A champion for your right to know

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, BCL’88, LLB’88, believes Canadians deserve to have easier access to the information behind decisions made by governments and Crown corporations.

by S. E. Gordon

Canadian Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, BCL’88, LLB’88 (Photo: Michelle Valberg)

In May, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that records kept by the prime minister or by his ministers do not have to be divulged under the Access to Information Act, Suzanne Legault was aghast. As Canada’s information commissioner, it’s her job to investigate complaints by citizens aggrieved at being denied federal government documents under the act.

Legault was the third consecutive information commissioner to battle the Justice Department in court over the issue. “I think it further limits the rights of Canadians to access government decisions recorded in documents,” the outspoken Legault fumed at a recent news conference. “They [Canadians] should be concerned because that’s the only way they can hold their governments to account.”

The defeat was a setback for Legault, who, one year into the job, is busy urging Parliament and the public to demand more teeth for its information watchdog.

Last October, a University College London study comparing five democratic countries on access to government information ranked Canada in last place. Only a decade earlier, Legault says, Canada was a model for access to information internationally. She laments a “decade of deterioration.”

It’s telling that while Canada makes do with an Access to Information Act, the U.S. has the more resounding Freedom of Information Act. And unlike the UK and Australia, which have enacted newer access laws, Canada relies on its original 1983 version.

It’s not that the Canadian public service has become more secretive about its files, says Legault, but that it’s been overwhelmed by the advent of electronic documents. This has resulted in increasing delays in disclosure and, occasionally, outright refusals.

The CBC and Canada Post have been her particular bêtes noires. She pointedly gave both institutions failing grades for their inability or unwillingness to respond in a timely fashion to requests for information. The National Arts Centre, the Auditor General’s Office and the Privacy Commissioner’s Office each received an A, (as did her own office, assessed by an independent third party).

Although the Access to Information Act empowers Legault to subpoena officials and documents, and to examine them under oath, she cannot order the release of documents – unlike five of the provincial information commissioners or her counterparts in Australia and the U.K.

“These are not laws that governments readily want to modify,” she concedes. “It’s up to Canadians to ask for changes.” But she worries that “there’s not a high level of awareness of the importance of democratic rights.”

Legault, 46, was born in Montreal. After graduating from CEGEP, she began studying law at McGill. “I considered it the best law school and I wanted to hone my English skills there. [And] when my CEGEP counsellor said I wouldn’t be accepted, that made me determined.”

Initially, she admits, she was a little overwhelmed. “The average age of the first-year law students was 28 and they already had an average of five years of university studies.” However daunting her first days were, she soon felt comfortable. One student in particular made an impression on her – Robert Horwood, LLB’85, her future husband, with whom she would have three children. Since he was from Toronto and didn’t have a civil law degree, while she wished to stay close to Montreal, they compromised on Ottawa as their new habitat. (He is a legal drafter for the Justice Department.)

“I didn’t have a set career plan,” Legault says. She articled with a small law firm and then practiced for five years as a criminal defence lawyer. She also worked part-time as a Crown attorney in a nearby county, Prescott-Russell. “Practicing criminal law was more like social work,” she recalls. “People got into trouble for a variety of reasons. But very few were dangerous criminals.”

In 1986, Legault left private practice for the federal public service. She became a law officer in the Competition Bureau, which “provided a nice combination of economics and law.” The most memorable file she worked on was Air Canada’s proposed acquisition of Canadian Airlines in December 1999, while she was special advisor to the competition commissioner. The bureau, fearing that Air Canada would become a quasi-monopoly, extracted several commitments from the airline to offset the loss of domestic competition.

In the early 2000s, Legault was promoted, first to assistant deputy commissioner and then to deputy commissioner, legislative and parliamentary affairs. Those posts provided the skill set for her next job – assistant information commissioner of Canada. She was hired in 2007 to focus on parliamentary relations, an essential area for an office that reports to Parliament.

In June 2009, Legault became interim commissioner, and a year later she was confirmed as commissioner for a seven-year term. “Perhaps when we speak at the end of my mandate,” she says hopefully, “we can truly talk about freedom of information in Canada.”

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