EDITORIAL: Info train dead on the tracks

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When it comes to access to information legislation it would appear the RCMP has a punctuality problem.

Parliament passed the Access to Information Act in 1983 to give reporters, academics and everyday citizens the right to obtain documents from federal agencies in a timely manner. Provinces and territories, including the Northwest Territories in 1994, followed suit with legislation providing access to their government documents.

The intent was to provide people a subway ride through the workings of their government; unfortunately the trains are often seriously delayed.

We at Yellowknifer have firsthand experience waiting for an information train that has yet to arrive.

On Feb. 27, a response was finally put in the mail from the RCMP’s access to information and privacy branch to an ATIPP request made in August 2016.

The response stated that the RCMP was experiencing “a large volume of requests resulting in lengthy delays in processing.”

For a small newspaper like ours, a two-and-a-half year delay is essentially a denial. The reporter who made the initial request is long gone. The information he requested is stale and likely no longer relevant or newsworthy.

Hoping to write a story on the territory’s RCMP management issues in the territory, a former Yellowknifer reporter named Shane Magee asked for the information more than 30 months ago. He filed the access to information request in an attempt to obtain management review reports.

These reports are compiled in each of the territory’s 21 RCMP detachments and contain a wealth of information on everything from investigations to employee morale.

Magee filled out the paperwork, paid the required fee, sent his request to the proper authorities and waited.

Many world-shaking events occurred in the intervening years: A military operation to flush the Islamic State from its territory in Iraq and Syria ended as the last village held by the terrorist group was retaken, Donald John Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, Drake’s “Keke, do you love me?” was streamed almost 400 million times on Spotify during the summer of 2018 and Magee left Yellowknifer and the North and moved to New Brunswick.

All the while Magee’s request was making its slow, painful way through the ATIPP process.

In its letter, the RCMP’s access to information and privacy branch asked if the information was still wanted and gave us 30 days to respond.

The law states governments must respond to ATIPP requests within 30 days once a review has begun, but it evidently can’t always meet that deadline.

An official with the RCMP’s ATIPP branch confirmed police are dealing with a backlog of requests.

As reporters, we spend a good chunk of our lives waiting for people to call. At times we feel like overbearing parents yelling, “How come the kids don’t call!” as if our sources were teenagers wishing we’d leave them alone.

But making us wait for years violates the spirit and intent of the ATIPP Act.

We don’t know what is happening with our request. It is in limbo. It might be wedged into a tall stack of similar requests on some lonely bureaucrat’s desk whose Sisyphean task is trying to respond to a mountain of other petitions that never seems to shrink.

If resources at the RCMP’s access to information and privacy branch are stretched so thin that a simple request from a regional newspaper takes over two years to respond, then we sympathize with our national police force. But we wonder, if the RCMP can’t answer a media request in a timely fashion, how many other people out there are also waiting? If you’re one of those unlucky souls please let us know. Perhaps we can help shed some light on the problem.

Yellowknifer has responded to the RCMP and asked that Magee’s request remain active. Perhaps the information he was after will indeed paint a compelling picture of what the territory’s police officers were up to a half decade ago– should it ever arrive.

We also ask, if the RCMP is experiencing such a backlog, why don’t they do something about it. Legislation promising access to government records doesn’t seem to have much value if the request just sits on a shelf somewhere.

Such a scenario might cause the more cynical among us to believe that’s being done on purpose.