Mr. Chair, members of the committee, I am honoured to appear before you today and I feel very privileged to have my application for Canada's Information Commissioner considered.
I am particularly honoured to be nominated, given the importance to Canadians of the role of the Information Commissioner in protecting and promoting access to information, a right that has been recognized as a core principle in a functioning democracy.
The challenges and the changes ahead cannot be underestimated. However, as a jurist with 20 years of experience in oversight agencies, I cannot hide my enthusiasm in being considered for the position of the commissioner responsible to oversee the implementation of the proposed new legislation, Bill .
Building on the Office of the Information Commissioner's 34 years of knowledge and experience, I would make full use of the current and proposed powers to provide a fair and efficient independent review of government decisions relating to access requests to increase both transparency and accountability.
Before I discuss in greater detail how I envision fulfilling my duties as an agent of Parliament, let me introduce myself.
First all, I was born and raised in Saint-Hyacinthe, in the province of Quebec. I graduated in civil law from the Université de Sherbrooke. In my final year, I met my husband, who, at the time, was also studying law, but in Alberta. In 1993, we moved to the Outaouais. We have been married now for 20 years. I am also the mother of three boys, between 13 and 18. When I am asked how I spend my time after work, I say that I am a licenced chauffeur, a 24-hour convenience store operator, and a hockey mom.
After a brief period in the private sector, I joined the federal government. My public service career has been spent largely in agencies responsible for providing an independent review of grievances submitted by members of the RCMP and the Canadian Armed Forces. Whether I was acting as legal counsel, director general, general counsel, or recently as the chairperson of the military external review committee, I have always been guided by the same values: integrity, excellence, fairness, and timeliness.
My leadership style is based on the same principles. My employees would tell you that I am a very open and reasonable person who recognizes a job well done and promotes innovation and efficiency.
When I began with the external review committee in 2006, it was a relatively new tribunal. The committee is responsible for providing an independent review of military grievances referred by the Canadian Armed Forces. It issues findings and recommendations to the chief of the defence staff, who is the final authority of that grievance process.
As civilian oversight of military grievances, the committee had to work very hard to build its credibility. Collectively with management, and in consultation with employees, we worked diligently to find ways to improve our internal process. Through teamwork, innovation, and determination, we reduced the average time spent on files from nine months to four months, while increasing the quality of our findings and recommendations. We showed that a civilian oversight agency could provide significant value added to the administration of military affairs.
As a result, I am proud to say that the committee's portfolio has increased from receiving 40% of all grievances at the final authority—mainly mandatory referrals—to now receiving 95% of all grievances, because it includes files that are sent on a discretionary basis.
I have been working in complaint resolution for almost two decades because I know that we are able to change things. I am motivated by the fact that my organization is full of competent officials, who care about what they do, and about the impact they have on Canadians. I have spent my whole career making sure that the rights of those without representation are respected and that the decisions that affect them are justified and reasonable.
Should I become the next Information Commissioner, this is the spirit I would bring to my duties. I see this opportunity as a logical progression in my career in the public service. I am more than ready to report to Parliament on how I would oversee the access to information regime.
That leads me to explain to you my particular interest in the position of Information Commissioner, as well as my vision and what I believe to be the greatest challenges I will have to face in the event that you approve my application.
In Canada, access to information about government decision-making is a well-known and well-established right that is almost constitutional. That statement is supported by the growing number of requests made each year, as reported by the Treasury Board Secretariat. The office of the commissioner's website also tells me that the number of complaints increases each year. In addition, given the new amendments to the act and the recent launch of the electronic form, it is reasonable to assume that the number of complaints will continue to grow.
Should I be appointed, I can assure you that my first commitment to Parliament and to all Canadians will be to tackle the current backlog of complaints. From the report submitted by the current commissioner, I understand this has been one of her main concerns as well, and obtaining additional resources is listed as part of our office's priorities. In this regard, I know that the president of Treasury Board has committed to providing further funding for the implementation of Bill , and this is very encouraging. Also, with the lessons I have learned in streamlining the committee's grievance review process, I'm confident I would bring a critical eye to the commission's internal processes that could help optimize efficiencies. Addressing backlog issues is a necessity, as I truly believe that Canadians are entitled to have their complaints dealt with in a timely manner. Access delayed is access denied.
That said, success relies on a change of culture, a change of culture towards access rights within the federal institutions subject to the act. I can say from my own experience that even though the access to information legislation was enacted 34 years ago, there appears to still be an impulse for exemptions and exclusions rather than transparency.
We need to give meaning to the concept of open government. It has to become part of federal institutions' day-to-day practices and approaches. It is only when the access right becomes a foundational right and principle, just as the respect of our official languages is now ingrained in our society, that Canada will reassert its leadership as an open and transparent government that is a model for all democratic nations.
In consultation with the commission's stakeholders, I believe our efforts must be geared towards the promotion of disclosure and transparency. I'm pleased to see these efforts will be supported by the new wording of the purpose found in Bill , which clearly states that the goal is "...to enhance the accountability and transparency...in order to promote an open and democratic society....” This is, in my view, a clear message that there is a commitment to hold federal institutions accountable with respect not only to their decisions but also to their obligations under the act. This expressed intent, in addition to the new powers provided to the commission to issue and publish orders, suggests that accountability and transparency are to be taken very seriously.
Before closing, I must recognize the important work and the undeniable devotion of Commissioner Legault and her employees in championing and promoting access legislation in Canada. The expertise acquired by the office of the commissioner over the last 34 years provides a solid foundation on which I commit myself today to carrying out my mandate, if Parliament sees fit to honour me with the position of the next Information Commissioner.
I also pledge to act with integrity and to the best of my abilities and to serve Canadians and Parliament with the highest degree of independence.
I thank you, Mr. Chair and honourable members, for considering my nomination.
I am now ready to answer your questions.
The journey started in November. I was invited to attend mandatory training for new GIC appointees. As acting chair, I decided to go, because I thought it would be a good thing for me to tell the new chair, him or her, what this training was all about.
At the training, I met people from Treasury Board and PCO. I had some questions with respect to terms and conditions for new members who were going to be appointed to my committee, where I'm working now. The lady from PCO who was there followed up with me a week later. During that conversation, she asked me if I would be interested in applying for a position of agent of Parliament. There were two positions at the time, Ethics Commissioner and Information Commissioner.
I was very flattered. I have to say that at that point, I was in a situation where I was getting ready for the new chair at the committee, so it was not something I'd thought about, but it was something that, for my own progression, I was definitely curious about. I looked into the mandate. I spent a week looking at what the commissions do. I realized it was very similar to what I've been doing for 17 years.
Those opportunities come only once every seven years, so I decided to apply. I applied online on November 20. I remember that, as it was the day after my birthday. It was a big decision. I did the interview on December 1. I did the psychometric testing. Then there was a recess during Christmas. We didn't hear anything until January. I was called by the chief of staff of the Treasury Board to make sure I was still interested, which I was. Then I was told that the consultation process was going to start.
There is a private website called openparliament.ca. Someone came up to me because they wanted to know how I voted, and they were looking at this website, not the government's website, and it was a French person.
This surprised me a bit. I had asked myself why it wasn't available in French. I then realized that it was a private website.
He said, "The site was launched in 2010. I wanted to know what my MP had been doing in the House and, short of laboriously going through every day's voluminous transcripts by hand, Parliament's dated and hard-to-use site wouldn't tell me."
He does say that since 2010, the government's own site, which is called ourcommons.ca, has gotten a lot better. This is an example within less than seven years that.... He says that the government site is using a lot of the way that he presents data. It's not just having data, but the availability. This is an example of a private citizen using openparliament.ca, which sounds more like the government's site than ourcommons.ca, but he has that name, openparliament.ca.
In this example, would you be open to calling this person up, bringing him in, and saying, “How are you doing your data, collecting it, and presenting it to the public so they have access to data?”
I would really like to use the experience I've acquired in the Military Grievances External Review Committee. Initially, this committee received 40% of the grievances, and those were strictly mandatory grievances. We worked very hard to establish the credibility of the committee, and to produce quality reports. We also insisted on the added value of having external independent advice. That is what I would like to bring to the office of the commissioner.
This is why I said that I would like to explore the option of publishing things that go beyond orders; I want to have somewhat of an educational mandate. Let's not forget that the office of the commissioner has been around for 34 years, and offers no glossary or index in which to find the investigations it has conducted and the cases it has processed. As a citizen myself, I have to go through 34 years of annual reports to get an idea of my options if I want to find out whether or not I have the right to ask for something, and whether or not an institution has the right to refuse me access to it. There are some guidelines, but it is very difficult for citizens to do that.
I'll come back to what Mr. Baylis was saying. If the office of the commissioner itself cannot access information, how will it help Canadians understand their rights, and help institutions understand their obligations? This is essential to me.
The commissioner must exhibit neutrality, independence, integrity and consistency. In my opinion, publications are the only way to do so. This way, the institutions would be sure that decisions are made in a consistent manner. Whether it is National Defence, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, or the Canada Revenue Agency, the decisions would be applied in the same way across the board.