Anti-oppressive research is a powerful tool for decoding, recognizing, and mitigating the oppressive structures of society. When used to inform research investigations, anti-oppressive practices can help to uncover and challenge otherwise unknown data or documentation that can inform subsequent activism. The Daily has created this guide to writing access to information (ATI) requests in the hopes of making this important tool for anti-oppressive research accessible to everyone who wishes to use it.
When it comes to anti-oppressive research, sifting through “open source” data, which is available for anyone to access and share, is a good place to start. Every province in Canada possesses an institution that compiles the documents – such as annual reports and financial statements – of public bodies that are required to deposit information. In Quebec, this is the Assemblée Nationale du Québec. You can use the search tool on their website to peruse and download public documents, such as the financial statements from McGill that show the salaries of senior administration officials. StatCan has data available pertaining to the census, population, and other aspects of Canadian life, such as the consumer price index. Données Québec offers provincial data, and Données Montréal offers municipal data. Finally, it can’t hurt to directly contact an individual for the documents you need – sometimes people will give you information if you just ask nicely.
If you can’t find the information you’re looking for in the open source data, it’s time for an ATI request! In Quebec, under the Act Respecting Access to Documents Held by Public Bodies and the Protection of Personal Information, section 9 contends that “every person has a right of access, on request, to the documents held by a public body.” More broadly speaking, the act allows you to issue access requests for documents withheld from public access and kept by public bodies. You may request documents with administrative or personal information that contain information about yourself. The act additionally grants the right to correct inaccurate personal information.
Where you can request ATIs
A public body is typically a body that is granted existence and authority from a statute enacted by a legislature, and whose functions affect the community of the persons to which its authority extends. More specifically, the designation of public bodies is applied to federal, provincial, and local governments and agencies. Organizations that receive government funding – such as public school boards, universities, and law enforcement – also fall under this definition. When filing your access request, it’s important to consider which public body will hold the document you are looking for – for example, is it a university? The Ministry of Education? Or the Ministry of Labor?
If you’re interested, you can also submit an ATI request on the federal level under the Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act. However, you must be a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident of Canada, or an individual or organization currently present in Canada.
Some public bodies regrettably have fees for filing ATI requests, which usually must be paid online with a credit card. You can consult the table below to find fees of bodies that may be relevant to you.
Determining the documents you need
It can be helpful to look at previously-submitted ATIs to get an idea of what sorts of things you can request and what documents you may need. The aforementioned Données Montréal includes a list of ATI requests filed within the past few years organized by category, subject, and borough. Categories include finances and financial evaluation, environment, infrastructure and public works, and permits and regulations, among others. Montreal residents have requested everything from street-cleaning schedules to the number of certified daycares in the city to information pertaining to climate change. Additionally, the federal government makes completed ATIs available online, the CBC updates a list of completed ATIs each month, and MuckRock is a website that tracks public records requests in the US. In general, meeting minutes, internal correspondence, and financial documents (e.g., audits or purchase receipts) are helpful to ask for.
In any case, you should do your homework to deduce what has already been requested and what has been made accessible.
Writing your request
Once you’ve figured out what you’re looking for, it’s time to actually write your request! While the Quebec government has ATI templates available in both English and French, ATIs are more of an art than a science – it may take some trial and error to get your wording exactly right. Still, there are a few general principles to keep in mind: 1) make sure you mention the Act in your opening statement; 2) make your request as narrow as possible; and 3) do your best to indicate where the documents can be found (i.e., who the ATI commissioner should contact to get what you need).
When writing, make sure to make your request as clear as possible to not only ensure you will be satisfied but that your request can be processed in a timely manner. In the request, include the specific administrative documents you are looking for, whether it be meeting minutes, digital (email) and physical correspondence, expenses and financial reports, contracts, opinions, briefs, internal memos, etc. If you’re looking to obtain a large yield of documents, you can write “including but not limited to […]” before listing the desired document types. When requesting documents, you can also request key words as well – just be sure to be specific. As an example, if you are looking into McGill’s proposed Sustainability Sciences and Public Policy Centre at the contested Royal Victoria Site, requesting correspondence and documents with the word “sustainability” would probably get you thousands of documents. However, if you narrow down your search to include “sustainability centre” or “New Vic Project,” you are likely to get a much more pointed and useful response. You can also request datasets, especially machine-readable data such as spreadsheets. For example, if you are interested in investigating a particular office, you may request to see a list of employed staff, hired staff, and/or staff leave. You can also request data to be organized in accordance to your liking, for example: per time period (i.e., per year, per month, per academic term, etc.) and/or by type (i.e., of staff, of department, etc.).
To help make your request as specific as possible, you should additionally specify the time period within which the documents you are looking for should be. For example, if you were investigating the hiring of McGill’s new principal, you would want to request documents and/or data between March 2022 (when the advisory committee to elect the new principal was formed) and November 2022 (when H. Deep Saini was appointed as the University’s new principal).
Sometimes, your request can be summed up in merely one or two sentences. This would look like something to the effect of: “Under section nine of the Act, I hereby request a copy of x documents.” However, for more lengthy requests, we recommend presenting the documents you need in a bullet-pointed list, organized by category. The examples we’ve included here are organized based on the series within McGill’s University Classification Plan, but you can come up with categories of your own. For example, part of a request to the City of Montreal may fall under “Urbanisme et habitation,” while another may be more suited to “Permis et règlementation.” Categories are also helpful because you may then ask for an “interim release,” a method whereby a public body releases documents intermittently. This can be helpful since you may receive documents from one category sooner than another, rather than waiting to get them all at once. This is only common practice within federal bodies as of yet, and even then it’s not obligatory. Still, it can’t hurt to ask.
Again, ATIs are not an exact science – the bottom line is, you should make your request as specific and easy to follow as possible.
What to do if you get stuck
In theory, ATIs should be fulfilled within twenty days of filing them, or 30 days if the commissioner invokes a 10-day extension; in practice, this is seldom the case. We’ll discuss how to file an appeal with the Commission below, but there are a few things you can do to try and speed up the process before taking this step.
Perhaps the easiest thing you can do is consistently follow up with the ATI commissioner working on your request. There are plenty of reasons a request may be delayed that are outside of their control: people may be dodging their emails and phone calls, or the relevant public body may be extremely reluctant to release the documents you’re seeking (especially if you’re a journalist). In that case, you can try to offer solutions to their problem: figure out if another entity also holds the documents you need, or if there’s a way you can narrow down your request so it doesn’t yield an impractical volume of documents. In general, ATI commissioners want to help you, so it’s wise to negotiate a compromise with them when you can. If you have reason to believe your commissioner is being intentionally inefficient or just plain lazy, you can always CC their boss in later follow-up emails.
If possible, it can be helpful to file the same request with multiple public bodies. For example, if you’re looking for internal correspondence between the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Agri-Food Canada, file a request with both of these entities. Different bodies have different standards for what information they redact and what sorts of documents they consider exempt from ATI mechanisms, so you should cast a wide net to maximize your chance of success.
If the commissioner has not returned your request within 30 days of your submission, or if they have rejected your request without legal grounds in your opinion, it’s time to file an appeal! You can appeal to the Commission d’Accès à l’Information du Québec within 30 days of the deadline, or within 30 days of refusal. You can address your appeal to firstname.lastname@example.org, with your reason for appealing, relevant correspondence between yourself and the commissioner processing your request, and your original request. The appeal will go to mediation and a meeting with a judge.
Putting the process in action
Request for documents pertaining to wastewater testing – by Saylor Catlin
This request was fairly straightforward to file. I was suspicious that McGill had not published certain information about the wastewater testing project on their website, so I knew that I was looking for three things: 1) the methodology and implementation of wastewater testing, 2) raw data collected at each site over the course of the project, and 3) what amount of positive results for COVID-19 defined the thresholds for each of the alert levels on the website. I thus structured my request with this in mind. Because I knew the project was initiated as of October 2021, I asked for any documents, correspondence, and data from that point up until the moment I had filed the request (January 2022). I also knew that I was requesting documentation from McGill, but more specifically from the Emergency Operations Centre (which was in charge of COVID-19 policies at the time) and the head researchers who led the project. Naming these entities in my request helped specify what I was looking for, and, I can only imagine, expedited my request.
Luckily, the office was able to fulfill my request within the 20-day limit! However, what was returned to me was a 25-MB zip drive full of months of email correspondence, testing procedures full of scientific jargon, and pages and pages full of wastewater data. So, needless to say, even though my request was fulfilled in a timely manner, the yield from it was so large that it took weeks for me to read through everything, analyze it, and translate it into an article. Regardless, I think this is fairly common, and for the most part all of the documents really helped me to get a full sense of what was going on. The bottom line: remember that even once you have waited 20 to 30 days for your request to be filled, the work isn’t over yet!
Request for documents pertaining to NHP use at McGill – by Abigail Popple
This ATI is a good example of a broad request that had to be narrowed down later but was ultimately successful. As Le Délit’s Rafael Miró and Philippe Bédard-Gagnon pointed out in March 2021, animal research at McGill is shrouded in secrecy, and while I did plenty of homework to figure out what information I needed, it was still a shot in the dark. Nevertheless, I got what I was looking for, and here’s how:
I began by taking a look at the information already available to me. Thanks to a previous ATI request, I knew that McGill subjects the vast majority of its non-human primates (NHPs) to Category D procedures. The second-most invasive category of procedures, Category D includes things like major surgery and subjecting animals to severe emotional distress. By reading through the university’s Standard Operating Procedures for NHPs, I also knew that cranial surgery, water deprivation, and genetic engineering are practiced in McGill’s NHP program. Finally, some more sniffing around on McGill’s website taught me that animal deaths are reported to the Animal Policy and Welfare Oversight Committee as well as the Canadian Council on Animal Care.
Armed with this knowledge, I then began formulating questions that filled in the gaps that remained: How many NHPs had died in recent years? What exactly were the Category D procedures being conducted? How frequently was McGill importing primates to use in its labs? Consulting the University Classification Plan told me I could probably obtain the meeting minutes, research files, and import permits relevant to these questions. I first attempted to acquire meeting minutes by contacting the animal care committee responsible for NHPs. When that failed, I set about writing my request. (I also suspect that my contacting the committee prompted the university to publish its FAQ on NHP use about a month later – it definitely caused alarm in the Media Relations Office!)
Unfortunately, not all of my requests could be fulfilled. An ATI commissioner emailed to let me know that my request for documents pertaining to genetic engineering and Category D procedures would have yielded an unreasonably large number of documents, allegedly totalling over 8,000 pages. The commissioner offered to meet with me to narrow down the scope of my request, but I decided to withdraw those parts of the request entirely so she could focus on obtaining meeting minutes and reporting forms instead. The remaining parts of my request were fulfilled in a timely manner and revealed some chronic issues within McGill’s NHP program, so it was a win in my book! The moral of the story is that you should work with ATI commissioners when you can, and do thorough research to ascertain which kinds of documents will be the most useful to you before filing a request.
Suggestions for anti-o ATIs
Knowledge is power. It’s incredibly cliche, but it’s true. ATIs are one of our most accessible means of holding power to account, so even though Canada’s ATI system is archaic and inefficient, it’s important that activists and community members know how to navigate it. Here are some general suggestions on anti-oppressive ATIs to file:
- Check on the SPVM: Valérie Plante has given so much money to the municipal police force during her time in office. You could ask for a breakdown of the police budget over the past several years, or ask to see receipts from any weapons purchases that have been made in that time. You may be interested in seeing the internal correspondence that’s sent within the SPVM prior to public demonstrations or in trying to figure out the exact number of police deployed at various events. If you’re part of an activist organization or suspect you’ve earned a reputation as “Someone Who Incites Dissent™,” it may be worth asking for internal correspondence mentioning the names of you or your organization to see what the police think of you. You can also get your own police records via ATI request; The Globe and Mail has produced a video with journalist Robyn Doolittle on how to do just that.
- Has your landlord abruptly started elaborate renovations or other construction work? Check and see if they’ve acquired the appropriate permits to carry out construction.
- ATIs can be a useful tool for prison abolitionists. Since it’s so hard to get information on prison conditions, consider filing an ATI to find out more about prison health care, medical isolation, or any other abuses of power that have occurred.
- The RCMP and branches of the military are also subject to ATI requests through the federal government. Again, requesting financial documents may yield some insight as to how these bodies wield their massive budgets.
- Here at McGill, you can file an ATI at no cost for personal documents, such as correspondence mentioning your name or medical documents which the university may have withheld from you. There are plenty of other opportunities for ATI requests: what goes on in EDI committee meetings? What precipitated the sudden “restructuring” of OSVRSE? How much money was spent on the university’s bicentennial celebrations compared with EDI initiatives?
If you have any questions about writing your own ATI request, or are interested in publishing the findings of your own institutional investigation in the Daily, you can reach out to email@example.com. We are always excited and eager to assist and platform anti-oppressive research from the community!