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Accessing public records via freedom of information requests

The government allows you to make requests for information related to government services. For example, if a public meeting has been held between a government agency and another body, you have the right to ask for information pertaining to that event.

Access to Information Act

The Canadian government instituted the Access to Information Act in 1983. The purpose of the act is to allow people to gain access to government records according to the principle that the government should be accountable to the people.

Privacy Act

The Privacy Act was created in 1985, to ensure that people’s personal information is protected by the government, when said information is held by a government agency that provides access to information to the public. This is why you need either consent by the individual whose information is being provided, or it has to be in the public’s interest to provide such information.

Federal access to information

A lot of government information is available. However, there are notable exceptions. For example, you cannot get access to information which concerns cabinet documents.

Furthermore, any information that could damage or be harmful to the economy or security of Canada, federal-provincial relations and international affairs is not made available to the public.

If you are requesting information about a person, you can only get such information if the person, whom it concerns agrees, or if it’s found to be in the public interest to release that information.

You can only make a request for access to information to the federal government agency from which you are trying to obtain information.

The government has 30 calendar days to respond to a freedom of information request from the date of receipt. That applies to formal requests only. It’s important to know that there are reasons which could result in the government agency to take longer to comply with the request. For example, if a person is requesting a large number of documents and/or a thorough search is required to comply with the request.

How do I access information?

There are two processes in place: the formal process and informal process.

In the formal process, you have to make a request to the government department from which you would like the information. You’ll have to fill out the Access to Information Request Form and send it to that government agency, usually addressed to the freedom of information coordinator of that agency.

In the informal process, you can usually call the agency and request that information.

What kind of information can I access?

For example, if you are requesting information about a meeting a government agency held, you could request memos, meeting notes, e-mail, presentations, reports, and correspondence.

Provincial and territorial access to information

Every province and territory has their own freedom of information act. If you are asking for information from the provincial government, then you would usually do so in writing to the coordinator for information requests. Like at the federal level, you should receive a response within 30 days from receipt of your request, with exceptions.

You can also request information at the municipal level and it follows the structure of the provincial/territorial information request.

Who can access this information?

Canadian citizens, permanent residents and any individual who is in Canada can make a request under the Privacy Act.

Read more:

Access to Information and Privacy Online Request

Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada