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View Carolyn Bennett Profile
Lib. (ON)
I will start, Madam Chair, as the returning regular here.
I'm pleased to be back here today, on the traditional Algonquin territory, to present the department's supplementary estimates (B) for the 2017-18 fiscal year. As you know, this is my first appearance before your committee, as the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, so I'm also looking forward to discussing my mandate letter with all of you. I'm also very pleased to be joined by my colleague, the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Indigenous Services, whom you will be hearing from shortly.
I am joined by Hélène Laurendeau, the deputy minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs; Joe Wild, the senior assistant deputy minister for treaties and aboriginal government; and chief financial officer Paul Thoppil.
In supplementary estimates (B), we are requesting a total of $445 million.
Supplementary estimates (B) represent a net increase of $445.1 million. It comprises mainly the $200 million payment for the Crees of Eeyou Istchee settlement payment; $91.8 million for comprehensive land claims, treaty-related and self-government agreements; $52.2 million for specific claims settlements; $23.7 million for urban programming for indigenous peoples; and $21.6 million for Métis rights and Métis relationships with the federal department. This brings the total investments for the department to approximately $11.3 billion for 2017-18 to address the needs of indigenous peoples and northerners.
I would be very happy to provide a more detailed breakdown of these expenditures during the question and answers, but in my opening remarks I would like to just highlight a couple of things.
Last summer we signed the historic agreement on Cree nation governance, a true nation-to-nation effort based on partnership and respect for the traditional way of life of the Crees. This agreement is an important step forward in expanding the existing governance regime of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. As I noted, these supplementary estimates include $200 million to make the final settlement to the Crees of Eeyou Istchee in accordance with the new relationship agreement. The payment is conditional on corresponding legislation being passed. We are currently working with the Cree nation on the draft legislation. We anticipate having legislation ready in the winter. We are requesting the money through supplementary estimates (B) so that we can move expeditiously when that legislation is passed.
I also want to thank the committee for looking at both specific and comprehensive claims policies through your ongoing study. I look forward to reviewing your recommendations, as the government is absolutely committed to significant reform in both areas. These supplementary estimates include a re-profiling of $52.2 million from 2016-17 to 2017-18 for specific claims settlements. As we have discussed at this committee before, this is part of the government's usual practice of maintaining an ongoing source of funds by rolling it over, year over year, so that the money is available as soon as a claim is resolved.
I want to make it clear that this is not a matter of lapsing money. It's a matter of prudent policy. It was always the intention of the government to maintain a claims envelope over a number of years to fund this process. Having the money earmarked for this specific purpose underscores the government's commitment to resolving these claims in a fair and respectful manner.
Our government has also heard the concerns that first nations have with the specific claims process. We share those concerns and are working in partnership to identify fair and practical measures to improve the process. We are currently engaged in ongoing discussions with first nations and first nation organizations to identify and implement measures to improve the specific claims process. A joint technical working group with the AFN has been working on specific claims process reform.
This work, and your recommendations, will inform our efforts to reform and improve how we resolve specific claims.
We are committed to increasing the number of modern treaties and new self-government agreements in a manner that reflects a recognition of rights approach for individual first nation communities. I look forward to receiving this committee's recommendations on how we can improve these processes as well. We are already engaging in discussions with indigenous groups through the recognition of indigenous rights and self-determination discussions. These are more flexible discussions about finding areas of jurisdiction that indigenous communities or groups can draw down to move them closer to self-determination.
These initiatives are at the core of my new mandate. We know that strong governance and self-determination are the greatest contributing factors to the social and economic health of a community.
That brings me to the second topic of today's meeting, which is my new mandate.
A little more than 20 years ago, RCAP recommended that Canada dramatically improve the delivery of services to indigenous people while accelerating a move to self-government and self-determination. We agree with RCAP that rights recognition must be an imperative. We know that relationships built on colonial structures have contributed to the unacceptable socio-economic gap. That is why the Prime Minister announced the dissolution of INAC and the creation of two new departments.
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs will advance reconciliation objectives and will lead on northern programming and Arctic policy. We must continue to address the day-to-day realities in indigenous communities directly, but we must also build a path to systemic change. The creation of two new departments is about dissolving a patriarchal, colonial structure that was designed to support the Indian Act.
This will allow us to focus our efforts on building strong, respectful, collaborative relationships between the crown and indigenous peoples. It's about understanding that we have to work together in a new way. We now get to rebuild two new departments in a way where form follows function.
A key part of my mandate is to lead a consultation process to determine how to achieve this goal.
In building this new system, we want to hear from indigenous people, people whose communities and nations existed in this land since time immemorial. We are listening to what indigenous groups have to say about their own vision of reconciliation.
Jane's department, which you will hear from in a moment, is focused on closing the gaps in the socio-economic outcomes, but we have to go beyond the federal government delivering services to indigenous people.
We must work to ensure that those services can be delivered and controlled by indigenous communities themselves.
We are working to achieve the goal of services being delivered and controlled by indigenous communities and indigenous-led institutions. My job is to help build indigenous governments and indigenous institutions that will deliver those programs that were once delivered by INAC.
Self-determination—the right to make choices about your community, your government, and your future—is a fundamental right. We know that if we truly want to move forward in partnership and reconciliation we need to look differently at the way we build crown-indigenous relationships. Part of my job is to make sure there is a whole-of-government approach—a sustainable approach—to these relationships to ensure all government departments are doing their part on the path to reconciliation and achieving the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
I look forward to answering your questions.
View Jane Philpott Profile
Ind. (ON)
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thanks to all of you for welcoming me here today with my honourable colleague, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. I very much look forward to discussing the supplementary estimates (B), as well as my mandate, with the members of this committee.
I also want to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
I want to thank this committee for your excellent work on a number of issues, including, of course, your important work on the study of the suicide crisis in indigenous communities. I want to thank you also for your work on the matter of third party management systems. Most recently, I know that you are doing a study on wildfires and fire safety on reserve, and I very much look forward to hearing the results of that study.
I look forward to building a positive working relationship with the committee as we work together to chart a path forward and advance reconciliation with indigenous peoples.
I'm privileged to be here today as Canada's first Minister of Indigenous Services. As Minister Bennett has already explained to you, the former Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs has been replaced by two distinct departments that are part of our transformative work in relationships with indigenous peoples.
Transforming how we structure ourselves, how we're sharing information, and how we're working with our partners and clients is helping to advance the nation-to-nation, Inuit-to-crown, and government-to-government relationships. The creation of this new Department of Indigenous Services is an important step in forging that renewed relationship with indigenous peoples that is based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership. You'll have heard those words before, to the point that they may sound to you like buzzwords. Each of them carries deep meaning, and they are very intentional, such that we repeat them on a number of occasions.
I have been given a mandate to overhaul the way that programs and services for indigenous peoples are designed, developed, and delivered, and to do that in partnership with indigenous peoples.
With indigenous partners, we will ensure that our significant investments will produce real and improved results. Together we must close the unacceptable socio-economic gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada.
Madam Chair, we made a commitment to Canadians to pursue reconciliation with a renewed sense of collaboration, so I will be engaging and working productively with indigenous leaders and communities to identify and realize the systemic reforms that we all acknowledge are long overdue.
Much more than a name change, establishing a department whose sole purpose is to improve the quality and delivery of services in partnership with indigenous peoples underscores a desire to implement transformative change.
As the Prime Minister has said, “No relationship is more important to our government and to Canada than the one with indigenous peoples.”
The entire reason for this change is to enable first nations, Inuit, and Métis people to build the capacity to make their own decisions and deliver their own programs and services to fully implement their right to self-determination. That includes everything from family services and community infrastructure to health and education programs.
Once that is achieved, it is our hope and plan that there will no longer be a need for a Department of Indigenous Services. That won't be accomplished overnight, of course. In the meantime, the department has an ongoing responsibility to ensure the high-quality programs and services that indigenous peoples need, including improved access to services for indigenous children through programs such as Jordan's principle.
I want to take a few moments to elaborate on that. As this committee knows, the principle is named after Jordan River Anderson who died at Norway House Hospital in 2005 at the age of five after a dispute between federal and provincial governments as to who was responsible to pay for his care. In 2007, some of you were in the House of Commons, and others know that the House of Commons passed a motion declaring that jurisdictional disputes should never interfere with first nations children getting care. That motion was passed in 2007, but it was not implemented. Up until 2015, there were zero cases in which children received care based on this principle. Last year, we broadened the definition of Jordan's principle. We reiterated our plan to fully implement it, and we set aside enough funds to do so.
To date, we have approved more than 24,000 cases under that principle. These are children who were previously denied care and are now receiving mental health supports, respite care, medical equipment, physiotherapy, speech therapy, and more. Jordan's principle is being implemented to ensure that no child who requires care will go without it. No one should be left behind, no matter who they are or where they live.
In that spirit, I am very pleased this morning as well to announce that, along with the parties to the cases before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, an agreement has been reached to amend two aspects of CHRT's orders. The amendments address the CHRT's May 2017 ruling that the Government of Canada was seeking to clarify in a judicial review application to the Federal Court. As a result, Canada is withdrawing the federal application.
Madam Chair, I want to be very clear that how and by whom programs and services for indigenous peoples are developed and delivered must and will change. We know we must do more and do better. There is still criticism that we are not doing enough and not doing it fast enough. Let me respond in this way. Turning around the effects of generations of historic injustice and systemic discrimination against Canada's indigenous peoples could never be done fast enough.
In my mandate letter, I was directed to “leverage the ingenuity and understanding of Indigenous Peoples as well as experts from the private sector, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments and international experts on service delivery.” Working closely with indigenous peoples and these other important partners, my departmental officials and I will promote innovative approaches to all programs and services that increase equality of opportunity for indigenous peoples.
We intend to move forward on several key fronts. I'd be happy to elaborate on any of them. Let me itemize a few. We are taking an approach to transform the way health care is delivered in first nation communities. We are working with first nations to develop and enable their own solutions to address critical issues that are directly impacting their communities. We're developing and implementing an improved response, along with our partners, to child welfare to make sure the best interests of the child always come first. This requires a holistic approach focused on prevention, family preservation, family well-being and reunification, and community wellness. We will be discussing this with our partners at an emergency meeting on indigenous child and family services in the new year.
Improving essential infrastructure for indigenous communities, including housing, is another of our priorities.
We're also supporting the implementation of a distinct indigenous framework as part of a national early learning and child care framework that takes into consideration the unique needs of first nations, Inuit, and Métis children.
We're undertaking a review of all current federal programs that support indigenous students pursuing a post-secondary education to ensure the programs meet the needs of individual students and lead to high graduation rates.
We're leveraging investments in indigenous youth and sport, and promoting culturally relevant sport to strengthen indigenous identity and cultural pride.
We are promoting economic development opportunities in indigenous communities that improve the standard of living and quality of life of local residents.
Through supplementary estimates (B) this year, we have funded the new urban programming for indigenous peoples initiative, which has been designed to assist first nations, Inuit, and Métis living in or transitioning to urban centres. I would be happy to discuss the programming in detail.
In every instance, we will adopt a rigorous results-and-delivery approach that translates into real and meaningful changes in the lives of indigenous peoples. We have an obligation to seize this opportunity for bold change.
Madam Chair, rest assured we will engage and cooperate with indigenous peoples to determine the best way forward before we take action in these priority areas.
As we implement this ambitious agenda together, I have little doubt that together we can make great progress resulting in a measurable difference in the lives of indigenous peoples. I look forward to your questions.
Thank you very much. Meegwetch. Nakurmiik.
View Ali Ehsassi Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Ali Ehsassi Profile
2016-12-13 16:13
I take it you interface with many different jurisdictions, many different provincial ministries. In your opinion, which is the most service-oriented one?
Dory Jade
View Dory Jade Profile
Dory Jade
2016-12-13 16:13
Do you mean in Canada? The most solicited one among Canadians is CRA. It is the one we all test, and I believe it is one of the best.
Dana Batho
View Dana Batho Profile
Dana Batho
2016-05-12 11:04
Good morning.
I'm Dana Batho from Send Up the Count, a Facebook group that was started in December of 2013 in response to a spate of military suicides, one after the other, just before Christmas.
There are six admins. I'm the only one who's a veteran. I released in August of last year. I was medically released; I got a neck injury in training.
Send Up the Count covers all aspects of mental health for the military, veterans, and first responders. That includes depression, PTSD, other OSIs and things like that, relationship issues, and financial issues. We don't really discriminate as long as you're either military or a first responder. We cover any issue. It's basically a sounding board, a peer resource support group. We have a lot of resources listed. A lot of people find that really useful because they can come to our group and see this huge list of resources that they can access in one place instead of having to go all over the place.
As far as the group itself goes, it's apolitical, and we also have nothing to do with money. We've done this completely with no funding. It's literally just people helping each other, people who've been there and want to support each other.
For me, because I'm relatively new into the Veterans Affairs system, I'm still learning a lot of things about the different systems and such. One of my main issues is that there is quite a big discrepancy between what we're told before we release, by the Veterans Affairs staff at the JPSU and in the SCAN seminars and things like that, and the information we're told by Veterans Affairs after we release.
For example, I was told that there was a possibility that I might have to reimburse close to $9,000 of massage therapy that was misallocated to me—nothing to do with my fault—and I was also told before I released that all medications would be covered under my disability award. Again, just yesterday, I paid for some medications that should have been covered. It's quite a hurdle. That's a really big problem when you're already dealing with a lot of issues. You don't need to be told one thing from one side and then something else from somebody else. It makes what you're going through in general very difficult, on top of what's already very difficult.
Another major issue I have is that it can take a very long time to access resources, particularly for mental health issues. Personally, I deal with chronic pain. I was injured four years ago. I asked for some psychological help in November, and I'm still waiting to have an actual appointment with a counsellor. That's a really long time to wait for actual help.
Military members tend not to ask for help that easily, so when they do ask for help, they're pretty much near the end of their rope. This is something that I've noticed very much in the Send Up the Count group. People are pretty much at the end of their rope by the time they do actually think to ask for help, so having a four- or five-month delay between asking for help and actually getting that counsellor's appointment can be highly problematic, I'll say, for many people. It contributes to a lot more stress than is necessary and, in my case, a lot more physical pain.
There are things that they're doing very well. I can tell that the staff of Veterans Affairs are trying really hard to help the people they've been assigned to, but there are a lot of gaps in the system. My case manager retired and I wasn't told who my new case manager was even a month later, so that's a gap in the system.
Things like filling out forms online are very useful for me because I can't write anymore and I can't do a lot of things physically, but there are technology issues. One is that the forms will only open in certain browsers. I'm pretty tech savvy. I was working as an intelligence officer and a cyberthreat analyst for Transport Canada, so I'm pretty tech savvy, and if I'm having issues in accessing some of the online services, I'm sure other people are having issues as well.
Those are pretty much my main concerns for the moment, but also, in regard to accessing your case manager, the online system for contacting case managers isn't great. They apparently don't check their emails that often when it goes through the online system, and phoning them is kind of a pain because you have to go through an operator and tell them basically your entire life history before they connect you. There could be ways to streamline that process a lot.
As I said, I can tell that the staff themselves are trying really hard to help their people, but there seem to be a lot of gaps in how they are able to help their people.
That is all from me for now.
Jim Scott
View Jim Scott Profile
Jim Scott
2016-04-21 11:21
Thank you very much.
My name is Jim Scott, and I'm the president of the Equitas society, a forum to underwrite the disbursement costs to have six disabled soldiers represent their issues through the courts on the new Veterans Charter's compensation packages for injuries.
Next to me is Brian McKenna. He is a veteran injured in the Afghan war and a member of our advisory committee.
My involvement came from my son, who was injured in Afghanistan, and from looking at his settlements and also the settlements of other reservists who went to the Afghan war. They appeared disproportionately low, and therefore the services of Miller Thomson, a law firm with offices across Canada, was obtained on a pro bono basis to do a judicial review of those benefit packages.
Over 200 soldiers submitted their medical records and their compensation package, and six were selected to represent all soldiers. Those six have agreed to have their cases made public in the public domain. We'll discuss them because there's a theme throughout the delivery model.
First, we are very happy and we see great encouragement from the government providing new benefits in the process going forward. I am very pleased that the committee is looking at the discrepancy between programs and what often goes into the individual soldier's compensation package, and the reasons for that. I don't think it's anything sinister; it's just what occurs when you have a major organization like the federal government running a program.
The first area we'll talk about is the conflict between the different government departments. Each department will apply a different standard to the same conditions, resulting in various opinions. For example, the Department of National Defence may discharge a soldier from their duties for not meeting their universality of service because of certain injuries they have incurred, but Veterans Affairs Canada will not accept those injuries and will not compensate for them, and the Canada Revenue Agency may not consider the soldier is in a disabled category for the credits.
We'll use my son as a representative case. He had a number of internal organs removed as a result of an explosion in Afghanistan, one of them being his spleen. The medical records he got from the Canadian government—understand that he was in American care for much of his recovery overseas—showed that his spleen was operated on. His claim was rejected because they said he had not proved that his spleen was removed, but had only been operated on. This went on for years. I don't know if it has been settled now. It's just an illustration that the Department of National Defence has records that are not accepted by VAC, and then the duty is placed on the soldier to show evidence of that disability. It's evidence-based, but the soldiers can't go into the United States government's system and extract medical records. They just don't have that ability.
One solution is that the lead counsel for Miller Thomson has written what has been used in other Commonwealth countries, a sort of veterans' bill of rights. I've given the clerk a version of this in English, and he will have it translated into French. It ensures continuity among the various government departments that deal with a veteran's files, and not simply Veterans Affairs Canada.
I realize that Veterans Affairs put into some of their amendments a preamble and legislation that address this issue, but as we can see, there is more than one act that affects soldiers.
There's going to be resistance in the Department of Justice and the civil service regarding what we call the “slippery slope argument”, which is that if we enshrine this for soldiers, others will follow, and this will mean a higher duty of care for the government in the long run. Therefore, we're asking that parliamentary leadership be provided by this committee and others to look at the Commonwealth countries that have put this bill in place and to look at the reasons for it and to advocate for it, because it certainly will not be advocated outwards by the system.
The second issue that we see is the issue of lifelong pensions. Currently we have the earnings loss benefits. They have increased, and that is a very good development. However, the earnings loss benefits require the person to remain sick. In other words, they have to show that they are entitled to those earnings loss benefits, and, as we've seen in recent national coverage, they have to indicate that they are still sick in order to receive those benefits. There's little allowance for personal betterment. Therefore, it's our position that people stay in a cycle of sickness because every 18 or 24 months they have to prove they are sick, and they can't move on.
A pension recognizes that people are disadvantaged in their ability to earn an income. It supplements them in an attempt to equalize what an able-bodied person's earning capacity would be against a disabled person's earning capacity, and there's no penalty for being better. In other words, it's a platform on which they can go further up. Our submission is that a lifelong pension, even if it's the same amount of money as the earnings loss benefit, for the mental health of the soldiers allows them to move on, whereas the earnings loss benefit traps them into a process of constantly having to justify why they're receiving those funds.
With regard to caregivers, the theme we have seen throughout the files we have been processing is that when a soldier is at a certain level of disability, their spouse is required to remove herself or himself from the workforce in order to be a full-time giver of care to the disabled member. We have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people who are double amputees and even with one triple amputee. It's very clear that the spouse is the primary caregiver and is required for that person to have a meaningful life going forward. However, the caregiver is not eligible for private sector pensions and CPP, but only for old age security.
Even though we make great fanfare about how we've gone from 50% to 70%, I'd urge the committee to actually do a model of what these caregivers get in real dollars. We have models and we are certainly prepared to give the committee these models. Their actual income upon the death of their spouse will be at or below the poverty line. I don't know if we've really considered the duty of care that these individuals are giving and what the result is. The result is that they are basically going to be in a life of poverty at some point.
The next issue is education. There's been lots of fanfare about education. We're highly supportive of higher education. Trades for disabled soldiers with missing legs and so on are difficult. A lot of them need to go on to be lawyers or to get MBAs in order to be competitive in the workplace. We're seeing government policies showing high amounts for education, but in reality they're not being approved. I'll give an example from our representative plaintiff, Gavin Flett.
He paid for his own undergraduate education. He went into financial services because he can no longer go into a place of employment such as the RCMP, which he thought he would be hired by after he came back from Afghanistan, due to lower-leg injuries. He was advised by his employer that he would need higher education to move forward in the industry. He applied for an MBA that had 2,400 applicants. They took very few. He filled out a very long request. It was rejected. It was rejected on an administrative issue, which was that he would not be able to complete anything meaningful with his first $25,000, and that money couldn't be applied to the full program. Therefore, he was rejected outright.
He continues to have no educational support, even though he would probably be one of Canada's best examples of somebody going forward.
I get phone calls on a regular basis from other veterans across Canada who are in the same situation of seeking higher education and simply not being able to get it because of the process.
I think the solution is to develop a policy to get disabled soldiers into higher education if they can meet the standards.
I'll go to the next issue. We're not here to make enemies with VAC; it's just that there is a culture of what we call “no”. There is very often a rejection of your claim, and then you have to be persistent on it and go before the review committee. If it is sent up to the Federal Court it only comes back, as it must go back to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board if there's no resolution, and it can get stuck in a cycle.
I'll give you another example from a representative plaintiff, this being my son again. He had part of his pancreas removed. He made a claim through that process that it was causing him dietary issues, and it went up and was denied. He got a letter of denial saying that it had no effect on his well-being.
The next issue we'll talk about is service delivery. We have not really seen—and I can speak for the law firm—such complex acts and so many rules and regulations as the new Veterans Charter and the Pension Act. These are very, very difficult acts to administer, and general government workers just don't have the skill to work with these acts, regulations, and benefits.
What we find is that there's no real advocate. I mean, certainly there's the Legion, and we applaud them for what they are doing, but within the system there's no advocate. Some of the help that they need is actually more on a legal side than it is on a processing side. For example, we've had one representative plaintiff who had gone through a matrimonial issue, and the first question that the plaintiff asked was, “Is the lump sum settlement subject to a 50-50 split? When she leaves, does she take half of my lump sum settlement?” This is actually legal advice; it's very specific legal advice that even matrimonial lawyers may not know.
One of the solutions here that I offer to the committee is that Ms. Kelsey Sherriff, one of the counsel for Miller Thomson, submitted to the Veterans Affairs minister within the last two weeks a pro bono private industry proposal whereby lawyers across Canada who have a military background are prepared to act for free for individual soldier cases, such as on the matrimonial issue.
They will need some seed money to start from the federal government, but it will be a self-sustaining program that will have very little cost to the government but a high amount of benefit to the individual soldiers who find themselves in sometimes difficult situations that are hard for the Veterans Affairs Canada staff and even generous lawyers to deal with.
The last issue we want to talk about is mental health. One item that we found is that nearly all the claims have involved some sort of mental health issues. The administrators of the programs are really not trained to deal with people with mental health issues, some of which are severe. Therefore, there becomes a standoff.
I got a call, probably a month ago, from somebody who was in jail. He called me and told me he needed a lawyer. The issue was that he'd gone to a Veterans Affairs Canada office for help, had become unruly, was arrested, and then was in jail. He calls on fairly regular basis, so obviously there's an underlying issue there other than his claim, and it's beyond the capability of front-line workers to deal with it, so they simply defer it into the criminal justice system.
The other issue is that the processing of these files is leading to real mental health issues for the applicants. For instance, the soldier who worked so long to be accepted into an MBA program is absolutely devastated that the Canadian government has found a bureaucratic reason to prevent him from going forward with his career.
Personally, my son will not open any of his mail anymore from Veterans Affairs Canada, because by far 95% of it is bad news. I don't think we're helping any by having a very complex administrative system.
Those in general are the issues we have discovered from the files we've been exposed to, as far as service delivery is concerned.
Certainly we're prepared to take questions.
Michel Drapeau
View Michel Drapeau Profile
Michel Drapeau
2016-04-12 8:46
Mr. Chair, thank you for this introduction. Thank you also, members of this committee, for giving me the honour to appear before you this morning.
Let me begin by saying that I have been interested in the administration of the Access to Information Act since 1992, as a requester for my clients, as someone who has written about the act, and as a professor who teaches access to information law.
Over the past two decades I have watched the access to information regime slip more and more into irrelevance. I hold the strong belief that this state of affairs is not because the access law is so much defective or outdated in recording radical changes. In my opinion, the slip into irrelevance is due instead to two interconnecting factors.
First is the interplay between a systemic lack of motivation on the part of federal institutions to observe both the spirit and the letter of the access law, and the absence of oversight on the part of anyone holding to account a recalcitrant or delinquent department. Consequently, there is no penalty or reprimand for inuring Canadians from having their quasi-constitutional right of access violated, with the result that flaunting the access law is now an accepted practice in many parts of the federal bureaucracy. Year in, year out, thousands of users of the access system see their requests for information treated with more or less total disregard for the rights to have their access requests responded to fully and within the statutory delays.
Second, only a small number of disenfranchised users of the access system actually file a complaint, as they are entitled to do under the access law. However, more often than not, those who do file a complaint must wait, if not a year then two or more, for obtaining any results. Obviously, they soon learn that the longer they wait, the more pointless their complaints become. Also, they will likely be less inclined in the future to rely on the right to complain to obtain disclosure, and it becomes a process of a vicious circle, disempowering the access requesters.
As an aside, during the last fiscal year there were 78,000 access requests submitted to various federal institutions. Of those, 1,600 complaints were made to the Information Commissioner. This means that a meagre 2% of the original requests gave rise to a complaint to the Information Commissioner.
As noted in my brief, I have concerns with the ongoing debate about reforming the access legislation. First, I disagree with giving the commissioner order power to deal with some of the complaints. Second, I take issue with the unproven assumption that giving order power to the commissioner might ameliorate the access regime.
Let me elaborate.
First of all, I truly believe that giving the commissioner order-making powers would repudiate the doctrine and fundamental principles of the access regime. This would dramatically alter the role of the commissioner, making her a judicial officer who would not have the slightest influence on the outcome for the vast majority of access requesters.
Secondly, I hold the strong belief that the fathers of the access regime got it right in the 1977 white paper by adopting the parliamentary option. Under this option, the commissioner has a right of access to Parliament and he's held directly accountable to this committee for its performance.
Under such a scenario, Parliament remains a dominant player in the management and control of the access regime. However, as stated earlier, giving the commissioner order power will necessarily change that relationship. The commissioner will then become a judicial officer, and as such will be required to act judicially towards Parliament, federal institutions, and the access users. This will also require the commissioner to further augment their already large staff complement.
Hence, I am anything but certain that the grant of order power to the commissioner will impact positively on the current malaise affecting the access regime. I'm suggesting instead that the basic function of the commissioner not be substantially changed. What I am considering and recommending is the conduct of a wall-to-wall, systematic review of the construction, the configuration, and the staffing at that office by the Auditor General to ensure the existence of the most economical and effective organizational structure possible. In my opinion, that is not presently the case.
In the same vein, I am also recommending a common administrative service, something similar to that we now have in the courts administration service, to be re-established between the Office of the Information Commissioner and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. I also recommend that the management, administration, and legal positions found to be redundant by the Auditor General be reassigned to augment the current complement of investigators, if for no other reason than to reduce the very large backlog of complaints. At the moment, it's two years.
In my brief, I set out 12 reform proposals. For instance, I proposed that the access to information coordinators, who are spread out in some 200 federal institutions, now be appointed by Governor in Council. These coordinators are, after all, on the front lines, as they are the first, and often only, actors within the access regime. They also have the heavy burden of responding to access requesters, while bearing in mind the access directives and decisions made by officials higher up the chain in each department.
If they were appointed by Governor in Council, these coordinators in the various departments would also have the requisite authority and independence to uphold requesters' access rights.
Before closing, one of the recommendations contained in my brief is that the House of Commons and the Senate should also be brought under the ambit of the access legislation. As you probably know, this is currently the case in the U.K., which provides the residents of the British Isles with a meaningful and welcome right of access to some of the records under the control of parliamentarians. Canadians should expect no less.
In conclusion, Canada deserves an open, honest, and accountable government. This can be achieved at least in part by having a working access to information regime. Yet at present, the access to information system is in a state of crisis. The current focus of giving the commissioner the power to order the release of records should not be seen as a panacea capable of redressing the access law, which has been rendered more or less nugatory. The Province of Quebec has learned that particular lesson. Quebec appears to be balking at continuing with this use of order power mechanism as the modus operandi for their information commissioner.
However, even if such order power were to be granted, one should keep in mind that this would only address a very small proportion of the tip of the iceberg. Respectfully, therefore, I urge this committee to focus instead on the 90% of the other requesters, or the rest of the iceberg, which is currently being managed exclusively by the ATIP coordinator within each one of the institutions. I am of the view that the commissioner plays an important role in the access to information regime by receiving, investigating, and reporting a complaint by users of access and keeping Parliament abreast. The Access to Information Act provides the commissioner with quite an arsenal of extraordinary powers to investigate complaints, and these need to be used to the fullest. They are currently not. The commissioner also enjoys a potent right of access to Parliament to alert the Canadian democracy when government and the civil institutions fail to live up to their obligations. This, gentlemen, should continue.
That concludes my presentation.
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