As previously noted on the FOI Assist Knowledge Base, Canada’s federal government has underperformed its provincial and municipal counterparts in responding to FOI requests in a timely fashion. Even before the pandemic, one audit found the portion of requests that the Federal Government successfully responded to within the standard 30-day window was only 27%. (In comparison, Ontario’s FOI system fared much better, responding to 60% of requests submitted within 30 days.)
With the arrival of the novel coronavirus pandemic in March, federal offices were shut down and/or transformed to working from home. Since then, federal government offices have been reopening, but the government’s ability to respond to FOI requests has apparently not kept apace.
On Wednesday, a story by Dylan Robertson of the Winnipeg Free Press entitled “Freedom of information requests languish in Ottawa” reported that as of September 28, only 70 of 144 federal agencies had fully returned to processing FOI requests. Some federal offices had ceased processing requests entirely up until mid-July.
During Question Period later that day, Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner brought up the Robertson article, sardonically suggesting that since fewer than half of federal Freedom of Information offices were operating at full capacity, perhaps the FOI workers “sitting at home” could be employed to respond to document requests from Parliament in a more timely fashion.
Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responded “I’ve spoken to hundreds if not thousands of Canadians since the pandemic was first announced and COVID-19 arrived on our shores and in fact not once has a Canadian asked me to put more resources into Freedom of Information officers.”
Minister Hajdu’s statement was met with criticism from government veterans and journalists, with many responses from Canadians explicitly requesting additional resources for Freedom of Information. Robertson responded with a follow-up story entitled “Providing Canadians with information not public’s priority, says health minister“.
Even the Information Commissioner of Canada offered uncharacteristically direct criticism of the federal minister in a statement issued via Twitter:
On Friday, Minister Hajdu announced she had additional staff assigned to support Canadians’ access to information requests, and would be speaking to the Information Commissioner to address the issue:
Friday’s reaction by Minister Hajdu perhaps puts the matter to rest, at least for the moment.
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