Two-year wait for pandemic small business loan records comes back entirely withheld
Published on December 19, 2023
Some things are worth waiting for. But that's not always the case with access to information requests.
For nearly three years, I've been reporting on the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) program, which gave $40,000 or $60,000 loans to small businesses to help them get through COVID-19 lockdowns.
Way back in November, 2021, I looked through the government’s proactive disclosure database of briefing notes (see it for yourself here) for any memos prepared for cabinet ministers about CEBA. I picked six and filed an access request on Nov. 24 to Global Affairs Canada. (The small business minister at the time was also the international-trade minister, so that was her department.)
On Dec. 24, the department's Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) office got back to me – they said they needed 120 extra days to process the files.
So, I waited.
In July, 2022, I checked in and asked: Hey, it's been more than 120 days, how's the file going?
The response I received: We had to consult three other departments and we are still waiting to hear back from them. We'll inform you of the status as soon as we can.
I filed a complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner because of the delay.
A few months later, I checked in again: Um, is it ready yet?
“We are still working on your file,” I was told.
Finally, on Nov. 6, 2023, there was a breakthrough: an investigator in the information commissioner's office said they had spoken to Global Affairs, who were assessing what work remained to be done on the file, and they would get back to me around Dec. 15.
On Dec. 15, an e-mail from the department's ATIP team arrived. Like a kid on Christmas morning ripping open wrapping paper, I pounced on the e-mail and excitedly opened it. It had been more than two years, I thought. This must be good!
This was the response:
“We regret to inform you that the records you requested are all withheld pursuant to paragraph 69(1)(e) of the Act and therefore cannot be released to you.”
After more than two years, every single word on the six memos would be withheld as a cabinet secret.
So in other words: The present was nothing but a lump of coal.
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