A Step-by-step guide
The Access to Information Act allows individuals and groups to access information held by federal government bodies, but preparing an Access to Information (ATI) request and the follow-up process can be confusing. This guide was created to simplify the process and help people get useful and informative results from their ATI requests.
This resource is for filing a request for access to records kept by Canadian federal government bodies, such as the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Canada Border Services Agency, the Correctional Service of Canada, Natural Resources Canada, etc.
There is a different process for access to information kept by the BC provincial government under BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, or for information kept by provincial governments in other provinces. This guide does not cover freedom of information requests to a provincial government. This guide focuses on making a request for information under a specific piece of legislation: the Access to Information Act.
There is another piece of federal legislation that can help you get access to information from federal government bodies. It is called the Privacy Act and it has a separate process for requesting information. The next section discusses which process you should use, depending on what kind of information you are looking for.
Use the drop down menus below for detailed instructions at every step!
Should you file an Access to Information request or a request under the Privacy Act?
Request under the Privacy Act: The Privacy Act allows individuals to access personal information held about them by the Government of Canada through a Privacy request. Personal information means information about an identifiable individual. It includes information about your race, religion, age, marital status, education, medical history, criminal history, employment history, address, or blood type. It includes your personal opinions or views and others’ personal opinions and views about you. It also includes communications you have had with the government about something private or confidential, and any government response that would reveal the contents of your original communication. There is no cost for filing a request under the Privacy Act. To find out more about Privacy Act requests, visit the website of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada at http://www.priv.gc.ca/resource/fs-fi/02_05_d_11_01_e.asp.
Access to Information request: If you are looking for general government records (of a variety of types, including government business information, memos or other internal reports, etc.) that mention your name or the name of an organization in which you have an interest then you will want to file an Access to Information request.
You can file both requests if you want both kinds of information. This guide is designed to help you file an Access to Information request, not a Privacy request.
1. Choose your format. There are two ways you can make an ATI request:
By filling out a federal Access to Information request form from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat website at http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/tbsf-fsct/350-57-eng.asp OR, by writing your own letter that includes the information indicated on the request form
For your convenience, we’ve prepared some request letter templates:
- National Energy Board
- Natural Resources Canada
- Royal Canadian Mounted Police
- Canadian Security Intelligence Service
- *Note: The .pdf files may display differently depending on your browser. Open with Adobe Reader or use .docx files.
2. Gather additional materials. You will need:
- A cheque or money order for $5.00 made out to the “Receiver General of Canada”
- An envelope and the correct postage
3. Choose the agency you want to file a request with. The templates provided above are for specific federal government bodies; however, you can use this guide to file a request with any federal body subject to the Access to Information Act. For a list of applicable agencies, visit http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/atip-aiprp/apps/coords/index-eng.asp.
Note: You can file a request to more than one agency, but each agency requires you to fill out a separate request form. Each request must be made to a single agency only, so don’t list more than one agency on a single form.
4. Decide if you want to file for records about a group/organization (for example, the Dogwood Initiative, the BC Civil Liberties Association, etc.) or about your own activities (or both). If you are seeking access to information about a group, you may wish to add a sentence or two that describes the group, its locations, etc.
Note: You cannot obtain personal information about another person, but you can ask for information about groups.
Note: If you decide to request information about yourself, the Access to Information and Privacy Unit that receives your request may contact you to verify your identity before releasing personal information. This is for your protection, to ensure that nobody else is falsely using your name to request your private information.
5. Determine the date range for your request. Open-ended requests (requests that have no specified range of dates) are difficult to process and often subject to delays. By providing a date range, you give the government agency a clear window of time in which to conduct its search for records. The date range for your request is up to you. Try to estimate when the activities of the group in question (or your own activities) may have come to the attention of the government body. For example, if you are looking for information about a particular meeting, the start of an organizing campaign, a publication, or a planned day of action, you could request information in a date range that starts a few weeks or months before the event, and ends a few months after the event. This will help to ensure you get access to government communications on that topic that come before and after the event.
Once you have gathered your materials, as well as chosen your format, the agency you want to file your request to, whether you are filing for information about a group or yourself, and your date range, you are ready to file your request.
1. Fill in the request form (or prepare a letter). If you have chosen to use one of the request letter templates above, fill in the blanks. You can also copy and paste wording from one of the templates into an ATI request form.
2. Make sure to include your preferred mode of contact (phone, email, etc.), in case the ATI analyst who is assigned your request has any questions.
3. Be sure to SIGN YOUR FORM OR LETTER.
4. Complete your cheque or money order for $5.00, made out to the “Receiver General of Canada.” Do not send cash.
5. Fill in the appropriate government address on the envelope, and drop your request in the mail with appropriate postage. The addresses for the National Energy Board, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are listed on the templates we have provided.
Once your request has been received, it will be assigned a file number, and you will receive a letter in the mail acknowledging receipt.
The letter will contain some important information:
Date received: This is the official start date for your request. The agency must provide a response to your request within 30 calendar days of this date. Sometimes the government will get an extension of this deadline – you can read more about this below.
File number: Your request will be assigned a unique file number. This number should be mentioned in all future correspondence with the agency.
Statement of your request: The letter will include a copy of the wording of your request. Double-check this by comparing it to the original wording that you sent in your request, to ensure that the government has not made a mistake in the wording of your request.
Analyst name and contact information: The letter should include the name of the ATI analyst who has been assigned to your file, as well as contact information, either for the analyst or the ATI Unit in general.
You may be contacted by the ATI analyst assigned to your file for a number of reasons, or your request may be processed and completed without any further contact. Below is a short overview of the main types of interactions that might happen:
1. No further interactions. Your request may be processed within the 30 day time limit with no further interactions between you and the ATI analyst assigned to the file. If this is the case, you should receive a release package in the mail containing either printed records or a CD containing a PDF file, as well as a letter explaining the resolution of your request.
The letter may indicate that some information has been withheld or redacted. It will mention the section(s) of the Access to Information Act used to hold back this information. If you believe that your request was not processed properly, or that material has been unreasonably withheld, you can file a formal complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada. The letter accompanying your release package will contain contact information for the Commissioner’s Office.
2. Request for confirmation of your identity. As you are seeking access to records containing information that may be deemed personal in nature, the ATI Unit may contact you to confirm your identity. This will involve a request to provide identifying documents. Once your identity has been confirmed, the government body will be able to release records containing your personal information.
3. Notice of extension. While the Access to Information Act states that requests must be responded to within 30 days of receipt, it also contains a number of clauses that can be used to extend the request timeline. The two most likely reasons for an extension are found in s.9(1) of the Act:
- The request is for a large number of records or it necessitates a search through a large number of records, and sorting through this material would “unreasonably interfere” with the operations of the government institution; or
- The government institution must consult with one or more other institutions regarding the request.
In the event that the government body claims an extension, they will send you a letter indicating the reason for the extension and the length. The letter will also note that you have the right to file a complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada regarding the extension. If you wish to do so, it is a good idea to contact the Commissioner’s office as soon as possible.
Tip: If you receive a notice of extension, contact the ATI analyst responsible for your file. An extension is not necessarily a reason for concern. It is not possible to say whether a particular extension is reasonable in the circumstances, but it may take months for the processing of a request. If you are concerned about the time it is taking for your request to be processed, speak to the ATI analyst. Ask the analyst to explain the reason for the extension. Also ask how many pages of documents responsive to your request have already been identified. If the extension relates to consultations with other parties, ask which government bodies are being consulted. Additionally, ask if all records are subject to consultation, or just some. If the latter, ask that the other records (not subject to consultation) be sent to you as soon as possible, as an interim release.
4. Request for Clarification. You may receive a letter, phone call, or email from the ATI analyst assigned to your file, seeking clarification regarding some aspect of your request. Common requests for clarification relate to:
- the wording of your request
- the date range for your request
- the types of records you are seeking
Provide clarification to the best of your abilities. Be sure to ask questions. The ATI analyst may present the option of modifying your request wording. If you decide to do so, be sure to ask for a written confirmation of the revised request wording.
Tip: When the government body contacts you with a request for clarification, they “stop the clock” on your request, and the time that passes between when they request clarification and when the request is resolved will not count towards the request deadline. This means that it is a good idea to respond to all requests for clarification promptly. Do not feel pressured to respond right away (you can definitely take a day to think it over and/or contact an experienced user of the Act for advice), but don’t let it wait longer than is necessary.
5. Fee notification. Your initial $5 fee covers five hours of search time. A fee may be charged for additional search time. Section II of the Access to Information Act deals with fees. If the government body decides to claim a fee, they will notify you via letter. Note that this also “stops the clock” (see previous section). The letter will state the reason for the fee and the estimate, and you will be asked to provide a 50% deposit before the request proceeds. You will also be notified of your right to dispute the fee assessment by contacting the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.
Under the Access to Information Act, the head of a government institution has the authority to waive all or part of a fee. It is advisable to request a fee waiver at the time that you make your request, though this does not mean that one will be granted. You may wish to indicate that your request is “in the public interest”. You can use this sentence in your request to ask for a waiver: “The information being requested is directly related to a matter of public interest. I request that any fee assessed to process this request be waived.”
Tip: If you receive a fee notification, you may wish to contact the ATI analyst responsible for your request and ask about the situation. There may be a way to clarify or modify your request so as to narrow it down (thereby reducing the scope of the search), though this may not be desirable. If you decide that you do not wish to proceed with your request, be sure to indicate that you wish to receive copies of all records that have already been identified through the initial five hours of search time.
6. Suggestion to file a request under the Privacy Act. If you are using one of the templates provided by the BCCLA, then your request deals with government records that may contain personal information. In correspondence with the ATI analyst responsible for your file, you may be advised that a request under the Privacy Act – which deals specifically with personal information – would be more appropriate. In many situations, this would be true. However, if you are looking for general government records that also mention your name or organization, then the Access to Information Act is the more appropriate vehicle for such a request, especially when accompanied by your permission to release personal records as provided for in s. 19(2)(a) of the Privacy Act. Language indicating your permission to release personal records is included in the templates we have provided.
For more information on the Canadian Access to Information process (and the BC Freedom of Information process), consult the ebook Access in the Academy, prepared by the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
Special thanks to Mike Larsen, Instructor of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University for assisting the BCCLA in putting together this resource.