Database below • See how every ministry in Canada fared in The Globe’s audit
Canadian jurisdictions began passing freedom of information (FOI) legislation more than four decades ago. These laws, which exist in democracies around the world, enshrine into law the principle that public information belongs to the public.
People use FOI requests to obtain records in the possession of public institutions, such as government contracts, expense reports and environmental assessments.
Access laws are the bedrock on which democracy is built. But Canada’s FOI regime is broken. About 20 months ago, The Globe and Mail set out to understand how and why the access system stopped functioning properly through a project called Secret Canada.
Part of that work involved a national audit of every ministry and department in the country to better understand how each jurisdiction was meeting its obligations. To conduct this study, The Globe sent requests to 253 entities across the country, seeking access to data from each institution’s 2021 internal FOI request tracking systems.
Each province and territory as well as the federal government has its own law, but they are similar. Every law includes a time limit on how long jurisdictions have to respond to requests. (In most places, a ministry or department has 30 days to make a decision on whether access is being given, although each access law allows for extensions in certain circumstances.) FOI legislation also lists specific instances in which access can be denied, such as records that could compromise national security or reveal the personal information of private citizens.
The Globe’s audit found that from coast to coast to coast, jurisdictions are not meeting their legal obligations under the law. They are overusing redactions and violating their statutory timeframes. The numbers also showed wide variation within provinces, territories and the federal government. The province of Alberta could not be included in the analysis as all 22 ministries denied the Globe’s FOI requests, stating that “no records” existed – even though they have an internal tracking system. A handful of other ministries or departments could not be included either because the request is still continuing or the data they provided could not be analyzed.
Note that in some areas, ministries of the environment posted dramatically different statistics than other entities. This is because these ministries receive high numbers of requests from lawyers and engineering companies doing research on properties, which disproportionately generate “no records” responses.
Learn more about the Globe’s Secret Canada project at SecretCanada.com.
More from the Secret Canada project
Video: How to file an FOI request
Investigative journalist Robyn Doolittle has filed many freedom of information requests in her work. Here’s what you need to know about the process.
The Globe and Mail
Podcast: Tom Cardoso on The Decibel
The lion’s share of federal access-to-information request are from immigration applicants left in the dark about the status of their cases. Tom Cardoso explains how that happened and why things will likely get worse. Subscribe for more episodes.
Reader callout: Share your FOI stories
Have you ever filed a freedom of information request in Canada? What was the process like for you? The Globe wants to hear from Canadians about what they've encountered. Share your story below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org