Canada: Access to Information Act

Canada's Access to Information Act was enacted in 1983 under the Pierre Trudeau government to establish public access to government documents.  In addition to the federal act, each province has also passed individual freedom of information laws to govern provincial and local level agencies. Records Covered

Records maintained or created by government institutions, which include departments and ministries of the federal government as well as parent Crown corporations, are subject to public disclosure under the Act.  Qualifying records consist of any physical documents as well as information maintained electronically.

The Act does not apply to records that are available for purchase or maintained in libraries or museums.  Some government entities are exempted from the Act, such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and the Queen's Privy Council for Canada.

The Privacy Act, which was also passed in 1983, protects the privacy of individuals.  Generally, a person may access records containing his personal information under the Privacy Act, but these records are not accessible by the general public under the Access to Information Act.

Submitting a Request

Canadian citizens and permanent residents of Canada are eligible to request access to government records.  To do so, a written request must be submitted to the appropriate government institution with as much detail as possible about the desired record.

A pre-payment may be required prior to duplicating the copies, and fees may be assessed for records searches that require more than five hours of staff time.  The heads of government institutions are authorized to appoint officers to oversee the implementation of the Act.

After receiving a request, the government institution must respond within 30 days by providing the requested records, by explaining why the request was denied, or by notifying the requestor that an extension of time is necessary to handle the request.  The government institution is also responsible for notifying the requestor if his request is transferred to a different government institution.

Grounds for Denial

Access may be denied to records that violate any of the following exemptions:

  • Interferes with the responsibilities of government by releasing information obtained in confidence from another government or by disclosing inter-government affairs
  • Discusses government operations, such recent internal audits or plans that have not yet been acted upon
  • Reveals sensitive information related to national security or defense
  • Provides insight into law enforcement operations or on-going legal investigations
  • Involves recent or on-going investigations or audits by government entities
  • Includes information about the economic interests of Canada or other government institutions such as the Canada Post Corporation or VIA Rail Canada Inc.
  • Contains personal information protected under the Privacy Act
  • Threatens an individual's safety
  • Discloses confidential third party information such as trade secrets or other information that could interfere with conduct of business

Appeals Process and Act Enforcement

Complaints related to the Act's enforcement must be submitted to the office of the Information Commissioner.  The Information Commissioner is appointed by the Governor in Council for a seven year term, and one or more Assistant Information Commissioners may be appointed to five year terms.

If a request was denied by a government institution, the requestor must submit a written complaint to the Information Commissioner within 60 days following the initial denial.  The Information Commissioner also reviews complaints related to unreasonable fees, requests that are not addressed within 30 days, or other alleged violations of the Act.

After receiving a complaint and determining that an investigation is necessary, the Information Commissioner must notify the head of the named government institution.  These investigations are carried out privately, and the Information Commissioner is permitted access to any records involved.  The Information Commissioner must issue a report on his findings with his recommendation upon completing his investigation.

Should the Information Commissioner uphold the original decision of the government institution, the requestor may appeal the matter in court.  This process must be initiated within 45 days of the Information Commissioner's decision.  After the court reviews the matter in a private investigations, it will have the final word on whether access will be granted.

Other Resources

Both the Information Commissioner and the heads of government institutions are required to submit annual reports to Parliament.  Most government institutions make the most recent report available on their web sites, such as Public Safety Canada and Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

If you want to learn more about the Access to Information Act, its full text is available in English and French here.