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This week, Quebec’s Commission d’accès à l’information dealt a major setback to McGill in its ongoing battle against information access, with the Commission deciding that McGill does not have the authority to deny future access to information (ATI) requests at its discretion. That power can be solely exercised by the Commission, although McGill’s request, if approved, would have delegated the Commission’s power to University administrators.
McGill’s lawyers, in a pre-trial hearing in September, requested the power for McGill administrators to deny future ATI requests from a specified list of individuals or anyone who could be connected to those on the list, as well as those who fall under a specified list of categories. The categories included “persons associated to McGilliLeaked” or “persons that could reasonably be linked to such requestor,” and requests that show characteristics such as being “overly broad,” “frivolous,” “target[ing] trivial documents and information,” or “associated to one or more categories of documents and information published on McGilliLeaked.”
The website McGilliLeaked compiles various documents about the University, such as contracts, security reports, and investments, billing itself as “for all your Access to Information needs.”
ATIs are a means of legally obtaining otherwise unavailable information – such as administrative documents – from public bodies like McGill. In Quebec, if a public body declines to grant ATI requests, the Commission acts as an administrative tribunal to mediate negotiations and make decisions.
“The motion was clearly an abuse of power on McGill’s part, or an attempt at an abuse of power. They basically wanted to have the law rewritten to suit their needs.”
In this week’s decision, dated 7 October, the Commission stated in French, “The Commission cannot delegate to the University the power to decide in its place which demands meet its criteria and which it can ignore.”
The decision also denied a last-minute amendment from McGill which would have required certain respondents to obtain authorization from the Commission before requesting ATIs from McGill in the future.
The Commission’s decision rested upon the grounds that granting the University’s request would represent an “illegal” delegation of its powers to a third party, according to a press release sent out by Kevin Paul, a McGill student and one of the respondents. “[It] would involve passing judgment on requests which have not yet come under the Commission’s jurisdiction.”
“The motion was clearly an abuse of power on McGill’s part, or an attempt at an abuse of power,” Mona Luxion, a former columnist for The Daily and one of the respondents, told The Daily. “They basically wanted to have the law rewritten to suit their needs.”
The request, in fact, was one that would be legally unprecedented if it had been approved, as the respondents’ lawyer made clear during the hearing in September.
“This type of demand has no precedent in the law,” she said in French at the September hearing.
“It’s really disappointing to see an institution that’s supposedly committed to sharing knowledge and educated debate about issues trying to keep people away from information that would help us have a conversation about what’s going on… I can’t say I’m surprised.”
The Commission’s decision is the latest in an ongoing case between McGill and several respondents who submitted ATIs to the University dating back to November 2011. In lieu of divulging the information requested in the ATIs – which pertained to categories such as University fossil fuel investments, alleged military research at the university, and administrative finances – McGill sought an exemption from the requests, calling them “abusive because of their systematic character.”
“It’s really disappointing to see an institution that’s supposedly committed to sharing knowledge and educated debate about issues trying to keep people away from information that would help us have a conversation about what’s going on,” said Luxion. “I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Stephen Strople, Secretary-General of the University, would not respond to questions beyond a single statement, due to the fact that McGill does not typically comment on matters before tribunals or courts.
“We are disappointed by today’s ruling and we are considering our options regarding an appeal. This ruling does not resolve the issues,” he wrote in an email to the press. “We are, however, encouraged by the fact that both sides remain interested in seeking a mediated settlement.”
Luxion expressed uncertainty regarding the outcome for the possibility of a successful mediation, stating that making such a prediction at this point in time would be difficult.
The sections of McGill’s motion that revolve around the outstanding ATI requests currently remain in litigation. If mediation does not work, then the case will go to trial.
The University has appealed the Commission’s decision. The Québec Court of Appeal is expected to decide on the motion at a hearing on December 4.
For more on access to information requests, see this week’s “How-To” from The Daily’s radio section, where Nicolas Quiazua gives an update on McGill’s ATI case and provides a step-by-step guide to filing your own ATI.