Secret Canada logo

Remembering CAIRS, the federal FOI database that was quietly shut down in 2008

The Canada flag catches the morning light on the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 16, 2024. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
The Canada flag catches the morning light on the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 16, 2024. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Sixteen years ago this month, the federal government quietly killed its central database for tracking access to information requests.

The Coordination of Access to Information Requests System (CAIRS) was a shared system across the federal government. It tracked basic information on access requests, including the text of the request, request number, filing date and the responding public body.

The system came online during the Mulroney government of the late 80s and early 90s, and served as “a management tool so government would know what it’s releasing and where,” according to 2009 House of Commons committee testimony from Robert Marleau, a former federal information commissioner.

While CAIRS was originally meant to help the federal government’s various public bodies coordinate with each other, critics had long warned it could be used by Ottawa to monitor sensitive requests – and usage statistics for CAIRS strongly suggest that this kind of oversight was happening. Alasdair Roberts, a Canadian academic and public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who for years studied access to information, analyzed CAIRS’ access logs (which themselves were obtained via access requests) and found that 56 per cent of searches were performed by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Department of Finance and Privy Council Office, three core federal institutions.

Sometime in the late 1990s, Prof. Roberts took to collecting the raw data from CAIRS. “It occurred to me that I could request monthly CAIRS reports in digital form, and then put them on the web with a primitive search function,” he said. These CAIRS data dumps became invaluable for journalists, and served as an early, home-brewed version of today’s Completed Access to Information Requests portal.

Eventually a journalist, David McKie, took over Prof. Roberts’ CAIRS data-hoovering project. Mr. McKie, who was then with CBC News, now works at Canada’s National Observer and teaches journalism at several universities.

“I began having conversations with Alasdair about the importance of ensuring the summaries remain public, and whether I’d be up to the task because he was moving to the U.S. to teach,” Mr. McKie recalls. “I happily agreed, and then – after a lot of after-hours work – uploaded the summaries on a website I created, then continued requesting and posting the summaries.”

The government flirted with giving the public access to some of the data in CAIRS, but those features were never activated. In 2004, the Office of the Information Commissioner recommended that the system allow for searches from the public. Nothing came of it.

After operating for roughly 18 years, the Treasury Board announced on April 1, 2008, that it was killing the database. CAIRS was dead.

“I was not surprised,” Mr. McKie says. “It was clear the government of the day was less than enthused that journalists, among others, were using these summaries to gain access to records the Harper government would prefer to keep secret.”

When we began working on, I became curious about the fate of CAIRS. Perhaps we could obtain an archived copy of the database, I thought, and make the requests part of our FOI request search tool.

An email in late 2022 from the Treasury Board dashed my hopes.

“CAIRS was built on 2000 technology and was not considered robust enough to accommodate the additional 70 institutions that became subject to the Access to Information Act in 2006,” wrote spokesperson Martin Potvin. “Extensive consultations confirmed that the system was flawed and no longer viable and it was determined that the significant financial resources needed to update and maintain CAIRS would not have been a good investment of taxpayers’ money.”

Ultimately, the database itself was destroyed, Mr. Potvin said. Because CAIRS contained “summaries or versions of information from ATIP requests,” its contents were considered “transitory” and weren’t saved when the system was taken offline.

“I was angry, and saw the decision as a blow to the kind of transparency CAIRS had been building ever since Alasdair began making the information public,” Mr. McKie says. “With the advent of open government, we’re seeing some of the transparency CAIRS initiated returning at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Given how easy it is to post material online, it’s still disappointing to see the slow pace. There’s much more work to be done.”

“Hopefully, Secret Canada lit a fire.”

A personal note: I spent a few days last year writing code to get the data into spreadsheets, but eventually gave up given the large number of messy files I’d have to parse. If savvy data connoisseurs are interested in cleaning up the whole set of files, please get in touch: Alasdair Roberts and David McKie’s raw CAIRS data, which easily numbers more than 100,000 requests, can be downloaded here.

We’d love to hear about how you’re using Secret Canada. Send us a note or use the hashtag #SecretCanada on social media. This information helps us grow the project.

To stay updated on FOI news, upcoming data releases and new features, sign up for The Globe’s Secret Canada newsletter.