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OTTAWA — The federal government’s obligation to provide citizens records about spending and decision-making is not a priority for Canadians, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Thursday.

That was her reaction after the Conservatives raised a story published in Thursday's Free Press reporting that less than half of federal agencies and departments are fully processing freedom-of-information requests. Bureaucrats had deemed these transparency obligations as a low priority during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Not once has a Canadian asked me to put more resources into freedom-of-information officers," Hajdu said in question period, saying citizens are more concerned about safety measures and economic supports.

Under the federal Access to Information Act, every Canadian has a right to request government records for a $5 fee. Agencies are obligated to provide the information within a month unless it’s exempted for legal or privacy grounds.

Yet, underfunding has created years-long delays in informing Canadians about how their government spends money, the role of lobbyists in shaping regulations and whether programs are actually working.

In mid-March, the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down nearly all government offices. Data obtained by the Free Press show that one month later, 55 of 80 core federal agencies deemed FOI requests "not a critical service."

That put FOI staff at the back of the queue for getting government Internet connections set up at home, and later for returning to their offices.

As of late September, just less than half of federal agencies had returned to full capacity to process FOI requests, during a time of unprecedented government spending and limits on civil rights.

Meanwhile, MPs have asked bureaucrats to produce documents about Canada’s COVID-19 preparedness and the shuttering of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, which might have detected the virus before it left China.

The Trudeau government could not provide a clear timeline on when it will have those records ready.

Tory health critic Michelle Rempel Garner slammed the Trudeau government on Thursday for the gummed-up FOI system and asked Hajdu to divert these staff to process the documents MPs have requested.

"There are people, whose actual job it is to produce information for Parliament, (who) are sitting at home," she said. "Maybe they could produce some documents for Parliament? I don’t know; what does the minister think?"

Hajdu accused Rempel Garner of demeaning civil servants by suggesting they’re lazy.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has claimed transparency is a priority for his government, asking Hajdu and his other ministers a year ago "to raise the bar on openness, effectiveness and transparency in government."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca