Hello! It’s been a while, but welcome, at long last, to another edition of the Secret Canada newsletter, where we update you on all things freedom of information.

(If you’re getting this, it’s because you signed up for e-mail updates on Secret Canada, The Globe and Mail’s investigation and public-service project about Canada’s broken freedom of information systems.)

Things have been very busy at Secret Canada HQ these past few months. Last time we checked in was in late July, when my colleague Robyn Doolittle and I were in the midst of filing 421 FOIs to further populate the SecretCanada.com database (requests remaining as of now: 74). Once that heavy lifting was done and we’d recovered from the avalanche of e-mails and letters from FOI offices (RIP our inboxes), we shifted gears back to reporting on the state of FOI in Canada.

In today’s newsletter: A brief update on everything we’ve been up to, a call-out for feedback (with yet another very exclusive Secret Canada swag giveaway), a behind-the-scenes look at a recent story, and some more mail from readers.

P.S. If you have a friend, family member, colleague or nemesis you think would benefit from receiving our occasional dispatch on FOI news, you can forward them this newsletter. They can sign up to receive these e-mails by visiting our newsletters page and scrolling down to the “Special Topics” section.

Our recent coverage, and what’s next

When I said Robyn and I have been busy, I wasn’t kidding. Since early August, The Globe has published nine stories (plus an editorial, an episode of The Decibel, our daily news podcast, and an untold number of FOI-related memes on our Instagram account) under the Secret Canada banner. And there is more yet to come.

Here’s some highlights:

We also had stories looking at secretive government contracts; on how a federal access review ended up becoming a closed-door affair; about the feds’ decision to ignore the recommendations of a House of Commons committee that was examining the federal system; and a recent piece looking at how Ontario’s FOI appeals body is limiting how many active files some requesters can have at any given time.

We still have some more reporting to do before we close out the year, including a piece looking at some of the data we received from our latest round of FOIs for the SecretCanada.com database. Stay tuned.

We want your feedback, and we’ll bribe you for it
Fill out the Secret Canada survey, and we'll send you a free sticker. It's a win-win.
Danielle Webb/The Globe and Mail

Speaking of closing out the year: Before the year’s through, we’re hoping to collect people’s feedback on the Secret Canada website. Have you used the website? If so, what features have you used? Is there anything specific you’re using the site for? What can we do better?

If you can spare three minutes, we would greatly appreciate your feedback.

We’ll even bribe you: We’ll be mailing out highly coveted, special-edition “Secret Canada” stickers to survey respondents. A perfect stocking stuffer ahead of the holiday season. (Pssst: We may have more swag announcements before the year’s out. Follow our Instagram account at @secretcanadafoi to stay in the loop.)

From the reporter’s notebook

Earlier this month we published another Secret Canada long read, a piece Robyn and I had been discussing for well over a year. The story, about how the federal access to information system keeps historians from studying Canadian history, really struck a chord.

Jean-Michel Smith, director of the collection management division with Library and Archives Canada, gives The Globe a tour last November of the warehouse in Gatineau, Que., where LAC stores historical documents.
Ashley Fraser/Globe and Mail

Here’s Robyn with a behind-the-scenes look at that piece:

When we started working on Secret Canada, the challenges around historical records were not on our radar. But that changed last fall when we put out a call to readers on social media. We announced that we were investigating Canada’s broken access to information system and that we wanted to hear from people about their experiences using FOI. The single largest user group to respond was historians – and they were FURIOUS. They explained that Canada – unlike so many other democracies – has no system to declassify public records or automatically release them after a set period of time, such as 25 or 30 years, which is typical in other countries. The result is that, in Canada, records that aren’t proactively released by the government are closed to the public – forever – until someone asks for it using an FOI request.

But access legislation was not made to evaluate historical documents, because it doesn’t account for the fact that information becomes less sensitive over time. For example, FOI laws include exemptions for solicitor-client privilege. This makes sense for contemporary records dealing with live issues. But we talked to historians who were having access requests denied from the First World War – more than 100 years ago – because of solicitor-client privilege concerns.

From the manila envelope

We’re still getting a ton of correspondence from aggrieved users and document devotees. Please, keep it coming! Aly Kamadia wrote in recently to share his FOI experience:

Just wanted to commend both of you for the work you’ve done regarding Secret Canada.

A request that I made took over a year to complete, even though at least a good chunk of the information was readily available to release by the relevant institution (as a Globe and Mail article indicated, and I cited).

Moreover, the Office of the Information Commissioner took roughly nine months (or somewhere around there) to merely assign an investigator for a standard delay complaint.

As I stated in an informal letter to the OIC investigator, the entire process was antithetical to the interests a liberal democracy.

Which is again why I applaud both of your work – though given the recent political response, how can anyone not be cynical?

For our next newsletter – which, as a holiday treat, will land in your inbox before the year’s out – we’d love to hear about your best FOI ideas.

Is there a request you’ve filed that you’re particularly proud of? An FOI you’ve always wanted to file? A great idea for a request you’ve come across elsewhere? We’re looking for any and all FOI inspiration you have to offer, and we’ll feature our favourites in the next Secret Canada newsletter.

You can send your ideas directly to me at tcardoso@globeandmail.com, or to our general-purpose inbox at secretcanada@globeandmail.com.

See you soon,