Evidence of meeting #71 for Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was commissioner.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Allen Sutherland  Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Machinery of Government, Privy Council Office
Jennifer Dawson  Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat
Adair Crosby  Senior Counsel and Deputy Director, Judicial Affairs, Courts and Tribunal Policy, Public Law Sector, Department of Justice
Ruth Naylor  Executive Director, Information and Privacy Policy Division, Chief Information Officer Branch, Treasury Board Secretariat

5:05 p.m.

Some hon. members

Oh, oh!

5:05 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

When it comes to Info Source, I'm not too familiar with it, but I'm reading the special report from the OIC, and there's some concern that information that would provide Canadians with a working knowledge of how to make requests in a more efficient way has been taken down, and the response seems to be that it's available on the Internet on government websites otherwise. Why would we not simply provide a digital version of Info Source? Perhaps that is the intention.

5:05 p.m.

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat

Jennifer Dawson

Info Source is something that has been associated with the act since 1983. It was created at a point in time when each institution had a reading room. You could go to the reading room to get access, typically to paper files, which would be brought to you. Info Source was typically found in hard copy, in public libraries. It was essentially a phone directory, like the white pages, which we don't use too much today.

Our intention here is to recognize that departments make available, through the Internet now, a lot of information about their programs, but it is also linked. We have a legislated duty to assist requesters. If they can find us and they have an idea of their request, we should and must help them in fulfilling their request.

October 18th, 2017 / 5:05 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

I take it the purpose of Info Source was to make it easier for requesters to understand how to best go about it. Generally, then, Info Source was a specific way to assist individuals. I don't know what the answer is, but I think you may want to look into prescribing some more specific version of the duty to assist, ensuring that Info Source and its underlying purpose live on online.

I asked the ministers when they were here about the rationale for not going further in applying the act to ministers' offices. One of the answers was cabinet deliberations, but as I understand it—and correct me if I'm wrong—the act currently has a mandatory exclusion in relation to cabinet confidences, and there are exemptions in relation to advice and recommendations to ministers. So I don't completely understand the rationale. Perhaps you could clear up that confusion.

5:05 p.m.

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat

Jennifer Dawson

In bringing forward a proactive disclosure regime that applies now to institutions that have never been covered under the act before, we are really trying to provide access to information that can be provided and is of interest. Typically the kinds of proactive disclosure that we're proposing relate, for example, to the use of public funds. This is a way of capturing ministers' offices and the Prime Minister's Office, as well as the institutions that support the courts.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

To put it a different way, there are other jurisdictions that have their freedom of information or access to information laws applied to ministers' offices in different ways. There may be problems in those jurisdictions, for all I know. When the department looked at this and put this legislation forward, and the minister put this legislation forward, were there countervailing considerations that this committee ought to be aware of as to why the government did not make the decision to apply the act, as it was understood before proactive disclosure, to ministers' offices?

5:10 p.m.

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat

Jennifer Dawson

The only thing I would like to add to the earlier part of my answer is a reminder that the two-step process still applies in terms of access to information in ministers' offices. If an institution could reasonably expect to have access to the information—for example, a deputy minister might have access to what's in a minister's office—and it applies to the work of the department, it is subject to the request and the system.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

Okay. The Information Commissioner has taken issue with what seems to me to be some vague language in the act, which is a “large number of records”. That is combined with where it might unreasonably interfere with government operations. There has to be a better way. The idea of a large number of records, I don't exactly know what that means. Is this a concern that the department is looking at addressing, in terms of perhaps more precise language?

5:10 p.m.

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat

Jennifer Dawson

The policy guidance and training for institutions will be really critical in this. In the provinces and territories that have an ability to decline to process, they provide guidance and examples to help their organizations. For us, when we're taking a look at what is so large that it impedes the ability of an organization to do its work, that has to be context specific. There are completely legitimate requests that will be associated with a very large number of records. One of those, for example, might be first nations that are looking for information about their histories. There are going to be big requests, and that will need to be responded to.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

When we have the discussion about vexatious and frivolous requests, the minister's answer is that if the wrong determination is made, the Information Commissioner can fix that through an order. Does the same answer apply in relation to the large numbers of records?

5:10 p.m.

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat

Jennifer Dawson

Yes. The authority to decline to process a request is subject to the oversight of the Information Commissioner.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

There's some comfort there for citizens then to say that the Information Commissioner can ensure that this would actually be so voluminous that it would interfere with...and the public interest doesn't outweigh that.

5:10 p.m.

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat

Jennifer Dawson

That's right ,and we do have a duty to assist as well. Therefore, we will be working with requesters to try and ensure that we have a good understanding of what they're looking for, so that we can best deal with the volume of requests.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

I think that another concern of the Information Commissioner is when the order-making powers and the rules take effect. It occurs to me that we're going to enter into a strange situation where there's a certain class of cases before the Information Commissioner, up to today's date and until a year from now, to which order making does not apply and then there's going to be a second class, after that date, when order making does apply. I wonder why we wouldn't just defer to the best practices and expertise of the Information Commissioner to do as they see fit, give them more order-making powers for all cases, and let them do their job.

5:10 p.m.

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat

Jennifer Dawson

I think that's an interesting question. Our intent in having a transition period was to avoid confusion in the system, where some investigations began under one process and shifted to another, but it's something to—

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

It might be even more complicated for them, but I would leave it to them to—

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

That's time.

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith Liberal Beaches—East York, ON

It might be even more complicated to have a dual system in place for an extended period of time. We may want to have them weigh in and listen to their advice.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

Thank you, MP Erskine-Smith.

The next five-minute round goes to MP Gourde.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Are there provisions within departments to restrict access to information for national security reasons? Do we refuse to give out certain information because it could compromise the safety of Canadians, such as disclosing details about certain security systems that the National Defence might have bought? If some foreign countries knew how much they’ve cost, they could have an idea of the equipment that we have. Do such provisions exist?

5:15 p.m.

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat

Jennifer Dawson

Yes. The existing Access to Information Act does include provisions to consider the protection of some information that would either be of harm to the national interest, if released, or of harm to individuals, so we have not proposed any changes in terms of those existing provisions.

Some of these provisions are at the discretion of departments.

In those situations where we have discretion, the idea is to ask ourselves, how can we be open to the greatest extent possible, while protecting that small piece of information that must be protected? That's part of education, training, and consistency in the system that we need to continue to advance. In spring 2016, we issued an interim directive that reminded people of the importance of being open by default and leaning to openness when they are making interpretations where discretion can be applied. However, other than information that is excluded, there is a recourse to the Information Commissioner to ensure that discretion is being appropriately applied.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

Is this recourse used from time to time? Are there statistics that show that, in certain cases, the commissioner had to clarify the situation?

5:15 p.m.

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board Secretariat

Jennifer Dawson

Yes, we do have statistics that indicate every time exemptions were granted. Most of the time, they are granted when personal information or information regarding international affairs or national defence are concerned, or in the case of a strengthening of the legislation or investigations. In reality, most of the time, it serves to ensure confidentiality of information related to one person or to national defence, or in other situations, of information pertaining to the strengthening of the legislation.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Jacques Gourde Conservative Lévis—Lotbinière, QC

Thank you.

That’s all for me.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Bob Zimmer

That's four minutes. Thank you, MP Gourde.

Next up, for a five-minute round, is MP Baylis.