Life in Canada

Freedom of Information Act Request Guide – With Examples

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Freedom of information acts (also called access to information acts in some provinces) give Canadian citizens and permanent residents – including businesses, legal representatives and members of the media – have the right to access records kept by government institutions.

Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA), you have a right to request information from public-sector institutions in Ontario including provincial ministries, agencies, boards, commissions, and hospitals.

This is in accordance with the principles that government information should be available to the public except in limited and specific circumstances such as not disclosing personal information to protect individuals’ right to privacy.

The purpose of the Access to Information Act (ATI) and other freedom of information acts is to enhance the accountability and transparency of federal, provincial and municipal institutions in order to promote an open and democratic society and to enable public debate on the conduct of those institutions.

Federal and provincial Freedom of (Access to) Information Acts and requests

JurisdictionLawRequestsExamples
FederalAccess to Information Act (ATI)Make a requestCompleted requests
AlbertaFreedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP)Make a request
British ColumbiaFreedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA)Make a request
ManitobaFreedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA)Make a request
New BrunswickRight to Information and Protection of Privacy (RTIPPA) ActMake a request
Newfoundland and LabradorAccess to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA)Make a requestCompleted requests
Northwest TerritoriesAccess to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPP)Make a request
Nova ScotiaFreedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP)Make a requestCompleted requests
NunavutAccess to Information and Protection of Privacy (ATIPP)Make a request
OntarioFreedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA)Make a request
Prince Edward IslandFreedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPP)Make a request
QuebecAct respecting Access to documents held by public bodies and the Protection of personal informationMake a request
SaskatchewanFreedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act Make a request
YukonAccess to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPP)Make a request

Recently completed requests are published online by the federal government, as well as some provinces and municipalities on their Open Data portals.

Examples

  • Charity donations – List by name and dollar amount of all gifts provided by the Schulich Foundation to other charities and qualified donees from 2000 to 2021. (CRA)
  • Briefing notes – Briefing Note 03836-2021: Deputy Minister of International Trade virtual meeting with Invest in Canada.
  • Memos – Fisheries and Oceans Canada – Memo to the Deputy Minister: Meeting with British Columbia Seafood Alliance (Reference # 2022-009-00020)
  • Government spending – “Co-Investment Fund Initiative”: For Ontario and British Colombia – information related to the actual amounts funded under this program since inception. Details to include all of the following: All organization names that have resulted in a signed commitment to date; Who were the recipients of the loans (name please); Total number of recipients; Where are the recipients located (address); Amount to each recipient and date issued. Loan terms (%interest duration); Totals of applicants broken down by type of applicant (i.e. individual, small business, large business, etc…) for the Co-Investment fund as well as all related contracts signed under this agreement.
  • Government spending 2 – Any briefing notes, memos, or reports that include an analysis of the effectiveness of money spent by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. This analysis could include, but would not be limited to, how many jobs are created by companies the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario invests in, how much regional economies have grown as a result of the investments and/or how much Canada’s GDP has increased as a result of the investments.
  • Salaries and compensation – Number of employees who have received pay increases since 2020 (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority)
  • Pension investments – List of every Canadian property owned by PSP in the Housing-Residential sector including: address, name (if applicable), ownership stake in the property (e.g. as a percentage), and known partners. (Public Sector Pension Investment Board)

How to submit a FOI request

Here’s how to submit a request:

  1. Write a detailed description of the information or data you’re looking for
  2. Submit an FOI request under FIPPA online or complete the PDF form
  3. Submit your completed form to the relevant institutions by mailing it to the address(es) found in the Directory of Institutions

Note: Before submitting a formal request for information, it is recommended to try contacting the relevant institution directly to ask for the information and any further details or direction they may be able to provide. If access is denied, or not as you expected, make a written request under the Act.

When submitting an FOI request, be sure to include a detailed description of the records or information requested. This can include:

  • Identifying details
    • Addresses
    • Names of involved people, institutions
    • ID numbers
  • Record formats and media such as:
    • paper records (for example, letters, reports, plans, drawings, microfilm)
    • electronic records (for example, emails, PDFs, slide decks, spreadsheets)
    • multimedia records (for example, film, voice recordings, photographs)
  • Time period of record:
    • May 1, 2021 to May 1, 2022
  • Data structure
    • Description of the rows and columns of a spreadsheet

What information can you request?

  • Personal information request: made by an individual (or another person acting on his/her behalf) for the individual’s own information
  • General information request: all other requests

FIPPA

The directory of institutions lists the institutions you can request information from and includes contact information for the Freedom of Information and Privacy Coordinator or municipal clerk who can provide assistance and the address to send a request to. There is also a list of Freedom of Information and Privacy Coordinators for Ministries of Ontario that includes email addresses and phone numbers.

Institutions include:

  • Ontario government ministries and institutions
  • Ontario Provincial Police (OPP)
  • municipal or regional police services (for example, local detachment, division number) 
  • most public agencies, boards, commissions and advisory bodies
  • school boards, colleges and universities
  • public hospitals
  • municipalities
  • some publicly funded institutions (for example, museums, libraries)

Coordinators are responsible for the administration of The Act, including:

  • receive and process submitted FOI requests
  • tell you what information is held by their institution
  • let you know if you can get the information without making a formal FOI request
  • review records held by their institution
  • determine if you can access the records requested under FIPPA or MFIPPA

The directory of records lists the types of records held by ministries and some provincial agencies. Not all of which is available through FOIA, but it can give you an idea of the kinds of information the government keeps records of.

The directory of personal information banks (PIBs) lists the collections of personal information held by public institutions. It includes the types of information maintained (name, address, phone, email, background, etc.), retention period and how it’s used.

Frequently requested information under FIPPA includes:

  • access general records held by institutions (for example, Ontario government ministries, colleges, universities, agencies, municipalities)
  • request or correct your own personal information

Examples

  • Licenses and registrations – Please provide the total number of registered electric vehicles in the province as of May 12, 2022.
  • Minister’s briefing notes – A list of briefing materials prepared for the deputy minister or the minister for the month of March 2022.
  • Meeting minutes – All meeting minutes and documentation arising from meetings of the Panel on Housing.
  • Statistics – # of people on waitlist for long-term care – monthly and broken down by region.

MFIPPA

The MFIPPA requires municipalities to keep an updated Personal Information Bank and to make it available for the public to view. For example, see Durham Region’s Directory of Records and Personal Information Banks (PIBs).

Frequently requested information under MFIPPA includes:

  • Property records, such as building records, plans and permits (available to the property owner or their legal representative)
  • Fire incident reports
  • City planning development and committee of adjustment records (Planning Act)
  • Ambulance call reports (records are made available to the patient or their legal representative)
  • Court records
  • Environmental records, such as notices of violation, soil and groundwater analyses results

Examples

  • Inspections – Inspection records for Kingston Municipal Non-profit Housing Corporation (Town Homes Kingston) for the past four years documenting what was inspected, when it was inspected, by whom it was inspected, and any conclusions reached after inspection re: compliance
  • OW/ODSP files – Ontario Works file from 2014 to present
  • Property standards – Record of all complaints and information on [Address] and any fines and notices that were issued
  • Asset locations – List of types of benches available for use by the municipality, map of all bench placements in Kingston, all documents regarding selection of public bench styles and placements January 1, 2015 to November 30, 2018
  • Tickets and fines – A database of all automated speed enforcement tickets, taken from July 1, 2020 to July 12, 2021, including location, speed, fine amount, license plate, paid or unpaid, time of day and date for each ticket.

Past Freedom of Information requests can be found on some municipalities’ Open Data portals:

Fees

FeeAmount
Mandatory Application Fee (non-refundable)$5
Search time$7.50 per 15 minutes
Record preparation$7.50 per 15 minutes, 2 min per page
Photocopying$0.20 per page
Computer programming$15 per 15 minutes if needed
Floppy disks$10 per disk
Shipping costsActual cost of shipping

You will receive a fee estimate from the FOI office or institution where you submitted your FOI request, if the processing fees will be more than $25. When processing fees are over $100, a deposit may be required.

You have the right to request a waiver of fees if the payment will cause financial hardship or if the information will benefit public health or safety.

Appealing a decision

You can appeal a decision by completing an appeal form or mailing the following details to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC) – Information and Privacy Commissioner at 2 Bloor Street East, Suite 1400, Toronto ON  M4W 1A8:

  1. The request file number
  2. A copy of the decision letter.
  3. A copy of your original request.
  4. A cheque or money order in the amount of $10 (for personal information) or $25.00 (for general records) payable to the Minister of Finance.

What information is not disclosed?

Exemptions prevent the disclosure of information that:

  • Was received in confidence
  • Could reasonably be expected to interfere with a law enforcement matter
  • Could endanger the health or safety of an individual
  • Includes personal information about individuals other than the requester
  • Holds trade secrets or financial, commercial, scientific or technical information that belongs to the Government of Ontario
  • Cabinet records under 20 years old

Example freedom of information request

I recently submitted a request to the Ministry of Health regarding the number of physicians participating in the Income Stabilization program and their roster sizes:

Reaching out to the Ministry of Health

It is often recommended to reach out to the relevant institution to ask for information and direction before submitting a formal FOI request, so I sent an email to the Ministry of Health – Primary Care Inquiries regarding physician enrolment in the income stabilization program with the following questions:

  1. How many physicians are currently receiving compensation through the IS program?
  2. What is the current average number of patients these physicians have rostered?
  3. What is the average number of patients these physicians have rostered as of 1 year ago?

Their responses to questions 2 and 3 were:

As physicians are entering the program every month at different participation levels, with varied roster targets, an average roster would not be an accurate representation of how many patients these physicians have enrolled.

FOI request

Since the Ministry was not helpful in providing relevant information or direction to help me access the information I was looking for, I submitted the following FOI request instead on May 26:

Any records that report the following details about the Income Stabilization (IS) program over the period Apr 1, 2020 to May 26, 2022:

  1. Number of physicians receiving compensation through the IS program
  2. Number of patients those same physicians had rostered
  3. What were the enrolment targets for those same physicians
  4. Amount of total monthly payments paid to those same physicians

I do not want anything identifying – only the monthly reported numbers for the above metrics over the time period.

Acknowledgement

I received an email 4 days (2 business days) later from Access, Privacy & Corporate Information Corporate Services confirming that a response will be provided within 30 days from the date the office received your request (May 26).

Decision

The decision notification and invoice came 25 days later – within the 30 day requirement. It took 2 hours of search time at $30 per hour for a final fee of $60. The only payment option is to mail a cheque or money order to the Access & Privacy Office at 99 Adesso Drive, Floor 1 Concord ON.

Data received

I mailed the cheque on June 21, 2022 and it was received and records were released via email 7 days later.

Based on my requests, I received the following:

This data does not include the monthly reported numbers for these metrics as stated in my approved request, so I have been in touch with the Team Lead, Access and Privacy at the Ministry of Health who has been helpful in outlining the next steps.

Over to you

We’re interested to know – what information are you requesting under freedom of information and from what institution? Was the information they provided what you were looking for? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author

Alex Wideman
Alex Wideman is a consumer rights advocate, serial entrepreneur and the editor-in-chief of Cansumer. He has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Queen's University. He is passionate about helping others save time and money and has been creating consumer-focused online resources for over 10 years. More about Cansumer Read more

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