Mr. Speaker, the Access to Information Act came into force on July 1, 1983. At that time it was a revolutionary piece of legislation and represented a significant leap forward for the right to know.
By enacting the Access to Information Act, Canada joined a group of elite countries whose governments had opened their files to their citizens. Prior to the Access to Information Act, access to government information could be granted or denied according to the whim of the government official who responded.
However, after the coming into force of that legislation, Canadian citizens could not be denied access to information without proper justification. Parliament had established the principle that Canadians citizens and landed immigrants were entitled to have access to documents held by the government, subject only to specific and limited exceptions provided for in the act.
These exceptions were established after considerable thought in order to maintain a balance between the right of access to information and privacy, business secrets, national security and the need to maintain a climate of open communication for policy making purposes.
To further emphasize the commitment to openness, most of the exemptions contained in the act were made discretionary. There is no harm or injury to the interest protected by the exemption, then the institution is not prevented from releasing the information.
The Access to Information Act also provides applicants with an appeal process if some or all the information they have requested is denied or if they are unsatisfied with the processing of the request. Complaints may initially be made to an independent officer who reports directly to parliament, the information commissioner and then, if the applicant is still unsatisfied, to the federal court.
The Access to Information Act represented a major commitment to openness by the Government of Canada. Since then, most provinces have passed legislation providing access, to varying degrees, to government information.
This right to know embodied in legislation is one means of giving Canadians an insight into what their government is doing. It also enables citizens to access and use the information that their government holds on their behalf.
Canadians agree that the machinery of government has become more complex over time, its responsibilities are broader and its decisions have a direct impact on their lives. This is why it is important to be accountable to the population and to constantly ensure that the government systematically releases information on its activities.
It is therefore important to remember that the Access to Information Act was intended to supplement other traditional ways of making government information available to the public. I believe that the Access to Information Act has encouraged institutions to identify many categories of information that can be released without formal requests. Many institutions have, on their own initiative, placed useful information on their websites, in their libraries or in their reading rooms.
Since 1983 the environment in which the Government of Canada operates has changed. Technology has had a tremendous impact on the way government delivers programs and services to Canadian citizens, and on how information is collected, processed, and managed within the government.
Following these changes, some argued that the provisions of the Access to Information Act are now outdated and require a major update to take into account the new information technologies. Consequently, many individuals and interest groups propose changes touching on specific aspects of the act and some more general changes.
Parliamentarians are among those who want to change the act. While some members used the Access to Information Act to get government information, others introduced private members' bills to amend it.
For example, section 67.1 was the most recent amendment to the act. This section was added when Bill C-208 was proclaimed on March 25, 1999. This was a significant amendment to the act as it made it a criminal offence for any person to wilfully obstruct the right of access provided by the Access to Information Act.
Bill C-208 received all party support in the House, sending a clear message that all parties strongly support the concept of openness.
Another private member's bill is the bill we are debating today, Bill C-206 which was re-introduced by the hon. member for Wentworth—Burlington. This bill proposes a variety of amendments to the Access to Information Act.
I believe this bill is a good start. The member is to be congratulated for his leadership on this important issue. He has demonstrated his commitment to the concept of openness by proposing 33 amendments to the act which he believes will improve the act and will increase that openness.
Nevertheless, while I commend my colleague in his efforts, I believe that before we vote on these significant amendments to the Access to Information Act, we must seek the views of all stakeholders who will be affected by them: Canadian citizens, the information commissioner, special groups, representatives of the media, government officials and so on. There are widely differing views as to the impact this bill would have on the Access to Information Act, and the consequences that would emerge from the it. In order to properly assess the contents of the bill we need to hear more, both from those who support the bill, or portions of it, and from those who oppose the bill.
All of these individuals or groups who use or have an interest in the Access to Information Act must have an opportunity to make representations or bring forward their own proposals to amend the act before we take any further steps.
We must open the discussion and invite all stakeholders to participate in the important debate concerning what adjustments are needed and how the objectives of the act can best be accomplished. While I am among those who support the overall thrust of the bill as laudable, there are a number of outstanding concerns on which there needs to be full and wide consultation.