Wednesday June 12, 2002  3:37 PM EST
Appeals rising sharply over Ontario government denials of information access




TORONTO (CP) - People in Ontario are making more requests to access information held by the provincial government and lodging even more appeals over the way their requests are being handled.

In her 2001 annual report, Ontario's information and privacy commissioner notes that the number of information requests rose 10 per cent between 1998 and 2001, while appeals rose 42 per cent.


"Freedom of information - the right to access the government information you want, rather than just the information a government wants to give you - is one of the cornerstones of democracy," said Ann Cavoukian.


Cavoukian refused to say whether she believed the provincial and municipal governments were being more stingy with the information they provide.


However, she said her office has made a determined push to educate people about their rights.


"The government responds in the manner that it will but you have the right to appeal," Cavoukian said in an interview.


"People are now exercising those rights."


In more than one in five requests for information last year, provincial ministries broke the rules by not responding in a timely fashion, the report shows.


The ministries of Environment, Health and Natural Resources were the worst offenders when it came to timely responses.


In 93 cases, the commissioner issued orders to the provincial government to release information.


In her report, Cavoukian also urges the Ontario government to take a leadership role in Canada and appoint a chief privacy officer given the increasing amounts of personal information being held by the province.


The idea is to ensure that privacy concerns aren't given short-shrift, Cavoukian said.


The chief privacy officer's goal would be "to protect personal information on citizens held by government and to ensure that privacy protections are built into all new initiatives, all new programs, all new systems being contemplated," said Cavoukian.


Cavoukian called on the province to make new privacy legislation a top priority, saying the need for privacy protection has never been greater, especially with the easy transfer of electronic records.


The proposed privacy act would cover health and the private sector.


"Both in the health sector and the overall private sector, there are increasing electronic exchanges of the most sensitive types of personal information," said Cavoukian.


"There are differing rules and, in some cases, no regulations at all."