When Michael Dagg sued the national archives for access to RCMP files on an obscure 1990s investigation into federal contracting practices, he knew he might not live long enough to win the fight.
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) told Mr. Dagg it would take 80 years to process his access-to-information request for the RCMP’s files on the investigation, code-named Project Anecdote. While federal information requests must be processed within 30 days, the Access to Information Act allows institutions to claim a one-time deadline extension.
Outraged by the extraordinary delay, Mr. Dagg appealed, and then took his case to court late last year. His battle has revealed intriguing details about Project Anecdote – including that the investigation extended to senior government officials.
Mr. Dagg, an Ottawa-based researcher-for-hire known for his prowess in filing freedom of information (FOI) requests, died on Sept. 1 at the age of 74. His estate has decided not to continue his court battle.
He was “operating on another level” when it came to FOI, said Bijon Roy, an Ottawa-based lawyer with Champ & Associates, which took on the case against the government. Mr. Dagg “wasn’t just trying to expose incidents of wrongdoing or shed light on controversial issues,” he said. “He always tried to do it in a way that would help develop the system.”
“He was so passionate and engaged about it because he saw it as critically important to accountability and democracy,” Mr. Roy said.
His dogged work has had a lasting impact. In 1997, he took a request for the names of federal Finance department employees all the way to the Supreme Court – and won. The Dagg v. Canada precedent that federal public servants’ names could be disclosed is still cited today.
Mr. Dagg sought to learn more about Project Anecdote after reading a 1995 Macleans article about José Perez, an influential Ottawa-area real estate developer. The article alleged Mr. Perez paid $1.2-million in bribes to senior government officials to win the construction bid for Canada Post’s new headquarters in the capital region. The allegations were never proven in court, and Mr. Perez declined to comment when contacted by Macleans in 1995. The Globe and Mail was not able to locate Mr. Perez for this story.
While the RCMP’s Project Anecdote began as an examination of Mr. Perez and his Canada Post contract, by 2000, investigators were focusing on “specific former senior government officials,” according to a partly redacted LAC “finding aid,” or archival summary, filed in court during Mr. Dagg’s lawsuit.
Although police believed the $1.2-million was “a secret commission” to win the contract, the investigation collapsed due to lack of evidence and all charges were withdrawn, according to the finding aid. (The RCMP could not confirm this when reached for comment, stating that the file was no longer in its possession; they referred The Globe back to LAC.)
When Mr. Dagg first filed his Project Anecdote request in 2018, an archives information officer warned him that fulfilling it would be a Herculean task. There were 96 microfilm reels and 31 metres of text records totalling 780,000 pages, plus multimedia files on audio cassette tapes, floppy disks, CD-ROMs, video, data cartridges and more. (Internal LAC e-mails disclosed in court revealed that about half of all digital files were “probably already lost” due to their age, however.)
Given the sheer volume of records, the officer said Library and Archives Canada would take a time extension “in the decades” – specifically, “up to an 80-year minimum.” By then, most of the files could be accessed without a formal request, the officer explained.
Mr. Dagg filed an appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner. In October, 2021, the Information Commissioner agreed the extension was unreasonable, and recommended the archives respond “forthwith.” LAC replied that it would still take about 65 years to process the file. Mr. Dagg filed his lawsuit in Federal Court less than two months later.
“I was shocked by the extraordinary length of the extension claimed by LAC, as it was far longer than any extension I have ever encountered in my use of the [Access to Information Act],” Mr. Dagg wrote in a January, 2022, affidavit.
“Given my age, it was plainly apparent that I will be deceased long before the anticipated release in 2098.”
With Mr. Dagg’s death and the discontinuation of the court case, most of the RCMP’s files will continue to be locked away in the national archives. According to LAC spokesperson Marc Comeau, case files can only be opened to the public through an access-to-information request, and there is no deadline for the automatic disclosure of police files.
The 80-year extension to provide historically significant police files “shows the absolute absurdity of the [Access to Information Act],” according to Ken Rubin, an activist and FOI expert.
“Why take 80 years? Because our system allows you to take as long as you want without penalty, without any recourse,” he said. “How can you have a system which is mainly designed to prevent access to government records?”
The government could have processed the most significant parts of this request well before the 80-year timeline, Mr. Rubin said. “The real essence of this is not in 780,000 pages. Yes, some of the meetings and investigative stuff would be there, but that number is highly suspect to me.”
Once he got going on FOI issues, Mr. Dagg could be hard to keep up with.
Mr. Roy, the lawyer, worked with Mr. Dagg on his affidavit in January, during the height of the Ottawa trucker convoy. With the city effectively shut down by demonstrators, Mr. Roy and Mr. Dagg were forced to work over the phone. “At times, it felt like more calls than necessary,” Mr. Roy joked. “I’ll miss him.”
“Michael was probably a rare and special guy. I hope other people will enter this arena with that level of passion,” he said. “He was kind of irreplaceable.”
Help The Globe and Mail investigate Canada’s broken freedom-of-information regimes. We’re looking to speak with people who use and interact with the system at all levels of government. Are you a current or former FOI analyst? A public servant? A citizen, academic, researcher or advocate who has filed requests? Are you a current or former appeals adjudicator? A lawyer with experience in this area of law? We want to talk to you. You can get in touch with us at email@example.com.