A "How-to Guide to Canada's Access to Information Act"

Read time: 6 mins

I'm submitting some Access to Information (ATIP) requests to the Canadian government today and I thought I would chronicle how exactly someone goes about doing it for anyone who may be interested in submitting their own ATIP request.

Accessing the information that every Canadian has a right to is quite easy, if you know where to look on the government's website - which, of course, is the trick, finding the information you need on the government's website.

They don't exactly make it easy, so I have provided below a simple A to Z process with the links you'll need to do your own ATIP request. I've also included a real example of an ATIP request I am submitting today to Environment Canada.

Finding the Government's ATIP site

The first step, and not a minor chore, is finding all the information and the forms you need from the government's website – they don't exactly make it easy for anyone inexperienced with the internet.

So here's the main Canadian government's homepage for ATIP requests which is managed under the Canadian department of Justice.

On this page there are a few sections to familiarize yourself with. The first being exemptions - information that the government will refuse to give you. There's actually very little that is exempt, but the two big ones are documents marked “advice to Minister” or Cabinet and anything that is judged to have the potential to cause financial, commercial or personal injury. Here's a list of documents that the government will most likely not release to you.

The next area to take a quick read of is severability, where the government will provide you the documents you have requested, but they will black out information, like people's names etc.

Finding the ATIP form

The next thing you will need to find is the actual ATIP form and the coordinates of where to send your ATIP request. Again, they make this frustrating to find for the first time user, so click here to go to the “Using the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act” section. Take a quick read of this page, there's all sorts of information here that will help familiarize yourself with the ATIP request process.

After taking a read of that page, click on the “Access to Information Request Form” button, or just click on the hyperlink I've provided.

Filling out the ATIP form

Now you're ready to fill out the request. You'll notice here that there's a $5 fee for submitting a request, a small price to pay for the possible goldmine of information you can come across with an ATIP request.

First, go to the bottom of the page and download the ATIP form, or click here to download it in PDF format (Adobe) or here to download it in Rich Text Format (MS Word). I prefer the Rich Text version because you can type directly into the fields on the form.

Now start filling in the form.

The first thing is determining which federal institution or department you want to request information from. To do that go to this page here and start looking around for the department you think has the information you're looking for.

For my submission, I'm looking up Environment Canada. Once you've found the department, fill it in on the “Access to Information Request Form” under the heading “Federal Government Institution.” Make sure to also take note of the contact information, because you will need that in order to mail in your completed form.

In my case, I'll be mailing my ATIP request to:

Environment Canada
Pierre Bernier
Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator
Les Terrasses de la Chaudiere
10 Wellington Street, 27th Floor
Gatineau, Quebec K1A 0H3
Tel.: (819) 953-2743
Fax: (819) 953-0749

email: pierre [dot] bernier[at]ec.gc.ca (It's important to also note the email address of the department's ATIP coordinator so you can follow up on your request).

Next, you have to fill out the details of the information you are requesting. Here's the trickiest part, because you want to be as specific as possible without asking for too much information and casting your net too wide. If you cast too wide a net, you'll end up with a large processing fee for all the photocopying and organizing government staff will have to do. If you're too specific you might miss that one important tidbit of information you're looking for. Here's a link to the ATIP fee schedule.

So here's the request I'm putting in:

“Any and all communications materials produced between Sept. 1, 2007 and Oct. 1, 2007 by the Communications department at the National Office for the Office of the Minister of the Environment relating to the “Major Economies Meeting on Climate Change and Energy Security” held on Sept. 27th and 28th, 2007 in Washington, DC.

The form allows for only so many words, so try to be as succinct as possible.

I've highlighted the important points to include in your ATIP request. First pick a specific time period. I picked Sept. 1, 2007 to Oct. 1, 2007, because the Major Economies meeting was held on Sept. 27 and 28th and I will most likely catch drafts of any talking points, communications advice etc. produced (unless, of course, they mark everything 'advice to minister').

Second, try to be as specific as you can on what division within the department you're looking for. Here's a breakdown of the main divisions within Environment Canada.

The more specific you are, the quicker you'll get the information you need. If you leave out too many details they'll slowly pepper you with minor clarifications and before you know it, it's Christmas already and you haven't received one vowel of useful information.

Once you have a nice, succinct and highly detailed request, check the “method of access preferred” box. Fill in your personal information, print off the form, sign it (don't forget the date) and stick it in an envelope with the appropriate name, address etc. of the ATIP coordinator.

The Waiting Game

Under the ATIP regulations, within 30 days of receipt of your request the government must do one of two things:

1. Give written notice to the requester whether or not access to the record or part of it will be given; or

2. If access is to be given, give the requester the record or the appropriate part of it.

But don't hold your breath that the information you've requested will magically appear on your doorstep in a months time, because there's also an extension clause that allows the government to draw out your request for as long as they see fit to torture you.

Usually, within the first 30 days you will receive an acknowledgment of receipt and maybe a few questions of clarification. If you don't hear from the government in the allowable 30 days, send a friendly reminder (honey is always better than vinegar) to the Access to Information coordinator by email.

And finally, if all else fails, you can put in an appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner, if you feel that you are being treated unfairly or that you have a right to the information the government is witholding.

So there you go. I hope this helps. If you have any question please feel free to email me at desmogblog[at]gmail[dot]com.

If you want to learn all the ins and outs of ATIP requests pick up the book, Digging Deeper, by Robert Crib and company.

If you found this guide valuable, please vote for it here on Digg.com.

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