Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Access-to-info system still stinks, two years later

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OTTAWA -- Two years, three months, two weeks, and one day.

That is how long it took for Health Canada to supply records related to an appearance by bureaucrats at a Senate committee in June 2009 on the H1N1 outbreak.

A second request made at the same time for records specific to the H1N1 outbreak on Manitoba reserves is still outstanding.

You remember H1N1, right? The global pandemic flu outbreak which gripped the globe in the spring of 2009 and drew attention to the seriously unacceptable living conditions on some Manitoba reserves?

There were 253 pages released in total late Friday afternoon, though dozens of the pages just say the pages were withheld because they weren't relevant.

More than half the documents released are things which were already readily available publicly, including transcripts from the meeting and other Parliamentary sittings. There is even a very helpful copy of a story written by the very reporter (yours truly) who made the access request in the first place.

Two years, three months, two weeks, and one day to get a copy of my own story.

If I had received the documents two years ago I likely would have written a story showing Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq was truly concerned about the reports she was hearing about what was happening in First Nations.

Particularly, she was concerned about the difficulties getting hand sanitizer into reserves because of fears they contained alcohol, for example. For reserves like those in Island Lake where access to clean running water is worse than in some refugee camps in Africa, getting hand sanitizer was seen in 2009 as a critical element to battle the outbreak.

One email from Aglukkaq's then-director of communications pleaded for answers to questions ASAP because "the Minister is very concerned with reports we are hearing and needs details." When told the answers might not come that night, he insisted they had to.

It showed a real sense of urgency and concern at a time when urgency and concern were required. It is on initial examination the only interesting thing in the 253 pages supplied. But it really would have been interesting within 30 days of the request being filed. More than two years later, it's just kind of meh.

The release likely wouldn't have come Friday at all if the Free Press hadn't asked what the status was and told a Health Canada access to information official a story was being written about the delay. The documents were miraculously released a few hours later.

The second request which is still pending was looking for more information on how the various levels of government and First Nations were co-operating or not co-operating, as so many people were sick and communities were panicked about how to handle it. There was a lot of grandstanding and finger pointing at the time. To see what was going on behind the scenes could have been useful. At least back then.

Their usefulness has faded to next to nothing with the passage of time.

The saga around these two access requests may be on the extreme side but it's not all that unusual. It regularly takes six months or more to get information from the government on anything. In 2009-10, the year these requests were made, Health Canada responded to one in four requests within the required 30 days. Almost as many took more than four months. Health Canada does not say how many took more than two years. The bureaucrat assigned to the file told me Friday I had "not been served well" by the system and said the two requests were among the 10 most overdue requests in the department's files.

In August 2010 the department seemed to hope I would abandon the requests by asking if I was still interested.

There is small hope for at least one improvement in the access system on its way -- finally, the government is going to start allowing people to submit and pay for ATIP requests online. It won't be a major improvement but it could help speed up the initial processing.

Any little bit helps.

The irony in that little improvement is a request to the Treasury Board Friday (the department which oversees the Access to Information system) for more information on when and how the changes will be implemented was not completed by deadline. Why not? The information was awaiting approval to be released.

Hopefully it won't take another two years, three months, two weeks, and one day to get that information?

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2011 A4

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