Skip to main content
secret canada
Open this photo in gallery:

Marc Miller, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, speaks in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 6.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

The federal information watchdog says Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has made “insufficient progress” in improving immigrants’ access to information about their applications, and that failure is now affecting operations at the Canada Border Services Agency.

For more than a decade, prospective immigrants have relied on access to information requests to learn about the status of their applications. Over time, the volume of requests have grown into a crisis within the department, as documented in a Globe and Mail investigation last year.

Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard wrote about the deluge of access requests to IRCC in a special report in 2021. Back then, the department responded by saying they had a plan in place to address the increase.

But in a new report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, Ms. Maynard writes that IRCC’s efforts haven’t led to a decrease in access requests. In fact, frustrated applicants have turned to another federal body that deals with immigration, which is now seeing its own surge in requests: the Canada Border Services Agency.

“[There] is no doubt in my mind that CBSA is being adversely affected by the ‘status quo’ that continues to prevail at IRCC,” she writes, “and more specifically, the lack of progress on providing applicants with an alternative method of obtaining information related to their file.”

“Clearly, the status quo is unsustainable,” she says.

According to the report, access requests to IRCC and CBSA have more than doubled since the fiscal year ending March, 2018. The CBSA has seen a 130-per-cent increase between 2020 and 2023, and IRCC received more than 180,000 requests in both 2022-23 and 2023-24. The Office of the Information Commissioner, which oversees federal access disputes, has also had to redirect its resources to handle a corresponding substantial increase in complaints regarding the two institutions.

While she commends IRCC and CBSA’s efforts to increase the efficiency of their access teams, those measures aren’t enough to stem the tide, and amount to “treating the symptoms” instead of “curing the illness,” Ms. Maynard says in the report.

“It’s frustrating, because I think they do know how to fix it,” Ms. Maynard said in an interview. IRCC’s operations division, responsible for processing immigration applications, “are not doing their part in fixing the root cause,” she said.

“Three years ago, we told them, ‘You have to find a different way to provide that information. You have to fix your system, you have to increase the amount of information that’s provided to new applicants.’ They said they would do it. But, as you can see in the report, it’s now three years later and it still hasn’t been fixed.”


In an e-mailed statement Tuesday, IRCC spokesperson Isabelle Dubois said the department has a “number of initiatives” under way to address the high volume of access requests it receives, and that those changes are “meant to address the root causes of the increase in access to information requests and complaints.”

Access to information laws are intended to promote transparency by allowing documents to be requested from public institutions. The laws require institutions to disclose the requested information, with limited exceptions.

Prospective immigrants make heavy use of access to information requests during their application process.

IRCC communicates with applicants infrequently at best, and its refusal letters don’t go into much detail about why an application was rejected. Left with few other ways to divine why a case has stalled or an application has been turned down, applicants, lawyers and consultants have been unintentionally incentivized by the government to file access to information requests for their case files.

In response, the number of immigration-related access requests has exploded. In the fiscal year ending March, 2023, access requests to IRCC accounted for 78 per cent of all federal requests. When combined with CBSA, access requests to the two institutions accounted for six out of every seven access requests to the federal government.

Andrew Koltun, an Ontario-based lawyer at Koltun Law who specializes in immigration and access to information, said that lawyers and immigration consultants have taken to filing identical requests to both CBSA and IRCC in their efforts to get information for their clients as quickly as possible. Both institutions have access to the same immigration case file system.

“It’s become a practice,” he said. “We all know to do it now.”

Mr. Koltun says that IRCC has spent considerable resources building status trackers for immigration applications, but those tools don’t give applicants access to a case officer’s notes – often the crucial piece of information applicants are seeking.

For years, the department has said it is working on a new, integrated system that will provide applicants with much more information. But that new platform is behind schedule and likely still years away, Mr. Koltun said.

“I think IRCC is resisting the solution to the problem,” he said, “which is full, pro-active disclosure of the officer’s notes.”

For Ms. Maynard, the requests pouring into IRCC and CBSA aren’t a good use of the access to information system. “I want access requests to be used for valuable information – this is why the access system was put in place,” she said.

“Imagine if we had to use access requests to access our tax information – it’s ridiculous. Government is talking about being more efficient, providing digital services to Canadians. This is a very easy one to fix – and it’s been three years and we haven’t seen the fix.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe