How to navigate Canada’s Access to Information (ATIP) system

November 9, 2020

Since 2017, there is a slogan that permanently resides on the masthead of the Washington Post: Democracy Dies in Darkness. Attributed to the investigative journalist Bob Woodward, it succinctly reflects the idea that governments that act in secret are vulnerable to corruption.  People’s access to the ways and means of government decision-making is foundational to our ability to make informed decisions when choosing those we elect to represent us.

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot lately and it brings me to the topic of Canada’s ATIP system.

Our Access to Information and Privacy Act has been in place since the early 1980s, with the express purpose of providing, “Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and individuals and corporations present in Canada a right to access records under the control of government institutions, in accordance with the principles that government information should be available to the public….”

The four decade-old Access to Information legislation received a bit of an update this summer.

Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos has called the recent changes, “the most significant amendments to the Act since it was adopted”. However, some freedom of information advocates, like Dean Beeby, are less than enthusiastic about the changes. Mr. Beeby describes the Act, even with updates, as “geriatric”, “rickety” and “approaching collapse”.

His main criticisms are that more recent updates, “favour the bureaucracy over citizens”, and did “nothing to rein in existing exemptions which allow government to legally withhold documents using broad claims about protecting national security, commercial confidentiality, law enforcement, [and] policy advice.” I do not disagree with Mr. Beeby, but on the practical side, ATIP is the system we have, and it is only as good as your ability to work it.

Rise Up Strategies submits ATIPs on behalf of clients for a variety of reasons – sometimes to see how decisions are reached, but mostly for access to data and analysis that help our clients make smarter decisions. 

Understanding how the ATIP system works and how to navigate its idiosyncrasies and shortcomings makes the difference in getting back information you need and can use.  In other words, if you go into an ATIP request thinking you are reaching into a deep and well-designed database, you will learn pretty quickly you are actually working with the equivalent of a Microsoft Office Word document with tables (if you’re lucky).

Here are my top 10 tips for successful ATIP requests:   

  1. Be as specific as possible when describing what you’re seeking. If you’re too general, then you risk higher processing fees and delays.
  2. Consider the privacy implications of your request: Both the Privacy Act and Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act weigh heavily into the fulfilment of ATIP requests. Be sure to submit requests that don’t compromise privacy by requesting that personal information is redacted. Or perhaps ask only for area codes (as opposed to full phone numbers) or the first three characters of a postal code (instead of full address).
  3. Be courteous: Prior to submitting an ATIP, I like to give the receiving department a heads-up that it’s my intention to submit a request. This isn’t a mandatory step, but it’s often appreciated and is the courteous thing to do. You can also speak with an ATIP officer to better refine your request.
  4. Make sure your ATIP request explicitly states the format you want your response. ATIPs are often fulfilled by mailing the applicant a CD ROM or emailing PDF files that are almost entirely useless for the purposes of analysis. You won’t always get it the way you asked, but it’s sometimes successful to ask. Alternatively, invest in a PDF converter or optical character reader that allows you to place the content or data into a useable format.
  5. Don’t assume your ATIP officer knows the “lingo”. Acronyms, abbreviations, or program particulars aren’t always as well known as you would assume. Make sure to spell it out for the ATIP officer so there’s no ambiguity about what you are looking for.
  6. It’s up to you to stay on top of your requests. ATIPs are often late or extensions granted. There are numerous examples of ATIPs simply disappearing once they enter the bureaucracy. It’s up to you to stay on top of your requests and follow up with the appropriate people when deadlines are missed.
  7. Before submitting a new ATIP, make sure the information hasn’t been asked for in the past. Almost 25,000 past ATIPs can be found posted on this web site: Save everyone some time by reviewing this list prior to submitting a new request.
  8. Leverage the lobbyist registry to know who is talking with whom about what. This will help you narrow your ATIP requests and often provides actionable insight.
  9. The Government Electronic Directory Services (GEDS) provides you with a contact directory that should allow you to add precision to your ATIP. Search for the specific public servants implicated in your request and ask for their documents including related correspondence.
  10. Don’t take no for an answer. You can appeal unsuccessful requests by filing a complaint with Canada’s Information Commissioner, usually within sixty days of receipt of notice.

“It is vital to remember that information – in the sense of raw data – is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.” ~ Sir Arthur C. Clarke