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The Information Commissioner is an ombudsman appointed by Parliament to investigate complaints that the government has denied rights under the Access to Information Act–Canada’s freedom of information legislation.

The Act came into force in 1983 and gave Canadians the broad legal right to information recorded in any form and controlled by most federal government institutions.

The Act provides government institutions with 30 days to respond to access requests. Extended time may be claimed if there are many records to examine, other government agencies to be consulted, or third parties to be notified. The requester must be notified of these extensions within the initial timeframe.

Of course, access rights are not absolute. They are subject to specific and limited exemptions, balancing freedom of information against individual privacy, commercial confidentiality, national security, and the frank communications needed for effective policy-making.

Such exemptions permit government agencies to withhold material, often prompting disputes between applicants and departments. Dissatisfied applicants may turn to the Information Commissioner who investigates applicants’ complaints that:

  • they have been denied requested information;
  • they have been asked to pay too much for requested information;
  • the department’s extension of more than 30 days to provide information is unreasonable;
  • the material was not in the official language of choice or the time for translation was unreasonable;
  • they have a problem with the Info Source guide or periodic bulletins which are issued to help the public use the Act;
  • they have run into any other problem using the Act.

The Commissioner has strong investigative powers. These are real incentives to government institutions to adhere to the Act and respect applicants’ rights.

Since he is an ombudsman, the Commissioner may not order a complaint resolved in a particular way. Thus, he relies on persuasion to solve disputes, asking for a Federal Court review only if he believes an individual has been improperly denied access and a negotiated solution has proved impossible.

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