farmers. The preamble to the information policy states:

As a producer controlled marketing organization, the CWB has a responsibility to provide meaningful and relevant information to its farmer shareholders. Information is key to increasing producer knowledge and understanding of CWB operations and performance, and will ensure that the CWB is accountable and meets producers' needs.

It further states that goals of the information policy are to:

  1. enable farmers to make a meaningful assessment of CWB performance; 2. provide meaningful and relevant information to farmers for use in their operations; and 3. ensure farmers' and the CWB's strategic and commercial interests are not placed at a competitive disadvantage by any information release.

A key element of the policy is if farmers want any information that is not disclosed through the usual audits and annual reports, meetings with the board of directors or other channels of communication they can simply request it.

I point out that the policy calls for the Canadian Wheat Board to respond to requests for information within 15 days or, if it cannot provide the information requested within 15 days, it must tell the requester how long it will take. In comparison, the Access to Information Act provides for a 30 day response period.

I have heard no great hue and cry from farmers wanting the Canadian Wheat Board to fall under the Access to Information Act. Is this bill the result of stacks of petitions as is often the case with private members' bills? Not likely.

I will leave it to others to speculate on the motive behind this bill. I would like to close by simply urging members to vote against Bill C-249 because a vote against this bill is a vote for the commercial interests of our western Canadian grain farmers.

Access To Information ActPrivate Members' Business

April 23rd, 2001 / 11:05 a.m.
See context

Progressive Conservative

Rick Borotsik Progressive Conservative Brandon—Souris, MB

moved that Bill C-249, an act to amend the Access to Information Act (Crown corporations and the Canadian Wheat Board) be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, it is certainly nice to be back in the House after the Easter break. It is also nice to see you in the Chair, as well as my colleagues from the House, and to get back to the parry and thrust of the House and politics.

It is my pleasure to stand, as the first member in the House after the break, to talk about something that I am very passionate about and something I feel is very important with respect to governments of all kinds, that is, openness and transparency, where in fact governments and crown corporations should be accountable to the people that they serve.

In this case, the bill speaks to the Access to Information Act and openness and transparency, particularly by crown corporations but also by the Canadian Wheat Board. Being a member of parliament from an area in western Canada, I have a great deal of responsibility for the agricultural community. A lot of producers talk to me on a fairly regular basis with respect to not only agriculture but the role that is currently being played by the Canadian Wheat Board in western Canada and the marketing of particular products, such as wheat and barley.

Bill C-249 unfortunately, and I underline the term unfortunately, has been deemed to not be a votable item.

I also sit on the private members' business committee. We are currently looking at the possibility of having all private members' business, whether it be bills or motions, made votable. I personally believe a good first step to the renewal of this Chamber and this House would be to give all members of parliament the opportunity to put forward what they feel are necessary changes to government policy and to have their changes voted on.

Unfortunately this bill is not votable. Having sat on that committee, I do take some responsibility I suppose but I still suggest very strongly that this bill should be votable. I know other members of other parties will agree with me when I say that the Access to Information Act is not there simply for governments to be able to not put information forward but for members, not only of parliament but also of the public, to access information from crown corporations and government which they feel is rightfully theirs.

The bill raises a very important question for policymakers to answer. Should the Access to Information Act be extended to include crown corporations, including the Canadian Wheat Board as it is currently structured, as defined under the Financial Administrations Act?

Some crown corporations are already subject to the Access to Information Act, such as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Others, such as Canada Post and the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, are not.

The argument made most often by these companies and the federal government is that because they are subject to competitive pressures of the marketplace, they should be exempt from the Access to Information Act. Their legitimate fear is that their competitors will use the act to obtain sensitive information that could be used to undermine the corporation's competitive advantage. That is a legitimate concern.

What most people do not realize, however, is that under section 18 of the Access to Information Act, government institutions can exempt competitively sensitive information. The act says:

The head of a government institution may refuse to disclose any record requested under this Act that contains (a) trade secrets or financial, commercial, scientific or technical information that belongs to the Government of Canada or a government institution and has substantial value or is reasonably likely to have substantial value; (b) information the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to prejudice the competitive position of a government institution;

The reason I read that section is that we already have the ability under the act to not provide information that would or could reasonably be expected to prejudice the competitive position of a government institution. We cannot use that excuse to not open up the boundaries of access to information to other crown corporations, including the Canadian Wheat Board.

It goes on to exclude information, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to be materially injurious to the financial interests of the Government of Canada. Section 18 then may offer exemptions significant enough under the act that crown corporations and the Canadian Wheat Board would be able to comply with the act without having to disclose sensitive, competitive information. What it would do is allow that openness and transparency of these corporations, including the Canadian Wheat Board, to be made mandatory to give information that does not fall within these categories. I will talk to that briefly in a moment.

The bill I have put forward today not only addresses some of the most paramount concerns farmers have with the Canadian Wheat Board but of all crown corporations that include transparency and accountability. As in any crown corporation or, as the Canadian Wheat Board is now known, a mixed corporation, Canadians expect no less and they should continue to expect no less.

When the Canadian Wheat Board was incorporated by the Canadian Wheat Board Act in 1935 it was established to market, interprovincially and for export, Canadian wheat and barley for producers. The wheat board is a monopoly system. If a producer wants to sell wheat or barley outside the Canadian Wheat Board, he must apply for an export permit. This means he sells his product to the Canadian Wheat Board, obtains a permit, buys the wheat back from the Canadian Wheat Board and then sells it on the open market. In other words, the farmer has no choice as to how he markets his commodity. It has to go through the Canadian Wheat Board, a wheat board that generates sales of wheat and barley in excess of approximately $6 billion annually.

The point I am getting at is that the farmers do not have a choice but to market through the Canadian Wheat Board. There is a lot of money at stake for the producers so why should the CWB not be accountable and transparent to those very producers, those very people it is there to serve?

Somewhere throughout the over 65 year history of the Canadian Wheat Board, farmers started to question the agency that was supposed to represent their best interests. They started to question its monopoly and the returns compared to that of the marketplace.

Most farmers in western Canada do not want to eliminate the Canadian Wheat Board. Others may speak to that comment and may well disagree with it, but the people I have talked to have initially said that they do not want necessarily to get rid of the Canadian Wheat Board. They simply want it to be able to compete in an open and transparent basis.

Canadians expect accountability for publicly funded institutions, as they should be. I firmly believe that the bill before us today would only add to that accountability.

I want to talk very briefly about why this particular piece of legislation is before the House today: openness and transparency.

In a previous life and in a previous form of government, I learned a long time ago that it is much better to be open to the people and the public we serve. In the municipal government there is nothing hidden behind closed doors.

I found out a long time ago when there is a closed door meeting, even if they are only talking about what to serve on the menu, immediately there is some distrust. When the doors are closed and the information is not flowing, something is happening behind those doors.

That is what is happening with the wheat board. I do not believe that there is anything sinister happening behind those closed doors. I believe that the Canadian Wheat Board is hiding behind those doors and not allowing the true information to come forward. If it does, I do not believe that it will be detrimental to the operations of the corporation.

I will give one small example. A number of months ago the Canadian Wheat Board commissioned a survey. It was its survey, done of its producers. Some 1,500 people were surveyed. They were asked to answer questions. The questions were asked, the data were gathered, and that information is not available to the public. Although it was gathered from the public, gathered from the people who are the stakeholders in the corporation, the information from that survey is not made available publicly because, I am told, it is way too sensitive commercially.

I would even accept that the information gathered was too sensitive commercially. By the way, I went to the access to information office and was told quite emphatically that the corporation did not fall within the guidelines of access to information.

I then wrote a letter to the board and asked for the survey results and was told that I could not access them or be given the results. Then I asked a simple question: could I have the questions that were asked in the survey? I did not ask for the information that was gleaned or all the data gathered. It was a matter of the questions that were asked of the people who supplied the information. I was told that the information was way too sensitive and commercial. I could not even get the questions that they asked.

The board asked those questions of 1,500 people. They were not meant to be kept secret. It was simply a matter of giving me the questions asked, and I could not get them. Even though I believe the information the board would have given me would not have impacted on its operations at all, it tells me that there is a closed door mentality that it does not have to give information and therefore it will not.

That adds another nail into coffin of the Canadian Wheat Board. That is not what I want. I want openness and transparency from the wheat board.

Access to information is supposed to work quite simply. A person filing a request pays $5 to ask for a range of records held by federal departments and agencies including memos, briefing notes, expense reports and audits. For the initial $5 fee the person receives five hours of government search and preparation time, beyond which departments may charge additional costs.

Access to information does not go as smoothly as it is supposed to go. In fact a recent report by the information commissioner, Mr. John Reid, was highly critical of the federal government for undermining the spirit of openness by showing palpable animosity toward the process. The commissioner stated that some bureaucrats have even threatened the career prospects of their staff members that investigate complaints from dissatisfied people who have filed access to information requests.

This is totally contrary to the act. Moreover, Federal Court of Canada Justice Edmond Blanchard ruled recently that the federal government tried to circumvent the will of the information act by refusing to release papers explaining the reasons behind one of cabinet's environmental decisions relating to Ethyl Canada.

Ethyl Canada requested discussion papers from cabinet members referring to the decision to ban the fuel additive MMT. When access to the documents was denied, Ethyl Canada filed a complaint. Judge Blanchard subsequently found that Ethyl Canada had a well founded complaint under the Access to Information Act, noting that the purpose of the access law is to give the public greater access to the inner workings of government. That is what the act is there for.

That is exactly what brings us here today. It is an effort to open up government and its institutions to Canadians. A federal task force was also appointed last August, headed by Ms. Andrée Delagrave. It is currently studying and reviewing ways to improve the Access to Information Act. It is inviting the public to comment over the next two months on its improvements. The task force is meeting with bureaucrats who process the reports, historians, librarians, journalists and other users of the law.

I hope members of parliament would also be a part of that process. I know that my office and the offices of other members use access to information quite regularly in order to have openness and transparency.

The bill I have before the House today is non-votable. I find that somewhat disturbing. Hopefully in the not too distant future the House will allow these types of bills and motions to be voted on so that we can see where members of the House stand on accountability, openness and transparency.

I do not want to specifically target the Canadian Wheat Board, although it is mentioned specifically in the bill as are other crown corporations. When public funding is a major cornerstone of organizations, it is my belief that those organizations should be open and accountable.

Under the act there are safeguards with respect to commercially sensitive information, with respect to competitive interests, and that crown corporations can use to stop unnecessary information flow to individuals asking for it. However it does stop the closed door mentality of corporations that are not prepared to give the most minute details, which I believe is a right of the citizens they serve.

I will not stop here with the piece of legislation I have before the House. Other legislation will come forward and I suspect eventually the Access to Information Act, even through the task force, will be changed quite dramatically so that Canadians will have access to information they deserve.

Access To Information ActRoutine Proceedings

February 7th, 2001 / 3:15 p.m.
See context

Progressive Conservative

Rick Borotsik Progressive Conservative Brandon—Souris, MB

moved for leave to introduce Bill C-249, an act to amend the Access to Information Act (Crown corporations and the Canadian Wheat Board).

Mr. Speaker, I too have tabled this bill in a previous parliament. The Progressive Conservative Party as well as other members on both sides of the House have always favoured openness and transparency in government. This bill would take the exclusion of crown corporations and the Canadian Wheat Board out of the Access to Information Act.

(Motions deemed adopted, bill read the first time and printed)