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Overhaul transparency law by adopting long-standing calls for change, group tells MPs

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OTTAWA — A pro-transparency group is telling MPs to retool the Access to Information Act by dropping the application fee, imposing tighter timelines to respond to requests for files, and narrowing exceptions to the law.

The changes are among 18 measures outlined by the group Democracy Watch in a submission to the House of Commons committee on information, privacy, and ethics.

The federal access law allows people who pay $5 to ask for documents — from internal emails and expense claims to brief memos and research reports — but it has long been criticized as outdated and poorly administered.

Federal agencies are supposed to respond within 30 days or provide valid reasons why more time is needed to process a request.

The law has not been significantly updated since its introduction almost 40 years ago, and many users complain of lengthy delays, heavily blacked-out documents, or full denials in response to their applications.

Democracy Watch says legislative reforms should be introduced as soon as possible, noting citizen groups and experts have called for decades for key changes to close loopholes in the law and strengthen enforcement.

The group’s co-founder, Duff Conacher, said in a news release that the Trudeau Liberals, and all federal parties, must stop their “spin, lame excuses and unjustifiable delays” and make the revisions voters want to ensure federal institutions — and those that receive money from the government — are transparent and accountable.

Conacher told the Commons committee during a hearing Wednesday that the federal access law is so problematic it really is just a guide to keeping information secret that the public has a right to know.

Government secrecy is a recipe for corruption, waste, and decisions that protect private interests and violate the public interest, he added. “And sunshine is a good disinfectant, as a wise U.S. Supreme Court justice said about a century ago.”

Researcher Ken Rubin, a veteran user of the access law, reeled off a list of episodes in which the law resulted in information on everything from naval ships to residential schools being shielded from release.

Rubin noted there is general agreement that the access system is broken.

“Well, in whose interest is broken? It’s in the vested interests of the government officials who want that secrecy and who want to continue with that secrecy.”

Democracy Watch says the law should be changed to require public institutions to respond to access requests “as soon as possible.” An extension of the 30-day initial time limit for responding should require the permission of the information commissioner, an ombudsman for users, and be limited to a maximum of an additional 60 days.

The group also says exceptions to the right of access should be clearly and narrowly defined and limited to areas in which secrecy is required in the public interest.

All exceptions should be strictly limited by a “proof of harm test,” augmented by a public interest override to prevent undue secrecy, Democracy Watch adds.

Allan Cutler, former president of Canadians for Accountability, agreed there is a federal culture of secrecy, likening the system to a closed door to which government officials hold the key.

“You can change the law, but you also have to change the culture,” he told the MPs. “And you need the people at the top, which is the politicians of all parties, (to) say, ‘This is what it will be.’ And then the bureaucracy will conform.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 26, 2022.

 

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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Halifax police identify remains of man found washed ashore on Sable Island

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HALIFAX – The Mounties in Nova Scotia have identified one of two deceased sailors whose remains were found earlier this month in a small boat that had washed ashore on Sable Island.

RCMP Cpl. Guillaume Tremblay says in a statement the remains of a 70-year-old man from British Columbia had been identified with the help of the medical examiner’s office.

But the officer says the man’s name will not be released because of federal privacy laws.

The statement says the man had set sail from Halifax harbour on June 11 aboard a sailboat known as Theros.

On July 10, his remains were found in a smaller boat, along with the remains of a woman who the RCMP had initially said was a 60-year-old from British Columbia.

Guillaume’s statement says the woman was actually 54 years old.

As well, the officer says the deaths are not believed to be suspicious and that the RCMP are continuing their investigation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2024.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.



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Residents back home after evacuations in Williams Lake, B.C.

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WILLIAMS LAKE, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA – A fast-moving wildfire on the edge of the City of Williams Lake in British Columbia’s central Interior triggered evacuations as water bombers swooped low over the community over the weekend.

But the director of the community’s emergency operations centre says residents have since been told they can go home after the tactical evacuations conducted by Mounties on Sunday.

Rob Warnocksays in video posted to the city’s website last night that those homes are subject to an evacuation alert, meaning residents must be ready to leave again quickly.

The alert spans properties along Mackenzie Ave., Country Club Boulevard., Fairview Drive, Woodland Drive, Westridge Drive, as well as Tolko’s Lakeview Mill.

Warnock says the 20-hectare blaze was sparked when a tree fell on power lines in the river valley on the city’s west side at about 5:45 p.m. Sunday, though the BC Wildfire Service website says the official cause is still under investigation.

Videos shared on social media show smoke billowing from behind businesses and homes with a plane dropping red fire retardant and photos appeared to show at least one business on fire.

With the winds at the time, Warnock says the fire “made a big run” down the valley on Sunday.

Earlier in the day, the city had asked residents to conserve as much water as possible for fire crews taking on the blaze.

The number of wildfires across the province has jumped to more than 320 with clusters along B.C.’s boundary with Alberta as well as in the central Interior.

The BC Wildfire Service says the fires are showing up in areas that have seen dry lightning strikes in recent days.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2024.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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Canadian killed near Gaza border after threatening forces with knife: Israeli police

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OTTAWA – Israeli police say a Canadian citizen was killed Monday after threatening local security officials with a knife near the border with the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military says the man drove to the entrance of the town of Netiv HaAsara, just 300 metres north of the Gaza border. The military says the man left his vehicle with a knife and approached the local security patrol, who opened fire and killed him.

There were no other injuries, the military said, providing a photo of a kitchen knife with a black handle. The rescue service Zaka also said nobody was injured.

A video with no sound shows security officials pointing guns at a vehicle, from which a man exits, runs briefly and falls to the ground.

Israeli police told The Associated Press the man was Canadian, though the Israeli military would not confirm the nationality, instead saying that “the suspect is a foreign national who arrived in the area from within Israeli territory, and not from the Gaza Strip.”

Israel’s ambassador to Canada posted the military statement on X. Unconfirmed reports have named the man, while some claim he is an American citizen.

Canada’s consular officials in Israel are gathering information on the episode, a spokeswoman said.

“Global Affairs Canada is aware of an incident involving a Canadian citizen in Israel,” wrote Charlotte MacLeod. “Due to privacy considerations, no further information can be disclosed at this time.”

The development comes amid a wave of stabbings during the nine-month war in Gaza, which Israel launched after Hamas militants killed 1,200 people, including soldiers, in an attack last October.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military on Monday ordered the evacuation of part of an area in the Gaza Strip it has designated a humanitarian zone, saying it is planning to begin an operation against Hamas militants who have embedded themselves in the area and used it to launch rockets toward Israel.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip says nearly 39,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s war on the territory, including militants.

Canada for months has called for a ceasefire and more humanitarian aid to reach the territory, where most buildings have been damaged and where the United Nations says no place is safe for the 2.2 million Palestinians living there.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2024.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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