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GNWT more open than feds: watchdog
Information commissioner says territory better than Ottawa at providing information

Tim Edwards
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, February 10, 2011

INUVIK - An international study ranking Canada dead last in freedom-of-information practices may be true on a federal level, but the situation is much better on a territorial and provincial level, according to the territory's information commissioner.

The study, conducted by Robert Hazell and Ben Worthy of University College in London, England, compared Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada, based on statistics for delays, appeals, and other factors concerning the release of government information to the public when requested.

"I think that in each of the provinces (and territories) there's not as many roadblocks," said Elaine Keenan-Bengts, who has been the information and privacy commissioner for the NWT since 1996. "The federal access to information ... it's not working well."

She only deals with requests if someone is unhappy with the answer they've received from the GNWT's access and privacy office. She does not have her files organized as to whether they deal with privacy or information requests, but in total she said she's received about 24 files in 2009 and 21 in 2010.

"My sense is that (information) flows fairly well up here," she said.

Though information may be flowing well to the average Joe, regular MLAs have been complaining in the legislative assembly about the lack of communication from the cabinet toward them as well as toward the aboriginal groups who are opposing devolution.

"Residents and community leaders are searching for the facts, real and valid info," said Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro to Premier Floyd Roland in the legislative assembly on Friday. She, along with other MLAs, condemned the government rushing to sign a devolution agreement-in-principle which had not been explained to the Dene groups the government wants to sign on.

As well, Kam Lake MLA Dave Ramsay complained that MLAs did not know a report was available on the deficiencies of the Deh Cho Bridge project until hearing about it through the media.

"Even though members had asked to see the report, it was posted on the department's website and technical briefings were conducted with the media in the absence of any real briefing or update for regular members," said Ramsay. "I should not have to find out the report is available online from the local media."

Keenan-Bengts said, in general, she can "safely say" information flow is better in Nunavut than the NWT.

"It's one of those hard-to-put-your-finger-on things," she said.

"They take my advice more often, and that could be as the result of any number of things, including the fact that they are a much newer jurisdiction with a lot of other issues that are perhaps more pressing with less time to spend on this kind of thing."

She said most of the privacy cases she deals with in the NWT have to do with employer-related issues, and information requests are usually personal.

"It's often people who are feeling disenfranchised, not happy with the way that the government has dealt with them," said Keenan-Bengts. "When I first took on this position I thought that media would be one of the biggest users of it and they really aren't."

Access to information requests made to the Department of Justice's access and privacy office last year are estimated to have been more than 100 just for those concerning that department alone, according to Denise Anderson, the senior policy adviser at the access and privacy office.

The office is currently compiling statistics for an annual report due out in spring, and did not have many specifics available regarding the types of request received.

"I don't know the exact number, but I know we've seen an increase over the last two or three years," said Anderson. "At this point we're seeing more requests for personal information."

Requests, by law, are to be handled within 30 days. There are three factors that can extend this time frame: not enough information in the request for the public body to find the record, if a large number of records have been requested or have to be searched through in a way that would interfere with the public body's duties, or if the public body needs to deal with third parties to get information.

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