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Federal info commissioner says integrity of access-to-information system at risk

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, is shown in Ottawa on May 31, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The federal information commissioner says poor leadership and scant resources have left departments and agencies struggling to answer access-to-information requests from Canadians.

In her annual report tabled Thursday, Suzanne Legault says the integrity of the system is at risk and the weaknesses must be urgently addressed.

The Access to Information Act, which came into force in 1983, allows people who pay $5 to request a variety of records from federal agencies — from correspondence and briefing notes to expense reports and audits.

The government is supposed to respond within 30 days or provide good reasons why a delay is necessary.

But Legault say says staff shortages meant one institution — the RCMP — routinely went six months without even acknowledging receipt of requests.

In other cases, the response time can vary from 18 months to more than three years.

“It is imperative that the access problems be fixed promptly and significantly. There is truly a need for leadership on the part of the government and the individual institutions,” Legault told a news conference.

“Unfortunately, yesterday’s speech from the throne is silent on matters of transparency and accountability.”

Legault noted that the throne speech mentioned the government’s commitment to address issues surrounding the fatal rail disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que., last summer.

However, she said, based on Access to Information request extensions being taken by Transport Canada, Canadians who want records about federal plans to deal with the accident’s aftermath can expect to wait “a year before they actually get their response.”

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the minister responsible for Access to Information, said earlier this year the Harper government was the most transparent in Canadian history.

Legault took issue with that assertion Thursday. She said she recently met with Clement and told him she would publicly hold him accountable for the Access to Information system’s failings.