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How to Have Maximum Effect With your Freedom of Information (FOI) Request

In this article, Matthew Pearn talks about how to focus your freedom of information (FOI) request for maximum effect.

Are you wondering how to do a freedom of information to get access to the information you need? There is a law called the Access to Information Act. It allows Canadian citizens, people with permanent residency, and companies located in Canada the right to get information from the Canadian government.

Sometimes when the federal government doesn’t want to give you certain information, you might need to file a lawsuit in the Federal Court. An example of this might be a veteran who wants access to their Veterans Affairs medical records. Sometimes the government might not want to provide a psychologist or medical report to the person that it was about.

What is a valid Freedom of Information request?

If the Veteran cannot get access to the document via an FOI request, then something will need to be filed in court. In this case, if the federal government still doesn’t want to provide the medical report, the Attorney General’s office, which represents the Canadian government in legal disputes, will represent Veterans Affairs. The Federal Court system is only for disputes between the government and individuals and companies in Canada.

While the Access to Information Act applies to Freedom of Information requests, so does the Privacy Act. The purpose of the Privacy Act is to protect the information of Canadians and companies located in Canada. Transparency doesn’t mean a big information dump on the internet.

Keep in mind that information that already exists on the internet isn’t protected by the Privacy Act. If you put information on social media or your website, it’s out there for other companies to use.

The Privacy Act also guides the Canadian government on how they are to use, collect, keep, and send out information. Organizations such as the police or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) need to pay particular attention to the Privacy Act.

How do you make an FOI Request?

There is a differentiation between making a request for “access to information” and a request for “personal information request.”

If you want to make access to information requests, then you can submit the request online, by mail, or by email. Normally these types of requests are made to the “Access to Information and Privacy Division” of the Parole Board of Canada. You can find the email address here: [email protected]

If you want to make a request for “personal information,” the process is mostly the same.

How long will the process take?

The government has thirty days to get back to you. But the government is allowed to extend the deadline for many reasons. One example of a reason is if they feel they are too busy, which is an excuse they use all the time. There is also information that they will not provide, like information that might harm national security or police investigations.

Medical information about other people will often not be released. But if you are asking about the medical information that the government has about you, you should be able to get it.

Below are some common reasons why your request could be denied:

  • It would cause issues between government bodies
  • It would put people at risk (common in spy and police investigations)
  • The information doesn’t belong to the government
  • It is protected by lawyer or doctor privilege
  • The information could make it hard for the government to operate

You can expect a typical request to take six to twelve months to hear back.

To make things more complicated, each province in Canada has their own rules around how it will provide information. Asking for information from a province will be different than asking for information from the federal government. And if you need to file a lawsuit against a province, let’s say BC, then you would be going up against the Attorney General’s Office of BC (instead of the Federal government.)

Do you have to give a reason for an FOI request?

Here is a link that will tell you everything you need to provide.

The Federal Government laws came into effect in 1983, when it was introduced under the Trudeau senior government. The government is not allowed to deny access to entire documents. That is why you will see documents provided that are heavily redacted.

This is common when someone asks for documents from CSIS or the Canadian military. The Information Commissioner of Canada reviews and enforces how these documents are provided and redacted.

If you need help with your request for information request, you should speak to a lawyer near you.

Speak to a lawyer about making a Freedom of Information (FOI) request

Matthew Pearn is a lawyer in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He mostly writes about lawsuits that involve businesses. Mr. Pearn has appeared in the Supreme Court of Canada before!

We wish you the best with your freedom of information (FOI) request. Speak to a law firm to get help. Learning as much as you can about Canadian law will help!