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FOIs filed by Globe reporters

The records journalists obtain through freedom of information requests often serve as the foundation of their reporting. Much of that work happens quietly, however, and in most cases their stories don’t reveal what they asked for to get those documents in the first place.

Below are some behind-the-scenes accounts from Globe and Mail reporters about FOI requests that led to significant revelations in the public interest.

The stories:

A Canadian spy agency’s secret data-snooping program

More than a decade ago, I began researching the Communications Security Establishment, a highly secretive federal spy agency. The CSE's bugging and hacking campaigns can create electronic intelligence reports that tell the Prime Minister and Cabinet what a foreign surveillance target is saying behind closed doors.

The emergence of mass surveillance techniques by allied governments made me envision the CSE as a fishing trawler that casts its dragnets abroad, but always at the risk of inadvertently capturing the communications of Canadians. The potential privacy violations of this bycatch are profound. If the Criminal Code holds that any warrantless wiretapping of a Canadian is an illegal invasion of privacy, how could CSE’s campaigns be legal?

Few people were paying attention to this world until June, 2013. That was when U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed reams of top secret documents outlining how the CSE was a cog in a global spying effort quarterbacked by the U.S. National Security Agency.

That same month, The Globe and Mail exposed its own trove of documents, which it had patiently amassed using access to information requests. The responses to my 12 separate requests showed how federal cabinet ministers had been signing off on spying programs that few Canadians knew existed. – Colin Freeze

Colin’s requests

Request 1:

All final and draft media lines, ministerial directives, memos and letters between the CSEC Chief and CSEC Commissioner regarding the ministerial directive that was created to guide the CSEC collection of "Information about Canadians" (metadata) used to fulfill the agency's mandate in identifying and obtaining foreign intelligence for the 2006 calendar year.

Request 2:

Same as 1 for the 2007 calendar year. 

Request 3:

Same as 1 for the 2008 calendar year. 

Request 4:

Same as 1 for the 2009 calendar year. 

Request 5:

Same as 1 for the 2010 calendar year. 

Request 6:

Same as 1 for the 2011 calendar year. 

Request 7:

All ministerial directives, draft and final media lines, memos and letters between the CSEC Chief and CSEC Commissioner regarding the suspension of those activities, the subsequent creation of new policies/guidelines/procedures to guide the activities, and the resumption of these activities under the renewed guidelines for the 2006 calendar year.

Request 8:

Same as 7 for the 2007 calendar year. 

Request 9:

Same as 7 for the 2008 calendar year. 

Request 10:

Same as 7 for the 2009 calendar year. 

Request 11:

Same as 7 for the 2010 calendar year. 

Request 12:

Same as 7 for the 2011 calendar year. 

Colin’s story

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Quebec’s COVID-stricken nursing homes

In the spring of 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, we knew that long-term care homes were hit very hard. However, health officials gave few details, and staffers weren‘t allowed to talk publicly with journalists.

While covering the situation in several Quebec homes, I realized that some health care workers had refused to work in facilities they considered unsafe. In those cases, a complaint would have been made with the provincial workplace safety board, which would prompt an inspector to file a report – documents that would provide answers about the state of affairs inside those homes.

This is the FOI request I filed to obtain those reports. I gave a list of nursing homes that were particularly affected. – Tu Thanh Ha

Ha’s request

Tout rapport d'intervention relativement à des plaintes ou exercices de droit de refus reliés à la COVID-19 pour les milieux de travail ci-dessous:

CHSLD Yvon-Brunet (Montréal)

CHSLD Laurendeau (Montréal)

CHSLD LaSalle (Montréal)

Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (IUGM)

CHSLD Vigi Dollard-des-Ormeaux

CHSLD Laflèche (Shawinigan)

Résidence Herron, également connu comme CHSLD Herron (Dorval)

Ha’s story

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Unravelling Ottawa’s pandemic relief program

I wanted to understand how senior public servants were monitoring the Canada Emergency Business Account program, which provided pandemic loans to businesses.

I got back a large assortment of documents (more than 1,000 pages). They were sent to me in two batches, one after about eight months and one after about 13 months. The first batch contained some new information on how loan collections would work, and the second batch revealed for the first time the extent of Accenture Inc.‘s involvement, which was one of the largest federal contracts ever given to a consulting firm. – Chris Hannay

Chris’s request

Please supply briefing notes or reports for any member of the executive management team (senior vice-president and president) about the Canada Emergency Business Account program. Please include records from on or after Jan. 1, 2021.

Chris’s stories

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A new hospital in Ontario’s Greenbelt

After Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government announced it was reversing its long-standing promise to keep the protected Greenbelt free of development, I wanted to know more about the land the province was proposing to open up for housing construction.

I zeroed in on one Greenbelt property in the Township of King that had changed hands a couple of months before the government unveiled its plans. Shortly after the Ford government’s Greenbelt announcement in November, the township’s mayor had urged the government to fast-track approval of a new hospital site on the sprawling property, revealing that the new owner, developer Michael Rice, had agreed to donate a portion of the land for the project.

I submitted freedom of information requests to the Township of King and Southlake Regional Health Centre, the facility that will run the proposed new hospital.

When I received my responses, the records showed that the proposal to donate part of the site followed months of talks involving the developer, the hospital and the township – discussions that began even before Mr. Rice had purchased the land.

Here’s the request I submitted to Southlake. – Jill Mahoney

Jill’s request

Please provide all documents and records (memos, briefing notes, reports, correspondence, emails, texts, meeting minutes, etc.) relating to any correspondence and/or meetings between Michael Rice and/or representatives of his company, Rice Group, or any of his other representatives, with representatives of Southlake (including the senior leadership team and the board of directors) concerning Southlake Regional Health Centre’s expansion plans. Please also include documents and records relating to Mr. Rice and/or land owned by him. The time period for this request is from Dec. 1, 2021, to the present date.

Jill’s story

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Amazon jobs and an Alberta premier’s questionable math

I‘ve spent much of my career studying the relationship between technology companies and governments. When Jason Kenney stepped up to a lectern in November, 2021, and described Amazon’s move to build new data centres in and around Calgary as “the single largest investment in the tech sector in Alberta history, with up to a thousand jobs,” my journalistic alarm bells went off. Data centres aren't hubs for innovation; they‘re basically power-hungry, water-consuming utility centres that host things on the internet, usually requiring proprietary equipment and a handful of specialized staff brought in from elsewhere. When I filed an FOI for details with Calgary‘s municipal government, I was proved right, finding a slide deck that showed a city agency expected no more than 240 jobs. The announcement was mostly spin to make Alberta and Amazon look good. – Josh O’Kane

Josh’s request

I am seeking any correspondence, e-mail exchanges and memos, to or from City of Calgary officials, about or with staff or representatives of Amazon Data Services Canada Inc., Amazon Web Services Canada Inc., Inc., Inc., Amazon Canada Fulfillment Services ULC, or any other Amazon companies. The period of my request is January 1, 2021 and November 15, 2021, inclusive.

Josh’s story

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COVID-19 outbreaks at Amazon facilities

It was 2021 and cases of COVID-19 were tearing through Ontario – including some of the province’s workplaces, though there was little transparency on the scope of the problem. I asked employers, such as Amazon, how many COVID-19 cases were being reported in their warehouses, but the company refused to say. I also asked the province’s ministries of health and labour and was told to file freedom of information requests. When the responses came back, they showed that Amazon sites accounted for two of the worst 10 workplace outbreaks in the province at the time. – Tavia Grant

Tavia’s requests

Filed to Ontario’s Ministry of Health:

A list of top 10 top workplace COVID-19 outbreaks (outside of health care and long-term care settings).

Filed to Peel Region:

Request for a list of the top five COVID-19 workplace outbreaks (by employer name & location) in the Region of Peel, ranked by total number of cases. Date range: March 11, 2020 to date (of the request).

Tavia’s stories

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Tuberculosis outbreak in Nunavut

I filed this request for correspondence about a tuberculosis outbreak in the Nunavut community of Pangnirtung in February, 2022, after the territory’s health department mostly rejected another request of mine for TB data by community – including TB case counts for Pangnirtung. This time a source tipped me to the fact that incendiary details had been exchanged in e-mails among frontline nurses and territorial health officials. Armed with the names of the officials and the date range of the e-mails, I filed this request under Nunavut’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The documents that came back formed the backbone of a story that won the 2022 George Brown prize for Investigations at the National Newspaper Awards. – Kelly Grant

Kelly’s request

I am requesting all documents, including but not limited to emails, briefing notes, meeting agendas and reports on the TB situation in Pangnirtung. I am requesting this information between Jennifer Lister, Jennifer MacNab and Yves Panneton and Chris Nolan, Crystal Culp and Dr. Michael Patterson for the time frame between May 1, 2021 and February 16, 2022.

Kelly’s story

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The long wait for records about a hospital ethics probe

I filed a freedom of information request in November, 2015, that stemmed from a series of stories my colleagues and I worked on about alleged corruption at Toronto area hospitals. Those stories sparked internal investigations concerning conflict of interest at three hospitals and Infrastructure Ontario, the procurement arm of the provincial government.

One of those hospitals, Markham Stouffville Hospital, launched a probe into its then vice-president of capital development and corporate services, Suman Bahl.

Markham Stouffville’s investigation found that Ms. Bahl had breached its ethics rules by awarding contracts to family members and friends, and as a result, the hospital terminated her employment. My FOI sought information about the companies she had contracted that allegedly ran afoul of the hospital’s procurement policies.

I had to wait until July, 2016, to receive anything though, and that’s because a number of companies that received those hospital contracts appealed to the Information and Privacy Commissioner, arguing Markham Stouffville shouldn’t release the records. The IPC, however, disagreed.

When I finally got my hands on the documents they showed, among other things, that Ms. Bahl approved invoices from her sister’s company after she signed hospital documentation explicitly acknowledging her duty to report any potential or actual conflicts of interest to the hospital’s chief executive officer. – Karen Howlett

Karen’s request

I am requesting a copy of any and all invoices in connection with flooring, window blinds and other work performed for Markham Stouffville Hospital by Suman Bahl’s husband, Bojidar Danef, his company, B.J. Quality Flooring Inc., and any other family members of Ms. Bahl’s, including an uncle, during the redevelopment project completed in 2014.

Karen’s story

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Executive salary freezes at Ontario school boards

I am The Globe and Mail’s long-time education reporter, and I’ve made it part of my role to probe issues further with freedom to information requests. One topical issue has been the almost decade-long public executive salary freezes in Ontario, and how that has affected hiring practices and retention rates at school boards. I’ve also been curious about whether school boards have found clever ways around the freeze.

That led to a request earlier this year that revealed how the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board in Peterborough, Ont., gave its director of education a 25 per cent salary increase.

In an effort to justify the raise, and explain why it wasn’t in breach of the freeze, the board said the director assumed additional responsibilities which was part of a senior team restructuring.

The Kawartha case made me curious: What effect was this wage freeze having across the sector? I suspected there might be more information to be gleaned from Ontario’s Ministry of Education and I filed another freedom of information request. I wanted to better understand what steps, if any, the Ministry of Education had taken on the director’s salary bump, but also what the internal conversations were like around the freeze.

When I received my response three months later, I realized my suspicions were correct: This was a wider issue. A survey from school boards showed that over a three-year time span, top positions at school boards were being turned down because of the salary freeze, and about 17 per cent of school boards said no one applied for these senior positions. It was also interesting to note that the deputy minister of education took note of the Kawartha’s director’s salary increase but did not take any further action. – Caroline Alphonso

Caroline’s request

Please provide all correspondence, including emails and letters, between deputy minister Nancy Naylor and the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, Ontario Public School Boards Association and the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board regarding executive compensation and/or salaries of all executive officers, including the directors of education. The timeframe of this request is from January 1, 2022 through February 27, 2023.

Caroline’s story

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