From the Animal Advocate’s Toolbox – Making an Access to Information Request

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Canada governmentWritten by:  Heather Clemenceau

For the last few days I’ve been watching the 2014 Equine Summit held at Equine Advocates, on YouTube. Aside from the knowledge and quality of the speakers, one thing stood out for me – the sheer volume of information many of them have obtained by FOIA requests (in the US). While the information isn’t provided immediately, it’s incredibly informative, particularly when it comes to the activities of the BLM. Here in Canada, the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition has used the process to expose the misfeasance of government inspectors at slaughterhouses, as well as reveal to the public the dire conditions under which horses,  including pregnant mares,  are shipped for slaughter. Recently, an ATI (Access to Information) request was completed in concert with an American advocate in the US, in order to “triangulate” the transit time for a shipment of horses made by Jeron Gold, which was videotaped in November 2013 heading to Richelieu slaughterhouse at about 4pm (because we know the arrival time at slaughterhouses is often fudged to come in under the regulation 36 hours).

Some backstory on the Access to Information Act – Canada was just the eighth country in the world to guarantee citizens the right to request government records in accordance with top hat tip to lonidisclosure law, when we passed the ATIA on Canada Day, 1983. What we have is a version of free information, which is not exactly the same thing as open government. The main principles of this Act are: government information should be available to the public; exemptions to this right should be limited and specific; and decisions on disclosure of information should be reviewed independently of government. Through the ATI Act, the Canadian press has discovered that the executive office of any party in power (although particularly the Harper government) tends to be somewhat adversarial to the process,  and considers any groups involved in environmental or animal rights to be part of the “green scare.” Greenpeace, PeTA, and probably other groups in Canada (and maybe even this blog writer) are considered to be “terrorist” groups, and this was confirmed by requesting government documents. Good to know!

So this blog is all about providing some guidelines and links so that interested parties can do their own ATI requests with confidence. Obviously, if you request information, you should have a good idea in advance what you are seeking to find out. You should have a specific timeline in mind, and be specific about what you need.  Ask for information that could solve a problem or answer a question. You should have a plan in advance that will allow you to do something useful with the information, such as use it to build a case for your MP to do something, write to MPs, correct an invalid assumption, write a cover letter and send it to the newspapers, or blog it, etc. You can also request personal information about yourself too, and if it is incorrect, you have the right to have it corrected. But don’t waste your money or the government’s time (the system is under incredible strain already) just for curiosity’s sake. Make it count.

ATI requests can only be completed by Canadian citizens, permanent residents or any other person (or entity) present in Canada. An individual who is not a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident cannot make a request from outside Canada unless it is made by a representative who is a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident or a person present in Canada on behalf of the individual. Start by submitting a written request, which must contain the following:

  • The full name,  signature of the requester, Canadian mailing address, and if possible, a telephone number and/or e-mail address where the requester can be contacted between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays
  • A $5.00 application fee. Payment can be made by cash, cheque or money order. Cheques and money orders must be made payable to the Receiver General for Canada. The fee entitles the requester to five hours of search and preparation time. If your request will take more time, you will be notified of same and will be required to pay for this time in order for the ATI to proceed. Be sure to take this into consideration if you intend to ask for records for a long period of time (or have a strict budget).

There is an additional fee schedule for supplying documents:

  • for photocopying a page with dimensions of not more than 21.5 cm by 35.5 cm, $0.20 per page,
  • for microfiche duplication, non-silver, $0.40 per fiche,
  • for 16 mm microfilm duplication, non-silver, $12 per 30.5 m roll,
  • for 35 mm microfilm duplication, non-silver, $14 per 30.5 m roll,
  • for microform to paper duplication, $0.25 per page
  • for magnetic tape-to-tape duplication, $25 per 731.5 m reel
  • where the record requested is a non-computerized record, the head of the government institution may require payment in the amount of $2.50 per person per quarter hour for every hour in excess of five hours that is spent by any person on search and preparation. This may be the case with certain manually completed forms from slaughterhouses which are handwritten on paper.

The legislated timeframe for responding to Access to Information or Privacy requests is 30 calendar days. The Access to Information Act permits an institution to extend the time limit to respond to a request beyond the 30 calendar days if:

  • the request is for a large number of records or requires a search through a large number of records, and the original time limit would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the institution;
  • external consultations are necessary and cannot reasonably be expected to be completed within the original time limit

In all likelihood,your request WILL take longer than 30 days to process. If you are looking only for a few documents over a short period of time, you should receive your package in a few weeks. If you want records for an entire year or an extremely high volume of records, your request may take YEARS. Unless you can afford to have a fair chunk of money tied up for years waiting for boxes of information to be delivered to you, make sure you really need to have this quantity of information!

By processing your request under the ATIA, the government tells us that they will:

  1. Process the request without regard to our identity (but they may sometimes ask if you are related to an individual you are requesting information for).
  2. Offer reasonable assistance throughout the request process.
  3. Provide information on the Access to Information Act  including information on the processing of your request and your right to complain to the appropriate Commissioner of Canada. (you have 60 days from receipt of your documents to make a complaint)
  4. Inform us as appropriate and without undue delay when our request needs to be clarified.
  5. Make every reasonable effort to locate and retrieve the requested records or personal information under the control of the government institution.
  6. Apply limited and specific exemption
  7. Provide accurate and complete responses.
  8. Provide timely access to the requested information.
  9. Provide records or personal information in the format and official language requested, as appropriate.

Of course, there are various checks and balances that must be examined before the various branches of government will send you anything. It’s entirely possible that there may be no records for what you are seeking, or the information will simply not be disclosed. Refer to the Lexis Nexis info-graphic for the process involved in complying with an ATI request:

LexisNexisATIRequestFlowchart

Centennial Flame on Parliament HillOnce you’ve decided exactly what you want and have determined the time period, you will need to determine which federal government institution is most likely to have the information you are seeking. Most readers of this blog will probably be interested in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Each government institution also has an Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator. These individuals are responsible for ensuring that any Access to Information and Privacy requests received by the government institution are responded to in accordance with the Acts and also for the application of the legislation within the institution. The list of Access to Information and Privacy Coordinators, along with their contact information, is available online. You can also view completed ATI requests here.

If you are requesting information relative to a specific Canadian slaughterhouse, you will need to provide the correct code in order to process your request. For convenience sake, they are included below:

076 – Viande Richelieu Inc./Richelieu Meat Inc. (Quebec)

505 – Les Viandes de la Petite-Nation Inc. (Quebec)

506 – Bouvry Export Calgary Ltd. (Alberta)

587 – KML Meat Processors Ltd. (British Columbia)

657 – Canadian Premium Meats Inc. (Alberta)

Please bear in mind that EIDS are not “owned” or retained by the CFIA or any other government agency. No branch of government retains photocopies either. The EID was cleverly designed to be a document that is owned by the Canadian Library of Parliament Ottawarespective slaughterhouse, and has a retention period of one year. Since slaughterhouses are privately owned entities, it’s not possible to request copies of EID forms via the Access to Information Act. Also bear in mind that if you are requesting documentation from Quebec (Richelieu or LPN slaughterhouses) you will receive your paperwork in French. Subsection 12(2) of the Access to Information Act provides for scenarios where records have been requested in one particular official language. If you want to receive the records in English, you must specify this request in advance, and it WILL come at additional cost and time, since translation services must be involved. You are better off to attempt to translate the documents yourself, even though many may be handwritten. So befriend or bribe a French-speaking person, if you are completely unable to translate any French at all.

Lastly, if you want to track your ATI submission, we suggest that you pay for a registered letter from Canada Post. Good luck with your searches, and may you find something that will be deeply embarrassing to Gerry Ritz or your MP.

About heatherclemenceau

Hopefully as I've grown older I've also grown wiser, but one thing I've definitely become cognizant of is the difference between making a living and making a life. Frequently outraged by some of life's cruelties, and respect diversity. But.....I don't suffer fools gladly, and occasionally, this does get me into some trouble! I have the distinction of being the world's worst golfer - no wait, I do believe that there is a gypsy in Moldavia who is a worse golfer than I. Nor am I much of a dancer - you won't see a booty-shakin' flygirl routine from me! I'm also not the kind of cook who can whip up a five-course meal on a radiator either! And I've never figured out how to get an orchid to bloom a second time. I love to discuss literature, science, philosophy, and sci-fi , or even why Seinfeld is funny on so many levels. Words move me. I'm very soft-hearted about most things, especially animals, but I have a stoicism about me that is sometimes interpreted incorrectly. I do have a definite edge and an often "retro-adolescent" sense of humour at times. I'm a big advocate of distributed computing projects to advance science. Check out http://boinc.berkeley.edu/ if you want to find out more. I'm an eclectic (but not crazy) vegetarian, and as such, it's a personal practice of mine to seduce innocent meat-eaters into cruising the (salad) bars at every opportunity. You would be powerless to resist. I was recently surprised to find that a computer algorithm concluded that I write like Dan Brown, which is funny because I didn't think Dan Brown could actually write. Check out your own style - http://iwl.me/ Oh, and I love impractical shoes and funky hats.

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