A report from Canada’s Information Commissioner says the Department of National Defence’s (DND) “unacceptable” handling of access to information (ATI) requests is undermining the credibility of Canada’s transparency system.

The report was prepared for The Maple after this publication filed a complaint over DND’s handling of a request submitted under the Access to Information Act last August. The documents The Maple requested concerned Canada’s response to then-U.S. house speaker Nancy Pelosi’s highly controversial visit to Taiwan.

DND failed to provide a formal update or response to The Maple’s request within the 30-day time limit set by the Act. In fact, DND’s delay went well beyond the 30-day limit, and the ministry did not provide a formal response to the request until last month. No documents were released.

“It is unacceptable and is affecting negatively the credibility of the access to information system,” wrote Allison Knight, senior director of investigations at Canada’s Office of the Information Commissioner, regarding DND’s slow handling of such requests. Knight added that The Maple’s complaint was “well founded.”

According to Knight’s report, DND said the delays in processing The Maple’s request were due to an “Office of Primary Interest” (OPI) failing to respond. OPIs are those that are tasked with retrieving the records sought by an applicant.

"DND’s access to information unit explained they had not yet received a response to its tasking request from DND’s Assistant Deputy Minister Policy group," Knight wrote.

“This is not the first time an access request is delayed because of this OPI."

In July 2020, the Information Commissioner issued a special report to Parliament regarding DND's slow processing of ATI requests, and made nine recommendations that the department agreed to adopt. These included "providing OPIs with a reasonable, but specific, timeframe to respond to request and consultations" and ensuring that "OPIs fully understand their responsibilities under the Act regarding obstruction." Better training for OPIs was also recommended.

Responding to a request for comment from The Maple, Defence Minister Anita Anand’s media office wrote in an unsigned email: "We remain committed to continually improving how we handle access to information and privacy requests."

"We continually implement steps to better train personnel involved in ATIP management, and continue to take measures to streamline our internal ATI processes to meet the needs of Canadians faster and more effectively."

Delayed Responses

When The Maple asked DND for an update on its ATI request on Nov. 22, 2022, tasking advisor Elizabeth Tregunno wrote in an email: “I am unable to provide you with a response date at this time.” However, Tregunno advised that “the request is active and all parties are working hard to process the request as quickly as possible.”

When a government institution fails to provide a formal response or update to a request within the 30-day time frame, it is deemed to have refused access to the requested records. However, the institution must still provide a written explanation as to why the applicant was denied access to the documents, or grant access.

On May 26, nine months after The Maple's original request and six months after this publication filed a complaint to the commissioner, DND advised that “no records could be located within the Department of National Defence.”

This was not the first time The Maple filed a complaint over DND’s handling of an access to information request.

In the fall of 2021, The Maple requested documents concerning a George Washington University report that showed a far-right group in Ukraine had bragged online about receiving training at a NATO military academy. DND did not release the requested documents for over a year, and only did so following a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

DND further delayed the release of the documents for more than a week after the commissioner advised The Maple that the documents should have been delivered. The Information Commissioner’s office told The Maple that DND had “responded to your request” on October 13, 2022.

When The Maple informed the officer that the documents had not in fact been delivered, the officer said DND told him the documents had been sent through regular mail. The documents were finally delivered electronically on Oct. 25, 2022.

Systemic Problems?

The Maple is not the only outlet to have encountered serious issues with DND’s handling of access to information requests.

In March, David Pugliese at the Ottawa Citizen reported that he had requested a July 7, 2021 document that contained advice for Canada’s top soldier Gen. Wayne Eyre from a sexual misconduct survivors’ group on how to finesse his public statements about unethical behaviour. The document also assured Eyre that the group was not seeking harsh punishment for senior officers found guilty of wrongdoing.

DND told Pugliese that despite a thorough search, the requested document could not be found.

But that claim was false: Pugliese had been sent a copy of the document by “individuals concerned about how the Canadian military has dealt with ongoing sexual misconduct scandals.”

After being informed that the Citizen possessed the document, DND claimed that a mistake had been made, and insisted the error was “an isolated incident.”

However, Pugliese noted: “The false claims by DND staff and military personnel about the document in question represent the latest in the department’s troubling handling of records requested under the access law.”

He added: “The military and department have a long history of incidents involving the destruction of records and the withholding of documents dating back to the scandals of the Somalia murders in the early 1990s.”

In May, Pugliese reported that DND documents related to a military propaganda program designed to manipulate the behaviour of the Canadian public had also disappeared.

The Canadian Armed Forces had spent $1.2 million on behaviour modification training designed by Cambridge Analytica, the company mired in a scandal in which the personal data of Facebook users was handed over to Donald Trump’s campaign for U.S. president in 2016.

Alex Cosh is the news editor of The Maple.

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