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Access delayed is accountability denied

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More and more it seems the only way to get information from the federal government is to file Access to Information Requests. They are often the only way you get any information that is really meaningful from the government.

You are supposed to be able to get the information within 30 days but to be honest that’s a total joke. Not once in the last three years have I had an access request met within 30 days. I’ve made dozens of such requests. Almost all of them have taken six months or more.

Two weeks ago when I received an e-mail from Health Canada which has kept me waiting for over a year for documents pertaining to the H1N1 outbreak on reserves in Manitoba last summer. I made two requests July 16, 2009. They were acknowledged at first with the customary reply and warning there may be additional fees for the response depending on the time it takes or how many documents are involved.

Then came the delays. First it was an extra 30 days. Then 45 days. Then 120 days. Finally it was the kiss of death, the request for more time without any specific amount of time given.

Months passed. Nothing.

Then the e-mail from someone noting he had been hired to help ease the backlog of access requests at Health Canada and he had been assigned to mine. He wanted to make sure I was still actually interested in the information.

Hmmm. Is it too cynical to wonder whether delaying for over a year was done in the hope I would lose interest?

I assured him I was still interested. Then came the whammy. Would I be willing to ask for fewer documents because there were over 600 documents pulled and they still had to consult on what could be released.

I was incredulous. After a year, they still hadn’t even consulted on my request.

The request apparently fell through the cracks. I’m told there are 140 Health Canada access requests in a backlog and the hope is that they will all be dealt with by March 2011. It may be nearly two years before we might begin to get a picture of what exactly was going on at Health Canada when dozens of residents of the Island Lake region were getting sick and access to treatment and diagnosis was scarce.

But it’s not just Health Canada.

Today I got a response to an access request I made to Public Safety about Bill C-25, what the government has cleverly named the "Truth in Sentencing Act" which really means no more double time credit for pre-trial custody. Manitoba senior minister and public safety minister Vic Toews initially said it would cost $90 million over two years to implement. He later revised that to $2 billion over five years.
The parliamentary budget officer claims it is going to be at least $5 billion over five years to build nine new prisons to house 4,000 more prisoners. But that latter claim is based on best estimates since the government wouldn’t provide Page with information he requested to make his projection.

So I filed an access request looking for the government documents. The bill took effect last February. The costs of implementing it will be very real very soon.

But this morning I got another kiss of death letter. Public Safety needs 270 extra days to pull together reports and correspondence to and from Toews about how much C-25 will cost. The department expects to be able to respond now by June 6, 2011.

So much for an open and transparent government.

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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