OTTAWA — The Justice Department should not have told an MP it would take six years to respond to his request for documents about plans to ensure the safety of online platforms, the federal information watchdog has ruled.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, who filed the access to information request last May, called the case a disturbing example of federal disregard for the law.
Angus asked for correspondence and briefings from a three-month period related to a proposed regulator to address child pornography and other exploitive material.
Opposition MPs have asked why a regulatory authority is needed to deal with abusive content when the Criminal Code already bars child pornography and the knowing distribution of illicit images.
"This is not a gotcha moment for us," Angus said in an interview. "This is about the public interest."
The access law says federal agencies must answer requests within 30 days or provide valid reasons why additional time is needed.
Justice told Angus it would take 2,280 days beyond the original 30 days to process the approximately 30,000 pages that might be responsive to the request.
Angus then complained to information commissioner Caroline Maynard, an ombudsman for users of the law.
In her recent finding, Maynard says it was unreasonable for Justice to take such a long extension and she orders the department to respond to Angus "forthwith."
However, she adds that Justice now expects it will need until the end of March 2024 to comply.
"That's a hell of a long time and political life to avoid scrutiny," Angus said. “I don't expect we'll ever see these documents. And I don't think the access to information commissioner is going to do much about that.
"It is a serious issue, because these are issues of accountability. And particularly when this is about protecting very vulnerable teens and young girls."
Justice told Maynard it needed the six years because the records concern a "sensitive and complex subject” that requires “specialized” consultations.
Given the volume of material at issue and its complexity, Maynard accepted that analyzing the records, identifying subject matter experts and undertaking internal consultations would take time.
"However, I am not satisfied that Justice has sufficiently established the link between the justifications advanced and the length of the extension claimed," she wrote.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2022.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press