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My #cdnFOI story: What I did right — and wrong— that you can learn from it
Sep 28, 2019
3 minutes read

In March 2017 I was still a green journalism student who had very recently begun writing for the Algonquin Times student newspaper. I had questions about the college’s failed Saudi Arabia campus; my teacher encouraged me to file an FOI.

And so Algonquin College FIPPA #01-17 was born. We asked for communications and documents related to the college’s Jazan campus produced between 2012 to 2017.

The college said this was too much! Too much! It would interfere with the operations of the college! Buses would stop running, entire departments would have to work entirely on this!

But my teacher and I pressed on, even paying $930 out of the newspaper’s budget to get them. (we nearly paid more.)

The college took until October 2017 (just before the big college strike!) to provide an interim decision. In that letter, it estimated we would need to pay an additional $88,000 to fufill the request.

By this point we had learned a lot more about what goes into a proper request. With my teachers off the job, I initiated an appeal to the provincial information commissioner and revised the request substantially with the help of a mediator.

In the end, we got 200 docs and mostly what we were looking for. Between this and some other FOIs I have filed in the past, here are some things I’ve picked up that anyone may find useful:

  • FOIs are complicated and there are many things to get right, but the #1 thing you have to nail down is which agency you are making the request to. It absolutely needs to be directed to the correct one, because if you’ve spent time and money filing a request for the federal government with a provincial agency, you’re already off to a bad start. They will respond in 30 days by letting you know you’re an idiot and they’ll usually keep the $5. I have not made this error but it really is an easy one to make as the law can be quite confusing.
  • Exclude emails from your request, because they will bog you down in pages and pages of mostly useless stuff. Focus instead on memos, reports and briefing notes, which are the things with actual information. If you must have emails, be specific in who they should be from/to and narrow in on a date range no greater than a few weeks — and specify that they should be of business value and not “transitory”.
  • Narrow in a date range. The inexperienced requester (such as me a year ago) would cast a wide net over months or years. Rather, you will save time and money if you narrow in.
  • Better still, ask for specific documents. In this and many cases, this isn’t possible because we don’t know exactly what we need. This story is a good example of how you can get great results at low cost by knowing exactly what you are looking for: “Requesting a copy of an engineering report produced by a third party in late 2011, that was a review of the design and construction of the Carp River Bridge on Hazeldean.”
  • In many cases, reports and other items are stored digitally. Rather than have paper copies given to you, ask for the digital files to be provided in machine-readable form on a CD, DVD or memory stick. Some agencies will charge you for the cost of the mediums and some (usually the federal ones) may waive it.
  • In your request, ask for the agency to exclude documents that are already public in their search for records. Algonquin College wasted no small amount of time on my request searching for and then redacting already public documents. Knowing where to look for existing public documents will inform your request all the better.

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