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IV. Governance issues

Access to information

Access to information (both general information and personal information) held by government is governed by statutes at both the federal and provincial levels in Canada. The federal Access to Information Act is administered by a full time Information Commissioner. Each province has its own freedom of information law, administered by an Information Commissioner or other public official.1

The federal Access to Information Act2 provides individuals with a right of access to information held by the federal public sector. The Act gives Canadians and other individuals and corporations present in Canada the right to apply for and obtain copies of federal government records. "Records" include letters, memos, reports, photographs, films, microforms, plans, drawings, diagrams, maps, sound and video recordings, and machine-readable or computer files. The Federal Court ruled that the government has an obligation to answer all access requests regardless of the perceived motives of the requesters.

The Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada (OICC) can initiate a Federal Court review in limited circumstances relating to denial of access to records. The Information Commissioner can also investigate and issue recommendations, but does not have the power to issue binding orders. The Commissioner must investigate all complaints even if the government seeks to block him or her from so doing on the grounds that the complaints are made for an improper purpose. After numerous legal challenges brought by the federal government, it is now established that the Commissioner has authority to compel records from the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices. The OICC received 3500 complaints in 2005-2006. Out of those, the OICC completed 1,863 investigations and reviews. It carried 1,417 complaints from individuals, 237 systemic complaints over into 2007.3

In May 2005, the results of a national access-to-information audit were released.4 The audit was conducted by 89 reporters from 45 newspapers across Canada, under the umbrella of the Canadian Newspaper Association. Reporters made access requests of several government offices to determine how well government officials are obeying access-to-information laws. The results indicated a wide range of disclosure practices, from poor compliance in Prince Edward Island to a compliance score of 93 percent in Alberta. The federal government scored only 25 percent. The report cites problems of red tape, poor disclosure, prohibitive fees, and incompliance with statutory time limits for responses across all levels of government. Information that is free of charge in some provinces and municipalities, and can cost thousands of dollars in others.

International obligations

Canada is a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and relied on the OECD's 1980 Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data in the drafting of the federal Privacy Act of 1982.5 Canada also has observer status at the Council of Europe and although it is not a member, it was a key player in the negotiations on the Cybercrime Convention. It has signed, but not yet ratified the Convention.6

Canada is a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Community, and participates in the Electronic Commerce Steering Group‘s Data Privacy Subgroup. The Privacy Subgroup developed the APEC Privacy Framework, which outlines nine privacy principles including the prevention of harm, notice, collection limitation, uses of personal information, choice, integrity of personal information, security safeguards, access and correction, and accountability. APEC adopted the Privacy Framework in 2004, and member countries’ endorsement of the Framework means that they will continue efforts to develop a "consistent approach to information privacy protection across APEC member economies, while also avoiding the creation of unnecessary barriers to information flows."7