Saturday, 16 May 2015 17:29

Legislative Time Machine Erases Access Rights

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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Canada’s Information Commissioner has tabled a report in Parliament that has deeply troubling implications.

The scandal-in-the-making is a product of three pretty well-known characteristics of the current government – first, they have been utterly committed to dismantling and destroying every trace of the Long-Gun Registry established under the former Liberal government; second, their commitment to transparency and accountability is situational at best; and third, they have a tendency to bury important and sometimes controversial amendments in omnibus budget implementation bills.

Here’s what happened: The Conservative government was determined to do away with the long gun registry. It introduced a bill on October 25, 2011 which was eventually passed into law as the Ending the Long-Gun Registry Act (ELGRA) . This statute came into effect on April 5, 2012. However, no doubt anticipating the demise of the registry, an unnamed individual filed an access to information request on March 27, 2012. This applicant sought an electronic copy of all records in the Canadian Fire Arms Registry relating to firearms that were neither prohibited nor restricted. These were the specific records slated to be destroyed under s. 29 of the ELGRA.

Shortly after the coming into force of the ELGRA, the Information Commissioner wrote to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness to remind him that records relating to the Long-gun Registry that were the subject of requests under the Access to Information Act that were filed before the coming into effect of the ELGRA would have to be retained until the access requests had been dealt with (including any court proceedings flowing from these requests). The Minister responded, giving the Commissioner assurances that the RCMP would “abide by the right of access.”

The applicant eventually received a response to his request for records, but he was not satisfied with the response. He was of the opinion that the information provided was incomplete and was also concerned that the RCMP had gone ahead and destroyed responsive records. The Information Commissioner investigated and agreed that the response was incomplete. She also concluded that responsive records had been destroyed by the RCMP, notwithstanding the fact that they knew that the records were subject to a right of access. The destruction by government entities of records subject to a right of access is an offence under 67.1 of the Access to Information Act.

On March 26, 2015, the Information Commissioner informed the Attorney General of Canada, the Hon. Peter MacKay, of the possible commission of this offence. She also notified the Minister of Public Safety that in her view the complaint was well-founded. She recommended that any responsive records still in the possession of the RCMP be provided to the applicant. The Minister responded, indicating that he had no intention of following this recommendation.

Up to this point, the situation reveals a government committed to destroying all traces of the long-gun registry, and, as a result, unwilling to respond to an access request that would provide an applicant with data from the registry prior to its destruction. The Prime Minister’s response as reported by the CBC was: “[T]o be perfectly clear, the government is clarifying the information act to make sure it is in full conformity with Parliament's already expressed wishes on the long-gun registry that the RCMP has executed as they were required to do according to the law.”

It is clear that the access request slipped through the cracks between the introduction of the bill in October 2011 and its passage into law. It is also clear that granting access to the records would go against the intent expressed in the legislation to destroy the registry. The merits or demerits of the long-gun registry have already been the subject of much heated debate, but the battle over its continued existence is at an end. What is troubling is that the “loophole” existed, that a perfectly legitimate access to information request was filed, that the Minister of Public Safety committed to preserve records until outstanding access requests had been dealt with, and that the information was nonetheless destroyed.

What the government should have done was to address the access issue in the ELGRA in the first place. The wisdom of backdating the law to suspend access to information requests retroactively to the date the Bill was introduced in Parliament could have been debated as part of the legislation to put an end to the long-gun registry. Having omitted to do this, what the government has done instead is add to its budget implementation bill (Bill C-59) a series of provisions that retroactively remove the right of access to the long-gun registry data. The right of access is terminated on the date the long-gun Bill was introduced into Parliament (October 25, 2011). It effectively also removes any obligation to retain records, and makes their destruction legitimate. It also removes any liability of the Crown or its agents or employees with respect to the destruction of records.

It is true that these provisions will “fix” the oversight in the original long-gun Bill. However, as the Information Commissioner points out, they also retroactively absolve the RCMP of having destroyed records when it was clearly illegal to do so, and when the Minister of Public Safety had committed to the preservation of the records pending the resolution of outstanding access requests. The actions appear to have been illegal under the law as it stood at the time. Any pot smoker with a conviction for possession will tell you that it doesn’t matter what you think the law SHOULD be; what matters is what the law actually says when you carry out the transgressive act. Unless, of course, you have a legislative time machine that you can use to change the law at the time of your transgression. The Conservative government has such a legislative time machine. It is yet another one of those distasteful omnibus bills that offer a convenient sidestep to democratic debate and accountability.

This, ultimately, is the real problem and central matter for concern. The long-gun registry is – well – long gone. There was indeed a legislative loophole that created a problematic gap for a government that had committed to the total destruction of the registry records. But the ability to use omnibus bills to rewrite history and to absolve conduct that was both illegal and contrary to government assurances is ugly. And, as the Information Commissioner suggests, it is perhaps also a very dangerous precedent.

Teresa Scassa

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