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Nova Scotia's Access to Information improvements long overdue, group charges

by Moira Donovan

A coalition of organizations is demanding improvements to Nova Scotia's Access to Information framework. Journalist and politician Joe Howe would likely agree. Photo Wikipedia
A coalition of organizations is demanding improvements to Nova Scotia's Access to Information framework. Journalist and politician Joe Howe would likely agree. Photo Wikipedia

A group of organizations in Nova Scotia is calling on the provincial government to implement improvements to the access to information framework – improvements they say are both essential and long overdue.

A statement released by the Right to Know Coalition this week identified a host of issues with the current system, including long delays in responding to requests; excessive fees charged for access; an overuse of exceptions as a way of denying access and a generally negative attitude about disclosing information.

The statement was published in anticipation of September 28, which has been designated internationally as Right to Know day. By releasing the statement, Michael Karanicloas, President of the Right to Know Coalition, says they hope to draw attention to the risks associated with ineffective access to information legislation.

“We’re hoping to reignite discussion on the issue to remind Nova Scotians about promises that were made and why this issue is important to safeguarding the democratic process,” he says.

When campaigning for office in 2013, Stephen McNeil, responding to a report from the Centre for Law and Democracy – which described Nova Scotia’s downward trajectory from early adopter of access to information laws to underachiever in all things transparent – vowed to make this province the most transparent in the country.

Two years later, those changes have yet to materialize, and, and last year the premier said that he believes the system is actually working fine.

Out of all the countries that have freedom of information legislation, Canada ranks 59th. This might come as surprising information to some – but for the signatories to that statement, it’s a well-known state of affairs.

“The failures of the system are ongoing,” says Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy. The CLD is one of the signatories to the statement; it’s also the organization responsible for the ranking system that placed Canada 59th. “I think [Canadians] have been facing serious challenges in accessing information for a very long time now.”

Although the recent statement was directed at the Nova Scotia government, Canada’s low ranking is more than an aggregation of poor provincial performance. There are problems with the federal level too.

“Our information systems at the federal level but also the provincial are broken, they’re not working. The laws are outdated and implementation systems are significantly dysfunctional. They’re not providing citizens with information they should be getting and they actually are very inefficient as well for the bureaucracy, so they’re not much good to anybody,” says Mendel, noting that with the federal election imminent, it’s a good time to push for change at that level as well.

This is especially true because many of the changes the CLD is advocating for at the federal level – such as increased oversight of access to information legislation and limiting the information that is considered exempt– are more or less the same as provincial issues.

In Nova Scotia, barriers to access have real consequences.

This is an issue for most of our clients because it affects them practically,” says Gillian Zubizaretta, Settlement Coordinator at the Halifax Refugee Clinic. Zubizaretta says she regularly has to use access to information requests to get access to public policy documents that concern her clients.

“I don’t believe there’s any reason why public policy departments should be difficult to access. Provincial departments shouldn’t have to be forced to provide information to the public regarding policies that guides access to services.”

There are precedents for doing a better job – India, Mexico, Bulgaria and Slovenia all have a stronger system than Canada. But those are countries where authoritarianism and corruption are a more recent memory, and an argument could at least be attempted that the context is different.

After all, the provinces, Mendel says, generally base their weak and outdated access to information standards off one another, rather than looking outside the “Canadian cocoon”.

But the risk of abuse, mismanagement and government malfeasance exists in Nova Scotia too, says Karanicolas.

Even more importantly, there’s a province that’s making its way out of the Canadian cocoon, and that province is Newfoundland.

In June of this year, Newfoundland introduced sweeping changes to its access to information procedures.

If Newfoundland was a country, says Mendel, it would now be ranked 15th globally for its access to information laws.

This is only the first step in terms of improving access in Canada as a whole, says Mendel, but it is a significant one.

“That’s really kind of thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the Canadian jurisdictions to say this can be done.”

Although Newfoundland could be a model for the future, the starting point in Nova Scotia is holding the Liberal party to account for promises that have already been made in the past.

In the long term, however, improving access to information is a bipartisan issue, and improving standards will take nothing less than a shift in institutional attitudes towards an understanding that transparency is more productive than perilous, says Karinicolas.

“It’s a difficult argument to make” he says, but adds that it’s a goal that all Nova Scotians should share – much like information itself.

On September 28, the Centre for Law and Democracy is hosting an event at city hall featuring Steve Kent, Deputy Premier of Newfoundland, along with officials from the provincial governments and Information and Privacy Offices of both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. For more information, go to the CLD’s website.


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