How to file an FOI request
Most public bodies in Canada are subject to freedom of information legislation. These are laws that give people access to public records that have not otherwise been released.
This includes core government bodies – federal departments, provincial ministries and municipalities – as well as institutions such as hospitals, school boards, universities and colleges, police services, transit agencies, and Crown corporations. (Some public bodies aren’t subject to FOI, including the court system and cabinet minister’s offices at the federal level.) In general — although it’s not always the case — if an institution is funded through tax dollars or controlled by government, it is likely subject to FOI.
Some examples of public records that can be obtained using FOI are reports, briefing notes, memos, e-mails, datasets, statistics, presentations, inspection records and contracts. In theory, information in the possession of a public body is supposed to be open by default, except in specific situations that the legislation spells out. For example, access laws include exemptions that protect cabinet deliberations, the privacy of citizens, a business’s trade secrets and information that could compromise a police investigation.
There is not one freedom of information act in Canada. Each province and territory has its own law, as does the federal government. In some provinces, municipalities have their own legislation. (In provinces that don’t have a Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, local bodies would be covered under the provincial legislation.) Although similar, there is variation between jurisdictions, including the law’s name. Federally, it’s called “Access to Information” and in most provinces, it’s “Freedom of Information,” but there’s also “Right to Information.” There are also differences with the types of entities that are subject to the laws, the types of records that are covered, the possible exemptions, the filing protocols, the fees and the appeal procedures. (To learn more about the different access laws, visit our jurisdiction guide.)
That said, the basics are the same everywhere.
Step 1: Find your focus
What record do you want? Who has it? These are the first two questions you need to ask yourself before preparing an FOI request.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when filing an FOI request is that they ask a question rather than request a record: “Do Toronto streetcars have surveillance cameras?” as opposed to “I am seeking access to purchase receipts for Toronto streetcar video surveillance cameras.” A record doesn’t have to be a physical piece of paper. It can be a dataset, e-mails, video footage, audio or text messages. But you can’t ask questions. (You may get a nice FOI coordinator who takes the extra step and finds you a record to answer your question, but that’s not the ideal scenario for anyone.) If you aren’t sure what kind of records might exist, try calling the institution first. FOI coordinators are required to assist the public, and most are very happy to do it.
Another consideration is whether the information you’re after is personal in nature. There are two types of access requests: general and personal. A personal request includes private information specific to you – your medical records, a statement you’ve made to police, your human resources file if you’re a public servant. A general request covers everything else.
Note: Sometimes institutions have a separate process for obtaining personal records outside of the access to information system, and sometimes it’s through ATIP/FOI. There is no harm in filing an access request, but it may be cheaper and faster to use another process. If it’s not obvious from their website, the best idea is to call.
Step 2: Prep your request
Go to Google and type “‘[the public institution’s name]’ and ‘freedom of information’” into the search field. With any luck, the organization will have a dedicated FOI page. You’re looking for:
Where to send the request: is there a mailing address? Does the institution let you file online or by e-mail?
Is there a form? Some entities supply an access to information form. In most cases, these are not mandatory and they will also accept a letter. However, in some instances, an institution will refuse to process a request unless you’ve completed their form.
Is there an application fee? If so, how much? And to whom should the cheque be addressed. If the institution is federal, it currently costs $5 to file an ATIP request. The fees fluctuate at the provincial level. Some entities will let you pay online with a credit card. Others will want a cheque in the mail or money order. Generally, public institutions won’t accept cash through the mail. In very rare instances, some will not take a cheque and you may need to arrange payment in person.
If the institution does not have a dedicated FOI webpage you have two options: you can phone and ask someone or you can mail your request to whatever address is provided on their contact page. Address it: “Attention: Freedom of Information/Access to Information Coordinator.” To figure out the fee, look up the legislation in our jurisdiction guide. Make the cheque payable to the name of the entity.
Step 3: Writing your letter
There is an art to writing FOI letters. They need to be clear and specific. Another very common mistake that people make is that they frame their requests too broadly. “I am seeking access to all records that mention flood zones in Halifax” is not a feasible request. As written, that would theoretically include everything from a recent environmental report, to a passing mention in an e-mail between city staffers, to historical maps. A bit of research in the beginning will save you time, money and headaches on the backend.
A basic letter has three paragraphs.
Paragraph 1 will read something like this: “This is a freedom of information request for records held by [insert entity name].” If you have more detail about where the record is, be even more specific: “This is a freedom of information request for records held by the city planning department at the City of Toronto.” In this paragraph, you’re doing your best to say where the record is.
Paragraph 2 is where you communicate exactly what you’re looking for. Sometimes, depending on the document, the wording will be straight forward: “I am seeking access to all briefing notes sent to the minister between Jan. 1, 2023, and Jan. 31, 2023,” or “I am seeking a copy of the staff report on facial recognition technology, which was presented to the police services board at its January, 2023, meeting.” There are two components to this paragraph: The what and the when. What are you looking for and what is the timeframe that you’re interested in.
The trickier requests are when you’re not exactly sure what you want. Here are some things to think about: Who may have records that you’re interested in? What is the time period? Can you limit the type of records? Are you just after final reports or do you want all the drafts too? Do you need all e-mail correspondence? Or just conversations between particular staff members? Sometimes, it may be helpful to add a sentence or two of context, so that the FOI analyst can better understand what you’re after. Remember, the broader your request, the harder it’s going to be to answer. It’s worth phoning the public body’s FOI office before filing to see if the analyst can help you narrow your focus.
Paragraph 3 is straight forward again. Let the analyst know where to reach you if they have any follow-up questions. It can also be helpful to include how you would like to receive the records. Depending on the size of the request, electronic records are often much cheaper than if you’re receiving hard copies in the mail, as you will be charged for photocopies.
Then sign and date your letter and you’re done. Make sure your address, e-mail and contact information is included. If you’re requesting your own personal information, you will need to include a copy of government-issued identification.
Step 4: Put it all together
Now it’s time to mail your request – don't forget to include your cheque.
If you’re submitting online, you may need to copy and paste the contents of your letter into a summary field. It’s always smart to have your own copy saved.
Expect to hear a reply in 30 days. Depending on how specific your request is, you may even get your records within a month. The important thing is that you document every interaction you have with the entity about your request. (Use our sample spreadsheet to track your freedom of information requests.)
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