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An investigation into Canada’s freedom of information systems

What is Secret Canada?

Freedom of information is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. Canada, once an international leader on access issues, is now a laggard. The country’s access woes are a problem for journalists, researchers, academics, activists and citizens, all of whom use FOI laws to learn about how their governments and public bodies function. Instead of simply complaining, in the fall of 2021, Tom Cardoso and Robyn Doolittle, two reporters from The Globe and Mail’s investigations team, decided to take on Canada’s broken freedom of information system.

Why do we have freedom of information laws in Canada?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, there was an attempt to understand how it was possible for a global conflict to erupt twice in a generation. One of the conclusions was that a lack of information was partly to blame. In fact, at the first United Nations General Assembly meeting in 1946, leaders passed a resolution that declared: “Freedom of Information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.”

In the ensuing years, as governments grew in size and power, information became viewed as a powerful tool for peace. The United States passed FOI in 1966 and around the same time, MP Barry Mather, a New Democrat from British Columbia, presented a Canadian version of the bill in the House of Commons — it failed. But then in the 1970s, the Watergate scandal drove a renewed interest in access.

In Canada, the first FOI law was passed in 1977 by Nova Scotia. It was followed in the 1980s by several other provinces and the federal government, each with their own legislation. These laws were seen as a way to hold public bodies accountable for their actions, keep the country informed on the government’s operation and increase trust in democracy and public services. These laws are so important that they have been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada as “quasi-constitutional” in nature, meaning they are taken to be almost as important as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Today, every province, territory and the federal government has an FOI law, though many have not been updated in decades.

How do I file an FOI request in Canada?

At its core, an FOI is a written request for information from a public body that has not already been made available. In many jurisdictions, a request must be accompanied by an application fee, which ranges from $5 to $25. FOI requests can be mailed to the respective institution or, many public bodies now offer online submission portals. For advice on how to write and submit your FOI, visit Secret Canada's guides and resources page.

What records can be requested under freedom of information laws?

In theory, information that is in the possession of a public body is supposed to be open to the public — with some exceptions. The law recognizes that there are instances in which information must be kept confidential, for example for privacy or national security reasons. There is also an understanding built into the legislation that lawmakers must be able to vigorously debate and consider all policy options, without fear of retribution or embarrassment, which is why there are protections for cabinet deliberations.

Where did The Globe and Mail get the information in its database?

We filed hundreds of freedom of information requests to every major public body at the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal level for data on the FOI requests they’d received. We also sought information from major hospitals, school boards, Crown corporations, research universities and other public bodies. Some jurisdictions, such as British Columbia and the federal government, made completed request data available online; in those cases, we downloaded their data. (We also filed FOIs with these jurisdictions for our audit of government access practices.) For a more in-depth description of our full methodology, including the text of the requests we filed to each public body, see our methodology.

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