All Canadians citizens have the right to get straight answers from their governments, with this power enshrined in a 1982 federal law called the Freedom of Information Act.
Sean Holman, a Mount Royal University professor and expert in the field of freedom of information, explains the law is critical to informed citizenship and therefore healthy democracies.
"A freedom of information law is a form of transparency that allows us to access government records or public agency records that would be otherwise be unavailable to citizens,” says Holman, adding, “it basically allows us to access otherwise secret information that is held by our government.”
1. What do I want to know?
The way the question is written will dramatically alter the document you receive.
“Think about government information as an iceberg. The government owns a bunch of information that is below the surface of the water,” says Holman.
“The first thing you need to do is base your request on what you can see above the water. You don’t want to be going off the well of your own personal experience because said well is always going to be fundamentally limited.”
In other words, before filing a request, analyze the information the government has made public through the media or other public records.
“If something is making the news, there are a whole bunch of records that you can request from the government."
2. How do I ask a question that results in getting the best documents?
Since there are thousands of documents produced by governments everyday, it may be hard to pinpoint which you truly want. Fortunately, CBC reporter Dean Beeby who specializes in Freedom of Information legislation has a few tips.
"A frequent request is for the minutes of internal committees in various departments. Inventories, expense claims,” says Beeby, adding internal audits and evaluations are also common.
“The filing cabinets are full of material so it’s really important as a requester to narrow your request, focus it as much as possible so that the processing of the request can be quick,” she adds.
He adds that short, concise records are what you’re after.
"A minister doesn’t have time to read hundreds of documents and therefore a briefing note for a minister tends to be short, succinct, and that’s what you want too,” he says. “It will be quick to process at their end and quick to read and digest at your end."
Specific items are key. You may not want internal email chains, newspaper clippings or media reports that are unnecessary and lengthy.
3. How do I file my request?
The most critical issue is the wording of a request.
Bad example: Please provide any and all records related to [insert your topic here.]
It’s bad because it’s:
❏ Too broad
❏ Lacks request of specific documents
❏ Doesn’t have a time frame
Good example: Please provide minutes, research memos, minister memos related to [insert topic here] omitting the media clippings, media reports and internal email chain of [Insert agency or committee name here] starting from January 1st 2017 to January 31st 2017.
It’s good because it’s:
❏ Asking for precise documents
❏ Indicates the documents you don’t want
❏ Provides a time frame
If your request exceeds 90 days, Beeby advises to “file another request for the next three months. Don’t bog down a single request in a huge timeframe.
4. What problems should I anticipate once I file my request?
The government has the power to impose exclusions. For example, if someone is recorded saying something personal in nature during the minutes of a committee meeting the personal part is blacked out.
Your request can also be rejected by the government based on exemptions where officials believe they do not have to share information because of security issues. In these cases, multiple requests may be needed.
Be prepared for the fees that will be attached to information requests. The fees vary with each province, but a request of federal information is a minimum of five dollars. Additional fees can be imposed depending on the time it takes to search compile all the records.
Time remains your biggest enemy as Beeby explains: “When Parliament in Ottawa passed the act in 1982, they put a 30-days period in the legislation saying departments need to respond within 30 days when you make a request but they gave an out to some departments which said that if they can’t do it within 30 days, we will give you an ability to take an extension and you decide how long that extension needs to be.”
5. If I’m not a journalist, can I still file a request?
Journalists are not the only ones who file freedom of information requests. Many other groups such as opposition parties, lobbyists, activists, entrepreneurs and individual citizens also file requests for information. Information from these requests is turned into multiple outputs, such as news stories, research papers and political strategies.
- By Antoine Fecteau