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Each year, would-be immigrants file tens of thousands of access requests for the status of their applications. The result is a bogged-down public service, runaway costs and no fix in sight

Illustration by Romain Lasser

A few months into his job, Michael Olsen realized he had a problem.

As director-general of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s access to information division from 2014 to 2018, he was in charge of the teams collecting public servants’ e-mails, reports, presentations, memos and other documents in response to access requests. It was delicate work. Mr. Olsen likes to joke he was the most hated man in the entire department.

A worrying trend had emerged: The number of access requests to IRCC was growing – and that growth was accelerating. “Volumes were always higher,” Mr. Olsen said. “They were never coming down.”

Under the federal Access to Information Act, people can force the government to disclose records that would otherwise be inaccessible. This legal mechanism is intended to promote transparency and act as a check on power. In practice, using it means filling out an online form, paying a $5 fee, then waiting for documents to arrive. (In other jurisdictions, these are often called freedom of information requests.)

Roughly a decade ago, lawyers, consultants and individuals realized they could better navigate the immigration system by using access legislation. IRCC ordinarily provides immigration applicants with minimal information during the process; if their cases run into problems, they often have no easy way of finding out why. But the department is required to respond to access requests, and its answers can reveal why cases have been rejected or become stuck in abeyance.

This meant Mr. Olsen’s office was gradually being turned into an immigration case file retrieval-and-delivery operation.

He began warning his superiors. Each year, he gave presentations to senior management – the deputy minister, as well as their associates and assistants, who together make up the top public servants overseeing Canada’s immigration system – showing the blistering pace at which access requests were being filed.

“It looks like we’re going to hit a wall in three years,” he cautioned them in 2015. (That year, IRCC received 34,066 access requests.) A year later: “It looks like we’re going to hit a wall in two years.” (41,660 requests.) Twelve months later: “We’re going to hit a wall next year.” (50,728.) “I didn’t beat my shoe on the table or anything like that,” Mr. Olsen recalled. “I did say, ‘You can see the projections as well as I can.’” But changes that might have addressed the torrent of requests never came.

Eventually, IRCC hit that wall.

Over a decade, IRCC has seen a 763-per-cent increase in access requests, from roughly 20,000 in the fiscal year ending March, 2012, to about 177,000 in the 2022 fiscal year. The influx of filings has become so overwhelming that IRCC now accounts for 80 per cent of all access requests made to the federal government.

That onslaught will only worsen. Last year, the government announced it was aiming to admit a record 500,000 new permanent residents a year by 2025. (To put that number in perspective, in 2019 Canada admitted 341,000 permanent residents.) This would be in addition to the millions of permits, visas and authorizations issued each year to workers, students and visitors.

As IRCC strives to meet its aggressive new targets, critics and insiders say the department first needs to tame how it interacts with the access to information system, a relationship that has morphed into something beyond its control – bogging down its internal processes, costing taxpayers money and giving rise to a cottage industry of experts who flood the system with requests.

The volume of requests the department receives has also begun affecting areas outside immigration. IRCC’s ever-increasing appetite for access staff is straining an already limited pool of experts within the government, and a majority of federal access disputes handled by the Office of the Information Commissioner are now related to immigration requests. Other departments involved in immigration matters, such as the federal border agency, are also now facing higher request volumes.

In effect, the federal access to information system, which is supposed to hold the entire government to account, has been hijacked by the immigration system. Faced with an unending stream of requests, IRCC’s leadership – including several successive immigration ministers – have been slow to address the root causes of the deluge now threatening Canada’s immigration and access systems, according to internal government records obtained through access requests and interviews with more than 20 experts.

This is made all the more puzzling by the fact that IRCC has known of a potential solution for years, one that has been championed by many current and former public servants: Give applicants as much of their case files as possible without requiring access requests.

“I think you could say that there was a problem,” said Mr. Olsen, who retired in late 2018. “It was identified. Sadly, not enough has been done yet to address that problem.”

In a statement, IRCC spokesperson Rémi Larivière said the department “is striving to implement initiatives that will address the root causes of the increase in access requests and corresponding complaints.”

The Shagambayevs, a Kazakh immigrant family, have resorted to access to information requests to make sense of the Canadian bureaucracy that has kept them separated. Mother Sitora, son Alan and father Sunkar live in Tillsonburg, Ont.; adopted daughter Sabika, shown in some of the family photos on the wall, has been repeatedly denied a study permit for reasons that are not clear to Mr. Shagambayev. Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

During any immigration process, applicants submit forms and supporting documentation, which are then reviewed by case officers. Often, those officers will need additional information, such as a security assessment from a different government department or additional banking information, before a case can proceed. This can put an application on hold for months – or years. In other instances, officers may not be satisfied by an applicant’s submission, and may issue a formal refusal letter.

IRCC’s communications with applicants are brief. If a file is on hold, there could be no correspondence whatsoever; if a file is rejected, the refusal letter may only include a sentence or two about why the application did not succeed.

In nearly every access request made to the department, the same database is searched: the Global Case Management System, IRCC’s bespoke immigration software. GCMS is the beating heart of Canadian immigration. The system stores submitted documents, tracks correspondence between IRCC and applicants and logs case officers’ comments. These “GCMS notes,” as experts call them, are all drearily similar. They’re a lengthy list of application details, as if all the fields on a government form were unceremoniously dumped, line after line, into a document dozens of pages long. The most important information usually lies in the cryptic write-ups from case officers, which note status updates and issues with applications, such as missing documents.

GCMS, painstakingly built over many years to streamline operations, wasn’t designed to give people direct access to their case files. Applicants, lawyers and consultants, hungry for any information that would tell them what they needed to know to get a file moving again – or explain in detail why an application was rejected – realized these files were subject to federal access law. The requests poured in.

In 2021, 99 per cent of all the requests IRCC received were for immigration case files, according to an internal memo to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser. (The other 1 per cent of requests were for what the department refers to as “corporate records,” such as internal correspondence, communications, presentations – policy-oriented documents often requested by researchers, businesses and the media.)

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Immigration Minister Sean Fraser was sent a briefing two years ago about how requests for case files made up 99 per cent of access requests to his department.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

To Robert Orr, assistant deputy minister of operations at IRCC from 2012 to 2017 and the person ultimately responsible for immigration processing, the department’s hands appeared to be tied as the number of immigration applications grew.

“Once we got into big volumes of applications, we had a choice: We either communicate with applicants about what’s happening, or we get on and process applications,” he said. “And so we were choosing the latter.”

“It had taken so long to develop GCMS that I was a bit reluctant from an operations point of view to start over, doing something that was new,” Mr. Orr continued. “We recognized the importance of giving as much information to people as we could, but we were struggling with the best way to do it.”

As director-general of access to information at IRCC, Mr. Olsen did not have the power to do anything about how much information was pre-emptively shared with prospective immigrants. Instead, he focused on wringing as much efficiency out of IRCC’s access process as he could. But those measures only went so far.

Access work at IRCC can be gruelling. In 2022, when the department received about 177,000 access requests, it had the equivalent of 122 full-time access employees, according to data from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. That’s roughly 1,460 files per person.

Ultimately, the issues that plague IRCC’s access unit come from outside – from a community of immigration professionals and applicants who have been unintentionally incentivized by IRCC to file access requests. Another issue is GCMS, an intricate and stubborn piece of software that is difficult to modify and more than a decade old.

There’s also a problem of political will.

“There’s immigration, and then there’s [access requests] about immigration,” Mr. Olsen said. “If a politician has to choose what to get right, what are they going to choose?”

“I think it’s fair to say that people had recognized the limitations of GCMS long before I left the department,” he continued. “But that’s a really big, really expensive item to throw at the government.”

Through his spokesperson, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser declined The Globe and Mail’s requests for an interview.

At a citizenship ceremony in Halifax this past May, children rise to sing O Canada. As they wait months or years for their cases to progress, many citizenship applicants turn to a federal database for insight on what their case officers have been doing. Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Manmeet Rai’s access to information empire began on an online forum.

In 2016, Mr. Rai, who had recently graduated from law school in the United States, was attempting to immigrate to Canada. He prepared and submitted the paperwork himself – given his legal background, he didn’t see the need to hire a lawyer or consultant. Months passed without an answer from IRCC.

Frustrated, he learned from an online immigration forum that an access request for his GCMS notes might tell him what he needed to know to get his file moving again. But there was a snag: Only citizens, permanent residents and other individuals or corporations currently in Canada are eligible to file federal access requests. Mr. Rai was none of these.

He found an online service that could serve as his proxy. It filed the request on his behalf and sent him the documents once they were available. He recalls it costing US$25, or $34, much more than the $5 fee charged by the government.

Mr. Rai, who had taken to helping others on that same forum, saw the growing demand for GCMS notes, so he created his own request-proxying service, The site could process credit cards that weren’t enabled for international charges, which are common in India.

“This was not my full-time job,” Mr. Rai told The Globe. “I was just doing it initially as a hobby. And then it just blew up big time.”

Business was good. Within a few years, he was handling anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000 access requests annually. During one “blockbuster” year, he said, GetGCMS took in more than $150,000 in revenue, before expenses. (Mr. Rai, now a Crown prosecutor in Saskatchewan, has since stepped away from the day-to-day operations of the business. GetGCMS is run by his partner.)

GetGCMS charges $20 to obtain the basic notes stored in GCMS about an applicant. More detailed access requests cost as much as $75. In other words, at a minimum, the site is charging people four times more than what they would pay if they filed these requests themselves. And it has recently become possible for anyone – including non-citizens and non-permanent residents outside Canada – to file these requests for free, under a separate federal law called the Privacy Act.

“If you ethically ask me, should I be charging them $20 for something that they can do for free? Well, yes, they can do it for free,” Mr. Rai admitted. “But the thing is, you can file your immigration application or your visa application yourself and just pay $100, right? You don’t have to go down to a lawyer, or you don’t have to go down to a consultant and engage their services.”

In Mr. Rai’s experience, most people using the service don’t want to bother learning how to use the access system. To them, the premium charged by GetGCMS is worth it – and a pittance compared with what a lawyer or immigration consultant might charge for an access request, to say nothing of IRCC’s own filing fees. (A permanent resident application usually costs more than $1,000.)

Over the years, other businesses offering request-proxying services for immigration applicants have popped up, and these services have become a thorn in IRCC’s side. Immigration lawyers and consultants have also taken to automatically filing access requests on their clients’ behalf. (The Globe filed an access request to IRCC in September for data that could quantify the volume of filings coming from organizations like GetGCMS. The department’s reply to that request is now about eight months overdue.)

Mr. Rai said his e-mails to IRCC’s access unit would go unanswered, forcing him to file formal complaints to the Office of the Information Commissioner, the federal organization responsible for handling access disputes. “[IRCC] thought that I was just there to mint money,” he said. “I initially felt bad. I don’t feel bad now.”

Around 2018, Mr. Rai noticed requests were taking longer to be completed, and that the government was more often missing its legal deadlines. He and others complained about these delays, too. A year later, he realized IRCC was claiming 90-day extensions on all new requests coming from GetGCMS. Internal IRCC e-mails Mr. Rai obtained through access requests show the department singled out him and four other so-called “bulk requesters” for these automatic extensions. The dispute was resolved only after the Office of the Information Commissioner stepped in and told the government the pre-emptive extensions were “inconsistent” with the law.

Because of all these new complaints, the commissioner’s office has found itself facing a surge of new work. In the 2022-23 fiscal year, 63 per cent of all federal access complaints were regarding IRCC.

In an ideal world, Mr. Rai said, he would be put out of business by the government. Prospective immigrants looking for information on their applications shouldn’t have to file requests, he argued. “It is a waste of time, resources, money. The government’s spending so much money on hiring people, processing these access requests,” he said. “I have maintained this position for many years.”

“We can shut down and be happy.”

The deluge of access requests at IRCC will almost certainly get worse over the next few years, in part because of a quiet policy change that threatens IRCC’s access system with collapse.

Since July, 2022, a new federal regulation has allowed anyone in the world to file a personal information request under the Privacy Act to the federal government. These requests work almost identically to access requests, but apply only to information a government body holds about the requester. Crucially, these requests carry no fees, meaning that since 2022 all immigration applicants have been able to request their own files for free. (Most aren’t aware of this, or prefer to offload the work to lawyers, consultants or businesses like GetGCMS.)

An internal IRCC memo from 2021 attempted to game out the consequences of different rates of growth in the numbers of requests under this new regime, and the increases in work for access officers that might result. The projections were alarming: The memo said that if one out of every 20 immigration applicants were to file requests, the department would receive around 332,000 filings in the fiscal year ending March, 2023. If one in five people exercised these new rights, that number would be roughly 706,000. The memo did not say whether the department considered either of these scenarios likely to occur, and IRCC has not yet disclosed its 2023 request volumes. In 2022, the department received more than 26,000 privacy requests, in addition to the roughly 177,000 requests it received under access legislation.

In the one-in-five scenario, accounting for current request growth rates, IRCC would be facing 926,000 requests a year by March, 2024. The rest of the federal government combined saw about 113,000 access and privacy requests in the 2022 fiscal year.

That amount of requests to IRCC would grind the federal access system to a halt.

The most valuable resources in any access system are the staff members who process requests. At the federal level, access units have struggled to hire and retain people, and it has become common for departments to poach each others’ workers.

During an appearance before the House of Commons access to information committee earlier this year, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard warned that IRCC’s ravenous demand for staff would constrain the labour market for access experts. “If you’re going to give more information through access requests, you clearly need to have more people working in access units,” she said.

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Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard prepares to speak this past March at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

A sharp increase in requests would also carry more direct costs to taxpayers. According to statistics from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, IRCC spent a total of $10.9-million in 2022 to handle a combined 204,000 access and privacy requests, more than double what it spent in 2012. It also spent $475,000 on two contracts to LRO Staffing, an employment agency, between 2019 and 2022. The company handled more than 2,300 requests, according to a document tabled in the House of Commons. If IRCC’s access volumes were to swell further, its budget would also need to grow considerably.

While the department receives the bulk of federal requests, some of those require consultation with other government institutions, such as the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which are now also facing surges.

Many of those requests also trigger complaints to the Office of the Information Commissioner (which adjudicates requests made under the Access to Information Act) or the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (which handles requests under the Privacy Act). If volumes increased, both offices would have to direct more staff and funds to immigration-related complaints, reducing the resources available to other requesters, including academics, activists, journalists and the general public. (The Information Commissioner is currently investigating the Canada Border Services Agency as a result of increasing immigration-related access complaints.)

IRCC has announced plans to update GCMS, part of what it calls its “Digital Platform Modernization” project. This would give applicants a greater understanding of their place in the application queue, and more detailed refusal reasons. But those changes are years away, according to Andrew Koltun, an Ontario-based immigration lawyer at LJD Law who researches IRCC’s access to information processes.

While the department has built some public-facing services that share information about the status of an applicant’s file, Mr. Koltun said these tools aren’t very detailed. “I would say that Domino’s Pizza Tracker, when you make a delivery order, is far more detailed in tracking status than IRCC’s trackers are,” he said.

There are other ways of tracking a file’s status. If an applicant is in Canada, they can call an IRCC call centre, where agents are able to look up a GCMS file and read it over the phone. But those calls were answered only 19 per cent of the time in 2021, according to an internal memo. The department’s service standards say the answer rate should be at least 50 per cent.

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For newcomers hoping to get a Canadian passport like this one, information about their case can be hard to obtain through the existing GCMS system.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Mr. Koltun believes applicants should have nearly full access to their GCMS files. “I love the idea that you should have access to your default GCMS notes,” he said. “I think there would be a lot of institutional pressure that would make sure that never happened.”

In part, this comes down to IRCC’s own risk policy, which “is very protective in saying an applicant should never learn anything about the system, because the more someone learns about how the system works, the more likely it is that someone will be able to manipulate this to gain an immigration benefit,” Mr. Koltun said.

The fact that IRCC is now receiving as many requests as it does “speaks to a lack of transparency that immigration applicants face throughout the system,” he said, “and speaks to a paternalism from IRCC that you’re not owed anything as an applicant.”

With updates to GCMS trickling in over the next several years, the department has no choice but to try to curb the demand for access requests, either by improving applicants’ access to documents, thus eliminating the need for requests, or by restricting who can file them in the first place.

In 2020, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which is responsible for overseeing the administration of federal access law, solicited submissions from various departments as part of a review of government access policies. IRCC’s submission, disclosed by the Treasury Board in response to an access request, asked for limits on who is able to file requests, and the ability to put requests on hold indefinitely during “exceptional circumstances” (the submission noted the pandemic as an example). It also asked that the access filing fee (currently $5 across the government) be set at the discretion of institution heads, and that deadlines be calculated using business days instead of calendar days, which would give IRCC more time to respond.

In part, the submission was a direct response to the internet services filing access requests on behalf of applicants, like GetGCMS. “We would like to see the ATIA reform address the issue of representatives using the Access to Information system for their own personal benefit,” the submission said.

To Mr. Koltun, IRCC’s submission was a cry for help, but the changes it proposed would ultimately mean constraining people’s rights.

“I don’t think anyone sat back and said, ‘Okay, if this is what the system is, what does this mean from a requester perspective?,” Mr. Koltun said. “What does this do to the democratic notion of a right to access?”

‘We came to Canada because we thought that the Canadian immigration system was transparent, tolerant and equal,’ Sunkar Shagambayev says. But the lack of official clarity about his daughter’s case ‘really made us feel like we’re not needed in Canada, not welcomed.’ Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

In April, 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Treasury Board held a “business resumption” conference call, hoping to get stalled access units back to processing requests in a new era of remote work.

During the meeting, managers shared their approaches, according to meeting minutes released through an access request. Some organizations had begun sending documents via e-mail. Others, including IRCC, were putting requests on hold indefinitely. Audrey White, then the head of IRCC’s access unit, spoke bluntly: The department’s mandate was to process immigration files – not access requests.

Today, it is clear that access to information is as much a part of the immigration system as border agents and background checks. When the federal access to information system was established 40 years ago, legislators did not intend for this to happen – and yet it has.

In 2021, Ms. Maynard, the Information Commissioner, published a detailed investigation into IRCC’s access woes, which laid out a series of recommendations. Chief among them was the idea that applicants’ files should be available without access requests. “Imagine if you had to ask, through an access request, for information about your taxes,” Ms. Maynard told the House access committee earlier this year. “You don’t have to, because you have a portal where you can go and see your information.”

Despite a commitment to change from Marco Mendicino, who was immigration minister until 2021, the department “has yet to offer applicants any alternative methods to access the information they are seeking on their immigration files,” according to Ms. Maynard’s latest annual report, published earlier this week.

In response, Mr. Larivière, the IRCC spokesperson, said the department believes it is on track to resolve these issues, but did not provide further detail.

Even Alec Attfield, a public servant who was until recently in charge of IRCC’s citizenship program, said it is time to take pressure off the system by making case files accessible without formal access requests – and he said the federal government’s ambitious immigration targets are in jeopardy if the status quo persists.

Mr. Attfield, who was the director-general of citizenship at IRCC from 2016 to the end of 2021, said that while information is already obtainable through access to information requests, that access is slow and burdening the department.

“Clients should have access to their case files, their written notes,” he said, with exceptions for information that might affect national security. “Until you have the proper information systems in place, growing immigration volumes are going to put further pressure on access to information and our ability to respond to people’s requests for status on their files. It’s just a fundamental thing.”

It’s still unclear when – or if – IRCC will get to a point where it gives applicants all the information they need, without them having to resort to access requests. Until then, immigration will be restrained by the access to information system.

“Canada is keen to grow its immigration levels,” Mr. Attfield said. “Without a proper system, we won’t be able to achieve those targets.”

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Sabika gives a farewell hug to brother Alan in Miami.Courtesy of Sunkar Shagambayev

In the meantime, the current system is having real-world consequences.

Sunkar Shagambayev, a 32-year-old immigrant from Kazakhstan, came to Canada in 2019 with his wife, Sitora, and their son, Alan. They’re a strikingly handsome family, with photos proudly displayed on the walls of their home in Tillsonburg, Ont. Those pictures depict a fourth person: Sabika, their adopted daughter, whose immigration file has been stuck in bureaucratic limbo since 2020. Each time the Shagambayevs have filed for a permit that would allow Sabika, 14, to enter the country, they have been rejected.

Mr. Shagambayev is unable to get a straight answer as to why the federal government has repeatedly denied the teenager’s study permit. “They’re very vague,” he said. “They never tell you what the real reason is.” The rest of the family have had similar troubles: Their permanent residence applications, first submitted in early 2020, have yet to be approved or rejected. Deeply frustrated by the lack of information from IRCC, Mr. Shagambayev has taken to filing access requests – he’s up to nine so far.

Last week, after prodding IRCC through his lawyer, Mr. Shagambayev received a call from a case officer, who said his file had begun moving again.

The process has taken a mental toll. “I had problems with sleep,” he said. “For maybe two years, I was waking up at night and I was thinking about it, like, ‘What can I do? What can be done in order to speed up the process?’”

“We came to Canada because we thought that the Canadian immigration system was transparent, tolerant and equal,” Mr. Shagambayev said. “This really made us feel like we’re not needed in Canada, not welcomed, like nobody wants us here, even though there are all these shiny slogans about how we need immigration to fuel our work force and economy.”

“But I love this country anyway, because every time I leave Canada and come back, I feel like I’m home.”

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