Canada’s information watchdog is slamming a recently phased-out internal practice at Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada that the commissioner says was “not valid” and out of line with access to information laws.
In a 26-page special report tabled to Parliament on Tuesday, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard said the department’s (IRCC) now-defunct policy was not permitted under the Access to Information Act.
Ms. Maynard, who has held the posting since 2018, fields complaints from organizations, individuals, businesses, the media, and even MPs who encounter barriers in their access to government records under the act. Complaints are typically related to delays or outright refusals from some departments and agencies to release the requested information.
Under the act, institutions have to respond to access requests within 30 calendar days, or request an extension. According to the report, 11,366 time extensions were requested by the department in 2019-2020, which has “historically” made up a large chunk of complaints the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) receives. That figure is an increase of more than 300 per cent since 2017-18, according to the report.
Throughout the course of its probe, the OIC learned the department “developed the practice of automatically” deciding an extension was needed based on whether a person was a frequent requester. Some 75 per cent of the requests made to the department were coming from the same five identified consultants, agents, or lawyers specializing in immigration—despite a provision that makes it clear “every reasonable effort” must be made to provide the requester with timely access to records without any such knowledge.
“It’s not that [these requesters] are doing multiple requests for their clients. They have multiple clients,” Ms. Maynard told The Hill Times in an interview Tuesday. According to the report, IRCC had, upon identifying the five people who submitted the most requests per year, “taken to automatically claiming 60 or 90‐day time extensions to all requests made by these individuals.”
But, the report notes, a section of the act lays out that the head of an institution should help ensure an accurate, complete, and timely response is granted to the requester “without regard to the identity of a person making the request.”
The policy was in place from 2019 and scrapped in March 2021, shortly after the OIC recommended the department do just that.
Ms. Maynard clarified that some staff—those dealing directly with the documents or helping with a government institution’s ATIP functions—are allowed to know the person’s identity, to establish what needs to be redacted and what can be shared in accordance with privacy rules.
But it should not be “disseminated … throughout the department. That’s not allowed,” she said. While it remains unclear if that happened, Ms. Maynard said the practice was used “as a reason to delay some of their responses, because they had so many requests.
“It’s against the act to do this. It’s not a valid reason to ask for an extension,” she added. “They cannot just put on hold your request because you have multiple requests in the system.”
The office, which examined a “dramatic increase” of requests to IRCC from April 1, 2017, to Feb. 26, 2020, announced it was undertaking a systemic investigation into the department last March. It sought to understand why there was such a high demand at the department for a client’s immigration information when there is already a MyAccount portal that exists for that purpose.
In 2019-20, the department received a total of 116,928 access requests, a figure 42 per cent greater than the prior year. For contrast, all government institutions combined received a fraction of that figure, equalling 39,294 access requests during the same year. While there has been a slight drop from 2017 to 2020 in access requests to other government institutions (from 42,021 to 39,294), requests to IRCC have continued to balloon in the same time frame (from 62,234 to 116,928). Out of these requests to the IRCC, 98 per cent were related to immigration case files, coming from foreign nationals or immigration lawyers hoping to get more details on their clients’ file.
The department’s MyAccount portal “provides little information on the status of the processing of an application,” and template letters are used to let applicants know if they have been accepted or rejected, according to the report.
The department is now looking to do “a comprehensive review of various refusal letters,” with a new temporary resident refusal letter that could kick into effect for 2021-22, which would offer more details like why somebody was refused. Still, the watchdog noted, the department does not plan to include excerpts of the notes from the immigration officer assigned to the file, which is a “frequent” request in complaints made to the OIC. The department is also working to revamp the portal with a full rollout expected for 2023-24, with an emphasis on sending out push notifications to clients and “enhancing generic content” on its webpage.
Ms. Maynard’s report also suggested limited capacity may be hindering the department in its ATIP activities, as it recommends securing “adequate, short-term human and financial resources” to help meet demand.
The report, which details Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) responses to the OIC’s recommendations, cited the MP as agreeing with the recommendation. But Mr. Mendicino did not commit to any number of workers or funding in the short- or long-term that the government would give the department, in his response to the watchdog. He said IRCC is working to secure more resources “in conjunction with the departmental action plan, while implementing permanent technological solutions” to fulfill its obligations under the act. (IRCC could not be reached in time for publication.)
Ms. Maynard noted the range of workers needed for institutions to manage its access to information workload varies. There are some 200-plus analysts helping the IRCC, while the Canada Revenue Agency also has a “big unit” of about 225 analysts, she said. The OIC, which itself is subject to the act, has about three full-time workers.
Ms. Maynard is well aware of the strain a limited workforce can have on a department’s output. Tuesday’s report comes 11 days after she testified to the House Ethics Committee about a recent $3-million funding boost her office received. That money will help the OIC hire 26 additional workers, 21 of whom are investigators and who will support an existing roster of about 60 employees tasked with helping address complaints. (The office has typically relied on temporary funding, but the permanent boost allowed it to begin its recruitment efforts last summer.)
News of that bump came as the office continues to deal with a backlog of requests of its own. According to its 2019-20 report, there were already 3,300 outstanding complaints in its inventory before that year began, when some 6,000 new complaints were registered. Last year, more than 4,000 complaints were filed, and about 4,600 were processed in the same timeframe, she told MPs this month, adding not all departments are “lucky” enough to get permanent funding to boost their ATIP resources.
The Hill Times