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Frequently asked questions

From the basics of Canadian freedom of information law to what’s covered in Secret Canada’s searchable database, here are the answers to some of your most common questions

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Is there a freedom of information act in Canada?

No. Well, sort of. In Canada, there isn’t one, overarching law covering freedom of information in the country. Instead, each jurisdiction — provincial, territorial and federal — has its own. Access laws in Canada are very similar, but there are slight differences, including the names of the various acts. For example, federally it’s two laws, the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act, which together are usually shortened to ATIP, short for “Access to Information and Privacy.”  Most provinces call their laws the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act. (Confusingly, provinces use different acronyms for the same name: FOI in Ontario, FOIP in Alberta, FOIPPA in British Columbia.) In New Brunswick, it’s the Right to Information and Privacy Protection Act (RTIPPA).  From there, some jurisdictions break out municipalities and local bodies into their own legislation — Municipal Freedom of Information and Privacy Protect Act (MFIPPA) and Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (LAFOIP). You can learn more about the different acts in our guideline to jurisdictions.

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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.

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How do I file an FOI/ATIP 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 our how-to guides.

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Are FOI requests free?

In some parts of the country, there is no charge to file an FOI. However, in many jurisdictions, requests must be accompanied by a $5 and $25 application fee. From there, in most areas of the country, institutions can pass on some costs to requesters, if preparing the response will take longer than a prescribed amount of time. Requesters can also be asked to pay costs for things such as photocopying or USBs. To learn more about the costs of FOI, visit our how-to guides.

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What records can be requested under access to information law?

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. 

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What is the difference between a freedom of information request and a privacy request?

Because every jurisdiction has its own legislation, the specifics vary in different parts of the country. Typically, there are two types of requests: a general request for information and a personal request for information. General requests cover public information that is not specific to an individual, such as a copy of a ministerial briefing note or a mayor’s expense report. A personal information request — sometimes called a privacy request — would be for something that could only be released to that individual, such as an employment record or a police report regarding an incident the person was directly involved in. (Requests for personal health information are sometimes covered by their own legislation.) In most jurisdictions in Canada, privacy and freedom of information are covered under the same piece of legislation. The federal government has two separate laws, however: the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. Confusingly, if you want to request personal information from a federal body, you can file either an access to information request or a request under the Privacy Act.

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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 page.

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What’s covered in Secret Canada’s database of completed requests?

We currently have the texts of hundreds of thousands of requests from more than 500 different public bodies at the municipal, provincial/territorial and federal levels of government. Since most jurisdictions don’t make their actual FOI response packages public, our database includes instructions on how to file a new FOI for past releases. For a full list of the public bodies we’re tracking, visit our index.

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How frequently is the data updated?

Because we need to file hundreds of requests and then clean up what we get back from public bodies, we can’t update the website as frequently as we’d like. We hope to update it once a year, though this depends on how long public bodies take to respond to our requests.

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