Intervenor: Vol 23. No 2 April - June 1998

Environmental Tool-Kit: The Freedom of Information Process

There is a saying that "information is power". For grassroots environmental work, there is no doubt as to the power of information.

When you find yourself in a situation where government agencies control important information which you need, the first step is always to simply call and request it. One obvious reason to ask first is that you may receive the information free of charge. More importantly, you may find a government official to be very helpful, suggesting further sources of information or referring you to other officials or departments.

If, however, a government official refuses to provide you with the information you need, your only recourse is to formally request the information through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Each level of government, federal, provincial, or municipal, is governed by separate FOI legislation, although they all follow a similar process. Ontario's process is outlined below.

The first step is to send a written request to the appropriate FOI contact person. All provincial departments have a specific contact person, usually known as the FOI coordinator, whereas smaller municipal departments and agencies often assign this role to one of their existing officials. In order to determine who the correct contact person is, you may contact the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (see side window). All requests must specifically state that the request is pursuant to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and must be accompanied by a small fee, generally five dollars, to initiate the search.

The FOI request letter should set out in detail what information is being requested. If your request is too broad, you may receive more information (and a bigger invoice) than you can handle, or, worse, the wrong information. If your request is too narrow, important information may be missed. As a general example, consider requesting "all reports, briefing notes, memos, e-mail correspondence, written correspondence, plans, documents, specifications, and other such information, produced within the Ministry or received by the Ministry from any other source, with respect to....".

Under Ontario's legislation, the government has thirty days in which to respond to your inquiry, which will often indicate how long the request will take and provide an estimate of the cost involved. Search time is now charged at $30 an hour and photocopying at 20 cents a page, which is a significant increase over previous fees. This change was introduced by the current government through the Omnibus Bill (Bill 26) in January of 1996. Thus, the "free" in "freedom" is somewhat of a misnomer and the cost involved may be a significant obstacle to those seeking information, even though it is in the public domain.

In some instances, your request may be denied, in whole or in part. Bill 26 (January 1996) gave Ontario officials some quite arbitrary powers to deny access to information requests. If your request is denied, or if you believe that the cost is extravagant, there is an appeal process. The appeal will be heard by the Information and Privacy Commissioner, not the government agency that denied the request. A request may only be denied if the information falls within certain prescribed categories, such as minutes of cabinet meetings, information that would interfere with a law enforcement matter, or information that reveals trade or scientific secrets. Service charges may be waived if it will cause financial hardship for the person requesting the information or if the information will benefit the public health and safety.

As a final piece of advice, be persistent. If you do not receive a response to your request within the stipulated guidelines, call the contact person to find out why and when you may expect to receive a response. If your application is denied, make sure you understand the reasons why and that they are consistent with the prescribed reasons. If the cost is exorbitant, ask the government agency or the information and privacy commissioner to reconsider.

If it appears that an FOI request requires a great deal of effort up front, keep in mind that the reward is often more than worth the trouble. Once you are empowered with key information, you will be well positioned to advance your case, whether in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion.

Paul McCulloch is a student at law at CELA

For general info. (determining who the contact person is, lodging an appeal):
Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario
Suite 1700, 80 Bloor Street West
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2V1
phone: 1-800-387-0073, 416-326-3333

Request to the MoE:
Fred Ruiter, Freedom of Information
Coordinator, Ministry of Environment
8th Floor, 40 St. Clair Ave West
Toronto, Ontario M4V 1M2
phone: 416-314-4075

For information regarding the Federal FOI process, contact:
Information Commissioner of Canada
Place de Ville
112 Kent Street, Suite 300
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 1H3
phone: 613-995-2410.