Accessing information at DFAIT

by Michael Petrou

Canada’s Access to Information Act stipulates that a government institution should disclose information 30 days after a request is received.

It also allows government institutions to extend this time limit to a “reasonable” length of time, if searching through records would interfere with the work of the government department in question, or if “consultations” are necessary that cannot be completed within the original time limit.

The Act’s application is fairly narrowly defined. It does not apply to “confidences of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada,” and thereby shelters from scrutiny much pertaining to Cabinet and committees of Cabinet.

In practice, my experience is that requests are rarely completed within 30 days. Just what constitutes a “reasonable” extension is debatable. I’ve just received a disclosure from the Canada Border Services Agency for a request I made in 2010. I’ve similarly had to wait three years for a response from the Canadian International Development Agency.

That the Act does not apply to Council confidences also allows for significant wiggle room when it comes to disclosure. (The relevant section is 69 should anyone want to have a look.)

I write all this as context as I’m currently waiting for a response to an access request from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. I made my request in August. The Department gave itself a 150-day extension, which came up yesterday. DFAIT tells me a partial disclosure is available, but they’re waiting for the Privy Council to decide whether they can release the rest of it because of Cabinet confidentiality.

There is no word when this process will be completed. It seems to me that six months should be enough time to sort that out. I will update in this space as appropriate.




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Accessing information at DFAIT

  1. And judging from my own experience making a knowingly doomed attempt to get the Afghan documents the Harper government were hiding using the pro-rogue, they are still not as bad as the dept. of defence, both in terms of what they will release and when they will do it.

  2. Something is either a cabinet confidence or not, and that can be determined by the information and access coordinator, or if unsure, the minister can make the determination, that’s what is called for in the legislation. (head of the government institution).

    What’s not called for is submission either to the cabinet as a whole or to the unelected partisans in the Prime Minister’s Office because access to information isn’t supposed to be a political decision.

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