Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I would also like to thank the committee for inviting me here to testify on this most important of issues.
As mentioned, I'm a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, where my research focuses on why we value information in democracies and the history of our country's freedom of information laws.
I am also, along with Mr. Cutler, a member of the Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group, an ad hoc coalition of experts who joined together earlier this spring to recommend reforms to Canada's whistle-blowing and freedom of information laws within the context of the pandemic.
It's from these two places that I will be speaking today.
I would like to begin by briefly discussing the crucial importance of information to Canadians at this moment in history. Generally speaking, we value information for two reasons—control and certainty. With information, we are able to make better decisions about the world around us, whether it's in the voting booth or the checkout line, thereby controlling public and private institutions. That information can also make us feel more certain about the world because it allows us to better understand it.
During an emergency, the need for information accelerates because Canadians want to make the best possible decisions to keep themselves safe. They also want to ensure that governments and corporations are doing the same thing on their behalf, especially when it involves a significant expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
The costs of not providing this information are severe in the post-truth era we find ourselves living in. That's because if there is an information gap, there's a substantial risk it will be filled with misinformation and disinformation.
The Government of Canada has in some ways tried to provide such information, but in other ways there are numerous documented instances of it failing to do so. Because of our broken access to information system, there is no easy or quick means for Canadians to challenge these refusals and obtain records or data the government won't voluntarily disclose, which was the entire point behind the Access to Information Act in the first place.
That's why the Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group has recommended the government be legally required to proactively release a number of broad categories of unredacted records within 15 days of their being prepared, including health and safety inspection reports, public health research and government contracts.
We are also recommending major reforms to Canada's whistle-blower law as this committee has done in the past. Last month we saw how it took Canadian soldiers to blow the whistle on deplorable conditions in Ontario nursing homes. At the time, Premier Ford said that was because you find cracks in the system by living the system around the clock every single day. In making that statement, he has eloquently articulated why we need to better protect public and private employees who see wrongdoing in their workplaces.
We recognize that such reforms, which should include financial protection for whistle-blowers, will take time, and that's why we're calling on the government to publicly declare that it will protect anyone who reports public and private sector wrongdoing related to the crisis. We further recommend the creation of a COVID-19 ombudsperson who can provide advice and support for these whistle-blowers.
Canada's Access to Information Act currently ranks 57th compared to 127 other similar laws around the world. Its Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act has been criticized for being in violation of international best practices. It shouldn't take the COVID-19 crisis to change this. However, if it does, such reforms will help preserve evidence-based democratic decision-making at a time when it is under threat.
I would urge the members of this committee to take immediate action on this very important issue.