Transparency for the 21st Century Conference

Opening Remarks by Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada

Ottawa, ON
March 22, 2017

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Thank you Mr. Guy Berthiaume for your comments and hospitality in this magnificent room that I will now always remember as the Knowledge Room.

I would like to also thank our partners for this conference. Guy has already mentioned them, but I would like to thank you personally. Without you, this conference would not have been possible.

I would like to recognize our international delegates:

  • David Ferriero from the United States
  • Biljana Božić and Radenko Lacmanović from Montenegro
  • Gitanjali Gutierrez from Bermuda
  • Esperanza Zambrano from Spain
  • Joel Salas from Mexico
  • Swedish Ambassador Per Sjögren
  • Sanjay Pradhan, by video, from the Open Government Partnership initiative
  • Elizabeth Denham, via the internet, Mark MacKinnon and James Bridge from Great Britain

Thank you to all my commissioner colleagues and to all of you who have travelled across this great and magnificent country to join us.

In the few minutes allocated to open the proceedings this morning I want to share with you my vision for this Transparency for the 21st Century Conference, which I have organized around five key points.

First, I am excited to gather all of your expertise and your commitment to government transparency in one place. All of you work in various ways to maximize access to information. Access to information specialists, open government advocates, open data architects, information management specialists, archivists, historians, journalists, indigenous rights, civil liberties and human rights defenders need to meet and share best practices and plan for the future. The work is too important, and too urgent, to continue to work in silos.

Second, I hope we can develop a common understanding about the right of access to public information and anchor this right in its proper foundation. Access to information is a fundamental human right.

In Canada, access to information has been judicially interpreted as quasi-constitutional, and is also considered part and parcel of section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 2(b) protects our fundamental freedom of thought, our fundamental freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom of the press. Yet anchoring access to public information in a human rights paradigm is often met with skepticism in this country.

Let me share with you a personal experience.

Five years ago, I had a truly transformative experience when I visited India. Civil society activists there taught me, and indeed showed me, the profound impact of transparency on people's lives.

There, transparency of public accounts allows people to access their rations of food and it allows them to ensure that the schools they send their children be built with the required materials. It ensures that their children are safe inside their schools. Improperly built schools risk collapsing in extreme weather conditions.

Again, people here in Canada, tell me that this is not a comparison that can be made in our advanced society.

This is not true. If you read Charlie Angus' book "Children of the Broken Treaty" you will understand why access to public information must be asserted as a human right here in Canada as well. Mr. Angus gathered information from a multitude of access to information requests to analyze the public monies being spent on reserves. His quest is endless and he is determined to ensure that indigenous children in this country get access to safe housing, properly funded and safe schools, and most importantly, safe drinking water. He is working to assert that indigenous rights are, in fact, basic human rights.

Third, we must ensure that our systems of transparency establish the right balance between transparency and different interests, such as the protection of personal information, commercial interest, and national security, for example. Open government initiatives cannot meet their objectives if this balance is not established. We often find ourselves in a position where we can’t even evaluate if this balance has been met effectively because we are evaluating it in an environment marked by a deep culture of secrecy. 

Our pursuit of appropriate access protections takes us down some twisted and mysterious alleys. On one hand, legislators consider the Right to be Forgotten, while elsewhere legions of advocates and government officials grapple with how to establish a high bar for transparency. They focus on the tricky issues associated with the duty to document, the right to remember and the necessity to hold our governments to account. Somehow, we need to find the right balance.

The Panama Papers, Wikileaks, the investigations by Robyn Doolittle and by Mark McKinnon, among others, recently revealed that this balance does not exist and that there is a great public interest in these disclosures. It is time to establish that balance. The status quo is no longer acceptable.

Fourth, is for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is upon us. The late 1960’s saw the beginnings of the Internet. In 1983, Time Magazine voted the Computer as the Man of the Year. That was also the year of the coming into force of our access to information law here in Canada. Today, we are on the brink of – no, we are already immersed in– a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, the way we work, and the way we relate to each other and with our governments.

The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with a large amount of processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unprecedented.

New technologies and platforms bring new possibilities for citizens to engage with governments, voice their opinions, and coordinate their efforts. Already governments are facing pressure to keep up with these changes by modernizing strategies for public engagement and policy making. We urgently need to rethink our transparency platforms.

Fifth, we need to keep our eyes on the horizon for the “next big thing.” We need to anticipate how we, as access to information champions, can keep pace with the rapid transformation of our economies and societies.

Take for example, Uber. It is a transport company that operates without owning any cars. Tesla is developing a driverless car. My son is working with his university professor to develop an AI algorithm to sift through documents. These and other advancements are changing the world in ways that we cannot even conceive of right here and right now.

We have important work to do! Let’s try to find a way forward together. 

I look forward to your insights.

Thank you!