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Information commissioner faces $700K funding shortfall, says system is 'overwhelmed'

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Canada's information commissioner says her office is facing a $700,000 funding shortfall that could impact its ability to investigate complaints about government transparency and accountability.

"Basically this reduction in my budget will spell longer delays for complainants who are seeking information from government institutions," information commissioner Caroline Maynard told members of Parliament on Thursday. "Now is not the time for bureaucratic penny-pinching."

Speaking before Parliament's standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, Maynard said the shortfall represents five per cent of her office budget. She blamed the "unacceptable predicament" on funding calculations used by Canada's Treasury Board Secretariat.

"I cannot overstate the seriousness of the situation I am currently faced with," Maynard wrote in a May 14 letter to the Treasury Board Secretariat. "For a small organization like the [Office of the Information Commissioner], where every employee plays a critical role in achieving our objectives and fulfilling our mandate, even a small reduction in personnel will significantly strain our operational capacity at a time when the access to information system is under pressure like never before."

As information commissioner of Canada, Maynard is an independent ombudsperson tasked with upholding Canada's freedom of information laws, which allow individuals and corporations to request government records through what's known as an access to information request. Often used by journalists and academics, the process has been criticized for being slow and overly secretive.

Appearing on CTV News Channel's Power Play on Friday with guest host Mike Le Couteur, Maynard underscored that access to information is a semi-constitutional right for Canadians.

"If they are not allowing me to have sufficient resources to fulfill that independent mandate, it does give a sense that it's not a priority for this government," Maynard said. "Unfortunately, we've seen that no matter who is in power, I have to say, it's very difficult for a government to be completely transparent when ... they have control over the information."

Matt Malone is an assistant professor of law at Thompson Rivers University in B.C. and the founder of Open By Default, a digital database that contains more than 3.4 million pages of documents released through Canada's access to information system.

"Underfunding the information commissioner will foster a culture of secrecy within government institutions, and it will exacerbate a culture of secrecy that already exists," Malone told CTVNews.ca. "The access to information laws we have are only going to be as effective as their implementation, so if you don't have adequate ombudspeople to oversee those laws, to process complaints about those laws, they're going to become basically ineffective and toothless. That's what's happening."

On Thursday, Maynard described the Canadian system as "overwhelmed" and said her office is currently fighting Ottawa in 11 separate court cases over access to government documents.

"When you look at the billions in corporate subsidies that this government continues to give out, it's really not a defensible argument to say that we need to save this relatively small amount of money by cutting this absolutely critical part of our access to information system," Malone, who researches government secrecy, said by phone.

"It totally perpetuates a cycle of secrecy and mistrust between citizens and government institutions, and I think it is contributing to the erosion of public trust in federal government institutions."

In a statement to CTV News, a Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson said a standard formula is used to calculate operating budgets for all organizations in the federal public service, and that the Office of the Information Commissioner's budget was increased for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

"This formula has been in place for many years and applies to 90 organizations across government," the Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson said via email. "We will continue to discuss with the Information Commissioner and her office the concerns that she has raised in her letter."

Malone believes the Office of the Information Commissioner's budget needs to be independent of Treasury Board Secretariat oversight.

"The Treasury Board Secretariat is a body that the information commissioner processes complaints about," Malone explained. "So there's an inherent conflict of interest in terms of the information commissioner's ability to hold government accountable and government's ability to hold the purse strings over this office in a way that keeps it eternally vulnerable."

Maynard says the current funding model will continue to impact her office's ability to fulfill its mandate and that without changes she could be forced to cut as many as eight positions.

"This is why I've been advocating for a more independent model for funding," she said. "Something that's a little bit more flexible and completely outside of being under the hands of the government."

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