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September 10, 2001

Revamp information access law, officials say

Ottawa studies changes: Harmonized global law protects Canada's interests

Jim Bronskill
Southam News
National Post

OTTAWA - Key federal departments have quietly called for harmonization of the country's freedom-of-information laws with those of other nations as a means of protecting Canada's interests in the global arena.

Representatives of federal agencies expressed concerns during a roundtable session that Canada's international obligations concerning the release of information were "an area of uncertainty" that could hamper industry, trade and military affairs.

"If Canada's international partners have the impression that their confidential information may not be protected, they may stop providing us with critical and sensitive information and Canada may be left out of the loop," says a recently released summary of the session.

"This could have military and commercial consequences, such as in the area of trade opportunities."

The roundtable meeting of 12 agencies, held in mid-March, was one of several consultations by a federal task force reviewing the Access to Information Act. Among those present were representatives of Foreign Affairs, National Defence, the RCMP, Canada Customs and Revenue, Transport, Fisheries, Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

A number of participants noted that pressure sometimes comes from certain requesters of documents under the access act to disclose information "that our international partners would not be comfortable with releasing."

For instance, the U.S. has much more stringent rules concerning release of information about arms sales, notes the summary. "If they perceive that Canada represents an area of weakness, our participation in this lucrative field could be curtailed."

One access request dealt with international softwood lumber negotiations, and participants in the roundtable felt if Canada's strategy is revealed "the negotiations could be put at risk."

The summary also notes Canadian documents are sometimes released by the U.S. government according to a schedule under its automatic declassification program, while the same documents are protected in Canada. "A more co-ordinated approach to the disclosure of information is required with our international partners."

A study prepared for the federal access task force concludes government information knows "few national attachments" in the modern era. But the author, University of Victoria political scientist Colin Bennett, does not see the globalization of data as reason to panic.

The study suggests Canada cannot pull a proverbial shower curtain around its borders to prevent information from spilling out in other jurisdictions.

There is a growing tendency by journalists, lobby groups, lawyers and businesses seeking records to "shop around" for information by using the access laws of various countries, not just their own.

Still, only about 40 countries require the disclosure of government records on request. As a result, a nation with which Canada has trade disputes, such as Brazil, may be able to shield noteworthy documents from Canadian negotiators simply because it does not have an access law.

But Mr. Bennett rejects the notion Canada's interests are being negatively affected by its comparatively open information policies, saying "there is no clear evidence that the existence of the Canadian Access to Information Act operates either to harm, or help, Canadian interests abroad."

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