Freedom of Information

In a democratic society, information is crucial to the proper functioning of government.  There can be no true accountability of the government to the people without adequate information about what our government is doing, how its decisions are reached, and the actions that it takes in our name.  Freedom of information is also important to facilitate other fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of thought, opinion, belief and expression.  While we may entrust the making of important decisions to the judgment of our elected representatives, we need information to properly understand how those judgments are reached.

CCLA believes freedom of information is a fundamental right and that it is also an essential part of the exercise of many other core rights and freedoms.  While Canada has laws in place to facilitate access to information at both the federal and provincial/territorial levels, these laws are often subject to significant exceptions and the process for obtaining information that the government has refused to provide can be costly, time-consuming and frustrating.

CCLA is concerned about the delays and costs associated with our access to information system and believes that the presumption of openness and transparency that was the basis for enacting these laws is being seriously undermined.  We also believe that Canada is falling behind internationally as open government movements have popped up in many countries with governments increasingly being more proactive about disclosing information to the public.

Recent Work

Censorship Tracker Launched: A New Tool to Monitor Threats to Free Expression in Canada

By on November 20, 2014

CCLA, in partnership with PEN Canada, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) has launched Censorship Tracker, an online crowd-sourced mapping tool to monitor threats to freedom of expression in Canada.  The map will allow Canadians to track instances of censorship across Canada, and see how censorship changes over time.  The project is lead by PEN Canada, and CCLA is pleased to join in this important effort to monitor the state of free expression in Canada, in order to continue our ongoing work to ensure its protection and promotion.

Censorship Tracker relies on submissions from the public in order to capture the full spectrum of actions that limit free expression across Canada.  The tool defines “censorship” in general (and not necessarily negative) terms.  In particular, it includes as “censorship” any incident in which the right to free expression, guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is limited.  To learn more about the tool or to submit a report on censorship, visit


CCLA Challenges Federal Privacy Legislation

By on May 21, 2014

Click here to read the Toronto Star‘s front page coverage of CCLA’s challenge.

CCLA is bringing an Application in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice to challenge parts of Canada’s federal private-sector privacy legislation, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).  This is the law that regulates how personal information is collected, used and disclosed by private commercial organizations.  It is part of the scheme that has allowed government institutions to access personal information from telecommunications companies and internet service providers on a massive scale, and CCLA believes the law is overly broad and violates fundamental rights.

Why is CCLA bringing a lawsuit to challenge PIPEDA?

CCLA believes that our current privacy legislation, PIPEDA,  has not kept pace with modern technology, because it enables too much information sharing by the private sector to government, and that it may have significant and adverse impacts on people’s lives.  Information gathered by the government may be used for the purposes of investigating and laying criminal charges and may also be shared with foreign governments.  Once this information is shared with governments outside of Canada, we effectively lose control over how and why it is used.  Furthermore, the current provisions may allow government to do an end run around warrant requirements.

CCLA’s lawsuit aims to strike down some provisions of the privacy legislation so that the law can be changed in a manner that is more protective of individual rights and freedoms.

When can my telecommunications or internet service provider hand my personal information over to government?

The general rule is that your information cannot be disclosed to others without you knowing about it and giving your consent.  However, there are some big exceptions to this rule. Provisions of PIPEDA allow information to be disclosed to a government institution (including law enforcement agencies) for purposes of national security and the enforcement of any law of Canada, any province or a foreign jurisdiction.  Law enforcement agencies are relying heavily on private corporations like telecom companies and internet service providers to gather information about Canadians and are frequently doing so without judicial oversight and with little transparency or accountability.  In light of recent revelations that government institutions requested personal information from telecommunications providers over 1 million times in a one year period, CCLA is standing up for the privacy rights of Canadians and challenging these laws.

Does the government need a warrant to get this information?

A warrant or court order is usually necessary before law enforcement agencies can obtain access to personal information in the hands of an organization.  However, law enforcement and telecommunications providers have taken the position that basic subscriber information (customer name and address) is not private and that a warrant is therefore unnecessary.

While the information usually found in a phonebook is likely not considered confidential or sensitive, associating a name and address with an individual Internet protocol (IP) address, may reveal many intimate details about an individual’s online activities and about them personally.  It remains unclear precisely what information is being handed over by telecommunications and internet service providers to government institutions, absent a warrant, but CCLA is concerned about the massive scale of the information exchange and has decided to take action.

Supreme Court of Canada Strikes a Blow to Government Openness

By on May 14, 2014

The Supreme Court of Canada recently released its decision in John Doe v. Ontario (Minister of Finance), a case that interpreted an exception to Ontario’s provincial access to information regime for “advice or recommendations” of a public servant.  The case arose when John Doe, an anonymous requester, asked for information about amendments to Ontario’s Corporate Tax Act and, in particular, the decision to have the amendments apply retroactively. A number of the records requested were refused on the basis that they would reveal “advice or recommendations of a public servant”.  Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the head of a government institution may refuse to disclose records that fall into this category.  Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner ordered that the records should be disclosed and the matter was appealed through the courts.

CCLA intervened in the case to argue that the “advice or recommendations” exception should be interpreted narrowly and records should not be shielded from disclosure unless they are framed as direct advice or recommendations and indicate a course of action.  Shielding a broader range of records from disclosure hinders the rights of Canadians to have informed public debate and discussion about government policy choices.  CCLA also argued that the interpretation of the legislation should respect the values enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the global trend towards greater openness and transparency in government.

The Supreme Court of Canada decision interprets the exception much more broadly and argues that this interpretation is necessary to allow public servants to provide full, free and frank advice.   CCLA believes that a narrower interpretation could protect this laudable goal while still providing Canadians with greater access to government decision-making processes.

Read the CCLA’s factum here.

Read the Supreme Court’s decision here. 

CCLA Asks McGill University to Improve Openness and Transparency

By on December 5, 2013

CCLA has written to the Secretary-General of McGill University regarding court proceedings that the University has initiated in light of a number of access to information requests made by McGill students.  The University first applied to the Quebec Commission d’acces a l’information (access to information commission) asking for permission to disregard a number of existing requests for information along with future requests that meet certain criteria.  The Commission denied this request and McGill is asking the Court of Quebec to hear an appeal from that decision.

CCLA is committed to the principles of openness and transparency in public institutions and wrote to McGill to lay out these principles and how they apply to the case McGill has started.  CCLA encouraged the University to take a more proactive approach to disclosure of information, arguing that this would provide students with information they are seeking and pose less of a burden on administration in responding to multiple requests.  We also proposed that the University organize discussions or forums where information about ongoing research work or corporate partnerships could be shared with students and feedback could be solicited.

Click here to read a copy of CCLA’s letter.  

In case you missed it: CCLA presents “Seeking Access to Information”

By on August 23, 2013

Yesterday CCLA hosted “Seeking Access to Information,” the latest installment of our Conversations for Civil Liberties discussion series. Thank you to everyone who came out to CCLA’s new office for the event. It was a great success.

Paul Knox, long-time journalist and Ryerson School of Journalism instructor, gave a very engaging talk on the public’s access to government information both here in Canada and around the world. The boundaries between public and private are being redrawn in ways that threaten civil liberties, Knox explained. Though Canada was a relatively early adopter of access to information requests, the willingness of federal offices to be open and transparent has decreased noticeably of late. Knox pointed to a recent statement by Access Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who said that the RCMP had “completely stopped responding ” to information requests. This blockade of information must be stopped. “We live in a strong democracy,” said Knox. “We need to know what our governments our doing.”

Knox  went on to explain that without the right to information (also known as the Right to Know), the right to free expression is a hollow promise. In order to be able to form and disseminate opinions, people must first be able to learn about, and understand, the world around them, for which they need access to information.

If you missed “Seeking Access to Information” but are interested in learning more on the topic, we’ve got you covered. You can check out the live blog we used to cover Knox’s remarks. And we will a video of Knox’s entire lecture available in the coming days. Check back with this blog, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for updates on future CCLA events, news, and projects.

LIVE BLOG: Seeking Access to Information – Part 1

By on August 22, 2013

Can’t make it to our event “Seeking Access to Information”? We’ll be live blogging the event today – check it out below!

The federal Access to Information Act celebrated its 30th anniversary this summer amidst calls from Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault to overhaul the Act.  According to Legault, “our access to information rights have been slowly eroded by a variety of constraints, practices and amendments to the act.”  Moreover, “…the act does not cover all institutions that spend taxpayers’ money or perform public functions. One such institution is Parliament itself — the seat of our democracy.”

Join us on Thursday, August 22nd at 12:30 pm for a discussion with journalist Paul Knox on the current state of access to information legislation in Canada. Knox has worked as a reporter, editor and broadcaster for over 30 years. He teaches at Ryerson’s School of Journalism and is a member of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)’s Canadian Issues committee.

As a follow up to this discussion, join us on Saturday, September 28th from 1pm-4pm for a hands-on workshop intended to teach individuals how to navigate Canada’s Access to Information System. More details coming soon!


Tell us – and our conference attendees – about your practical, innovative privacy and expression projects!

By on July 31, 2013

Do you care about privacy, freedom of expression, and technology? Have research or an innovative project you’d like to showcase? Apply to share your initiatives or volunteer at the RightsWatch Conference this September!

Each year the Canadian Civil Liberties Association hosts the RightsWatch Conference – this year we’re partnering with Ryerson University to host a discussion on Civil Liberties and Democracy in the Digital Age: Privacy, Media and Free Expression. The conference will take place on September 20-21 in Toronto (find out more and register here).

As part of the conference we would like to include a showcase of hands-on tools and projects to protect user privacy and enable freedom of expression. These can be cool new technologies, grassroots education initiatives, concrete campaigns for reform – or anything else you or your organization does that relates to the conference theme.

Our hope is that conference attendees will be able to learn about a variety of practical ways to safeguard and manage their own digital privacy, exercise freedom of speech, and hold governments and other organizations to account in these areas.

We’re also looking for volunteers capable of providing technical information on digital security to RightsWatch participants in the form of accessible, hands-on support. These volunteers will work as a team to share information on tools and tactics (like GPG, 2-step verification, full disk encryption, strong passwords, encrypted chat systems, managing social media privacy settings) with conference attendees.

If you or your organization is interested in taking part, please contact us with a paragraph explaining your project or experience and how you hope to contribute to RightsWatch.  You can email Abby at Space is limited, so get in touch as soon as possible.

Fredericton Police Chief Responds to CCLA Request for Information

By on April 4, 2012

CCLA recently received a response from the Fredericton Chief of Police to its Request for Information under New Brunswick’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Following the arrest earlier this year of a Fredericton blogger in connection to comments he had made on his blog about a city police officer, CCLA wrote to Police Chief Barry MacKnight to express its concerns regarding the use of Criminal Code defamation provisions, and to ask for information about the use of these provisions in the jurisdiction. CCLA sought information on the number of criminal libel investigations the Fredericton Police Force had undertaken, as well as the number of charges and the disposition of those charges.

Chief MacKnight has reported that since 1988, there have been 12 complaints to the Fredericton Police Force under the Criminal Code criminal libel provisions; 4 occured between 1988 and 2006, and 8 occured between 2007 and 2012. Of the 12 complaints, 10 were concluded without charges, and 2 cases remain under investigation.

Read Chief MacKnight’s letter here.

Read more about CCLA’s response to this case here.

CCLA keeps watch as Fredericton Police Chief attends to information request

By on March 21, 2012

The Fredericton Police Chief recently sent word to the CCLA that he intends to fulfill its Request for Information with respect to criminal defamation investigations in the jurisdiction.

On February 29th, 2012, following the arrest of blogger Charles LeBlanc under criminal defamation provisions, CCLA sent the Police Chief a formal Request for Information under New Brunswick’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. CCLA asked for information on the number of criminal defamation investigations the Fredericton Police Force has undertaken in the last five years, as well as the number of criminal defamation charges it has laid and the disposition of those charges. The Police Chief’s office confirmed receipt of the faxed request on March 1, 2012. On March 7, 2012, CCLA received notice from the Police Chief that data is currently being gathered in view of responding to the formal request.

CCLA expects to receive a response within the required 30 days.
Read more on this case here.

CCLA continues to demand answers in Fredericton criminal libel case

By on March 7, 2012

In January, 2012, Fredericton blogger Charles LeBlanc was arrested in connection to comments he had posted on his blog about a city police officer. CCLA sent a letter on February 1st seeking information from Fredericton Police Chief Barry MacKnight on the details of the arrest, as well as expressing its concerns regarding the use of Criminal Code defamation provisions (one of which has been found unconstitutional in multiple Canadian jurisdictions), and the potential chilling effect it might have on free expression. On February 29th, having not yet received Chief MacKnight’s reply, CCLA followed-up with a letter and a formal Request for Information under the New Brunswick Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in order to obtain information on the number of criminal libel investigations the Fredericton Police Force has undertaken, as well as the number of charges and the disposition of those charges.

In his February 21st reply to CCLA’s first letter, Chief MacKnight has refused to answer the questions CCLA posed regarding the arrest of Mr. LeBlanc and criminal libel investigations more generally, citing their relation to an ongoing criminal investigation as preventing him from responding. CCLA will pursue its Access to Information demand and continue to demand that charges of criminal libel not be laid.

Read Police Chief MacKnight’s response to CCLA’s first letter here.

Read a copy of our first letter to Chief MacKnight here.

Read a copy of CCLA’s follow-up letter here.