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Addressing the inventory

The Access to Information Act gives Canadians the right to file complaints with the Information Commissioner about how institutions have handled their access to information requests.


In the early months of her mandate, the Commissioner made it her first priority to take action to reduce the inventory of complaints, which stood at nearly 3,500 files on April 1, 2018. 

The Commissioner sought to understand the make-up of the inventory and reviewed with staff and institutions what aspects of our investigative process could be improved. We then structured our investigations group to respond effectively to the various types of complaints in the inventory, considering their age, subject matter and complexity. We also streamlined the investigation process. 

We created smaller investigations teams—each with integrated members of our legal staff. Legal counsel are now involved with files from their earliest stages to identify any legal concerns or avenues for resolution. We are in the process of assigning portfolios of institutions to the teams to allow us to develop specialized expertise on the organizations and their programs. This approach will also limit the number of our staff with whom institutions interact at any one time.

We have begun to manage files more diligently from the day we receive complaints to the day we conclude investigations to ensure they advance more efficiently and meet a high standard for quality. A new team is now quickly validating complaints upon arrival, staying on top of the progress of files, ensuring better consistency in investigation-related correspondence and reports, and closing files promptly. 

With $2.9 million in temporary funding secured through Budget 2018, we hired and trained new investigators and re-hired experienced consultants to concentrate on reducing the inventory. We also created a development program to give mid-level investigators the training, mentoring and experience they need to move up to working on more complex files.

We have been innovating for efficiency. For example, over the years, we worked on improving the online complaint form, including developing the capability for complainants to upload electronic copies of documents when they submit their complaints online. When this is rolled out in 2019–20, it will not only remove much of the time and effort associated with the first steps of the complaint process but will also move us in the much-desired direction of paperless investigations. We are also improving the way we receive notices from institutions when they take certain time extensions under the Act. This will result in much less work for institutions.

outstanding results

By the end of the year, we had completed our investigations into 2,608 complaints—76 percent more than in 2017–18—and decreased the median turnaround time for all types of complaints. Of the investigations we concluded, two thirds resulted in complainants receiving more information from the institution or receiving a faster response to their request.

In addition, we improved the quality of investigations through improved processes, increased involvement of legal staff in files from the earliest stages and vigilant quality assurance checks as the investigation progressed.

Select a Government Institution:

Inventory as of April 1, 2019

  • Complaints
    as of April 1, 2018
  • New complaints
    15% from previous year
  • Complaints
    76% from previous year
  • Complaints
    as if March 31, 2019


  • Well founded
  • Not well founded
  • Settled or solved
  • Discontinued

Turnaround time for investigation completed

Despite these notable efforts, the incoming complaint volume (2,467) was such that we were only able to reduce the inventory of open complaints, including those received during the year, by four percent.

*Median turnaround time from date files were assigned to investigations.
2017-18 2018-19
Target* Turnaround time
(investigations completed within target)
(investigations completed within target)
Administrative complaints 90 days 39 days
(727 complaints; 69.6%)
22 days
(876 complaints; 66.7%)
Refusal complaints 270 days 200 days
(545 complaints; 59.1%)
190 days
(779 complaints; 60.2%)


2017-2018 2018-2019
Not well founded 183 9% 400 15%
Discontinued 554 28% 501 19%
Well founded 584 30% 724 28%
Resolved or settled 653 33% 983 38%

Using the Commissioner's
Powers to resolve complaints

The Access to Information Act gives the Commissioner strong investigative powers, including the following: 

  • obtaining and reviewing records required for an investigation
  • summoning witnesses to appear before the Commissioner and to produce documents 
  • compelling witnesses to give evidence under oath
  • entering institutions’ premises
  • issuing recommendations to institutions to take particular steps to resolve complaints
  • self-initiating complaints, including launching systemic investigations.

The Commissioner may also take the following actions in the context of her investigations:

  • She may disclose information to the Attorney General of Canada when she has evidence that an offence under the Act may have taken place (e.g. records were destroyed, falsified or concealed with the intent to deny access). The Attorney General then decides how to proceed. The Commissioner has no mandate to conduct criminal investigations and may not refer the case to a law enforcement agency directly. Commissioners have referred matters to the Attorney General seven times over the years. None has resulted in prosecution.
  • She may apply to the Federal Court for review of institutions’ refusal to disclose information.

Issuing recommendations

While we use mediation and negotiation to bring most investigations to a satisfactory conclusion, there are occasions when the Commissioner chooses to issue written recommendations to the head of an institution or their delegate to take specific steps to resolve a complaint. For example, she might recommend that an institution release information it had previously decided to withhold or propose a plan to respond to the original request earlier than it had said it would. 

She may also issue recommendations in order to improve practices across an institution or the government (e.g. enhancing records management systems to make finding records easier or encouraging employees to submit emails electronically to the access office rather than hard copies that access officials then have to scan). 

The Commissioner issued written recommendations at the conclusion of 29 investigations in 2018–19, including the following:


National Defence told a requester that it had searched for a requested report but could find no related records. In the same response, it also noted that the report in question was still being drafted.

We investigated the complaint about this response, while the Canadian Armed Forces’ National Investigation Service conducted a professional misconduct investigation into the processing of the original request.

We concluded that the response, which was based on recommendations from the Office of the Judge Advocate General, was inappropriate, since, as the response itself highlighted, a document did exist. In addition, the fact that the document was in draft form at the time of the request did not exclude it from the Act.

Our investigation and the Canadian Armed Forces’ internal inquiry led to several changes to the structure, staffing, training and oversight of the access to information function at National Defence.

While these steps signalled the institution’s intention to meet its obligations under the Act, the Commissioner recommended that National Defence undertake additional measures. These included carrying out an annual review of the access function, offering specific training and guidance on the duty to assist and the Act’s offence provisions, and raising access to information performance at senior management meetings.

The Commissioner also recommended that the performance agreements of certain key executives feature a requirement to comply with the Act, including to provide timely, accurate and complete responses when tasked for records. In the Commissioner’s view, this would encompass ensuring that program areas are responsive to enquiries from the access office and that, in turn, access officials are allowed to challenge decisions and recommendations made by program areas about how to respond to requests.

In her response to this recommendation, the Deputy Minister of Defence said that the institution would implement the Commissioner’s recommendations in full. In addition, the Deputy Minister indicated that she had consulted the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Judge Advocate General about how to improve compliance with the Act across the institution, even though not all senior officials report directly to her.

The Commissioner asked National Defence to report back in August 2019 on its progress implementing the recommendations. We will also monitor the situation through future investigations, especially those involving the Office of the Judge Advocate General. Should we find indications of non-compliance, the Commissioner would not hesitate to use her powers to ensure the institution meets its obligations under the Act.


We investigated eight complaints about the decision by the Privy Council Office (PCO) to refuse to disclose travel expenses for members of the Prime Minister’s staff who are not part of the regular public service (known as “exempt staff”). PCO claimed that the records constituted personal information.

During the investigation, we learned from PCO that, when any records that fall within the scope of a request related to exempt staff contain personal information, it treats all the records as personal information. 

The Commissioner was not satisfied with this approach for several reasons: 

  • Parts of some of the withheld records in one of the complaints contained no personal information.
  • PCO did not consider disclosing any information it could reasonably sever from the exempted information under section 25 of the Act, a mandatory requirement.
  • PCO had already released some information in response to each of the requests, which conflicted with its stated approach of treating the records as a single whole when the request concerns the personal information of exempt staff.
  • PCO’s approach failed to take into account the purposes of the Act, including that exceptions to the right of public access to information should be limited and specific.

The Commissioner was also not satisfied with PCO’s refusal to disclose the requested information. Some of the information in one of the complaints did not meet the definition of “personal information” in the Privacy Act (based on which institutions may withhold information). As for the information that did qualify as personal, much of it was publicly available and should have been disclosed. 

Moreover, PCO did not provide sufficient details to show that it had sought the consent of the individuals to whom the personal information belongs to disclose that information or had considered disclosing some or all of it in the public interest. 

The Commissioner determined that these eight complaints were well founded. She formally recommended that PCO disclose the information that she considered not to be personal information. She also recommended that PCO reconsider whether it could disclose any publicly available personal information. 

Despite having been granted an extension, the Commissioner did not receive a response to her recommendations. Consequently, we concluded all eight complaints were well founded, but not resolved, and closed them without the benefit of a response. As a result, the complainant did not receive the information the Commissioner recommended PCO release Footnote 1.


Subsection 30(3) of the Act gives the Commissioner the discretion to investigate any matter related to requesting or obtaining access to records. This includes initiating investigations into access-related concerns that may be the result of systemic issues at one or more institutions.

By integrating key information, observations and conclusions drawn from our own experience and that of our stakeholders, investigations of this type can result in greater compliance across institutions and reduce the number of complaints we receive.

In December 2018, the Commissioner began a systemic investigation into National Defence’s processing of access requests further to allegations that the institution had inappropriately withheld information.

The Commissioner also launched a systemic investigation into how the RCMP is meeting its obligation to provide timely access in light of information gathered during various investigations

The Commissioner will report on the results of both these investigations through reports to Parliament.

The commissioner and hre team


Under the Act, the Commissioner may appear in court in three circumstances:

  • as the applicant for a review of an institution’s refusal to disclose a record at the conclusion of an investigation, with the consent of the complainant
  • on behalf of a person who has already applied for a review of an institution’s refusal to disclose a record
  • as a party to any review a complainant or third party applies for, with the permission of the court.

The Commissioner bases her decision to go to court on a variety of factors, including the public interest in the matter and whether the case presents an opportunity to advance or clarify access law and practice.

The Commissioner was involved in 13 legal proceedings in 2018–19.


At the conclusion of two separate investigations in 2018–19, the RCMP refused to disclose the serial numbers on firearms. The institution stated that the numbers were personal information that had to be protected under section 19 of the Act, because they made it possible to identify the owners of the firearms.

During the investigations, the RCMP also argued that the serial numbers should be protected because they could be cross-referenced with law enforcement databases to identify the firearms’ owner. The Commissioner did not agree with this argument because the databases in question are not available to the public.

The Commissioner recommended that the RCMP disclose the serial numbers, having determined that a serial number is information about the firearm itself, not the person who owns it, and could not possibly identify the owner.

The RCMP did not accept this recommendation in either case, so the Commissioner applied to the Federal Court for review, with the consent of the complainants.

Both cases are currently before the Federal Court.


The Federal Court released its decision in this case in February 2019.

Bombardier Inc. sought to prevent Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada from disclosing information related to government funding it had received and was repaying. Bombardier—the only one of more than 10 firms that refused to consent to this information being released—argued that disclosing the information could damage its competitive position.

The Commissioner had recommended the disclosure in the wake of a complaint investigation, and participated in the court proceeding as an added party supporting disclosure.

In dismissing Bombardier’s application, the Federal Court clarified a number points about the application of the exemption in the Act dealing with third-party information. In particular, it provided the following guidance on demonstrating the harm that could result from disclosing information that otherwise could be protected:

  • When an argument for harm depends on calculations, evidence on how to do those calculations is necessary.
  • When harm to upcoming bids is alleged, evidence about those upcoming bids must be provided.
  • When harm from disclosure is alleged, real consequences must be demonstrated in light of publicly available information.
  • When the court is evaluating the risk of harm in disclosure, it will look at the harm in disclosing the information at the time of its decision—in this case, 2019—and consider that the commercial value of financial information diminishes over time.

As the government seeks, with proposed amendments to the Access to Information Act, to increase the amount of information being proactively disclosed, institutions should be mindful to disclose records Canadians have shown they are interested in through their access requests.


In its decision in Rubin v. Canada (Clerk of the Privy Council), [1996] 1 SCR 6, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the Access to Information Act contains protections for information that institutions provide to the Office of the Information Commissioner during investigations (called “representations” in the Act).

The Supreme Court found that, while section 35 is not considered an exemption under the Act, institutions may rely on it when declining to disclose representations.

This year, we investigated a complaint that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) had withheld in their entirety the records related to the processing of two access requests and had relied on section 35 to do so.

Our investigation led to the institution releasing more information, but we were satisfied that CRA had properly invoked section 35 to protect the rest—which comprised representations access officials had provided to us during a complaint investigation—under the terms the Supreme Court had established.

a stack of papers in folders


In Canada (Information Commissioner) v. Canada (Transport), [2016] 4 FCR 281, 2016 FC 448 (CanLII), Transport Canada had decided to withhold information relying on subsection 15(1). This exemption gives institutions the discretion to protect information that could, if released, harm international affairs, the defence of Canada or efforts to counter possible subversive or hostile activities.

The Federal Court, while agreeing that section 15 did apply to the information in question, found that the institution had not reasonably exercised its discretion to withhold it. The Court returned the matter to Transport Canada and ordered the institution to exercise its discretion again taking into consideration specific factors. Transport Canada did exercise its discretion a second time and decided once more to withhold the information.

We received a complaint about Transport Canada’s second decision, in which the institution relied on its original decision to withhold the information and failed to show that it had considered the factors set out by the Federal Court. Over the course of the investigation, we obtained convincing evidence that Transport Canada had, in fact, exercised its discretion reasonably at the time of its second decision. Nevertheless, we closed the complaint as well founded, given that the new decision was written in such a way that it was impossible for the requester to have understood that Transport Canada had exercised its discretion properly. The Commissioner also concluded that, in providing such a response, the institution had contravened its obligation to make every reasonable effort to assist the requester.

The Access to Information Act contains “discretionary exemptions.” These allow institutions to disclose information when the factors in favour of doing so outweigh those in favour of withholding it, even when it could otherwise be protected using an exemption.

Institutions must exercise their discretion reasonably—that is, someone with delegated authority under the Act must have carefully considered all the relevant factors. Among these are the following:

  • the general purpose of the Act;
  • the facts and circumstances of the case; and
  • the nature of the records and whether they are particularly sensitive or significant.

More information:
Interpretation: Exercise of discretion


The Access to Information Act sets out the response time for requests of 30 days, but acknowledges that processing some requests that quickly may be impossible. Institutions may extend the deadline for their response for a reasonable time in these situations.

Multiple overlapping requests for information about the federal public service pension plan led to Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) staff having to locate, retrieve and review more than 500,000 pages. To do so within 30 days would not only have been unreasonable but also implausible. As a result, TBS claimed a total of 2,400 days in time extensions.

In investigating the requester’s complaint that these extensions were not reasonable, we examined the circumstances of the requests and the measures TBS had put in place to respond.

For example, we learned that not all of the records were electronic and that they were stored in multiple locations. In addition, TBS had to consult six other institutions about the records. Meanwhile, only a few in-house staff had the expertise to identify records that fell within the scope of the request and to review them to provide recommendations about disclosure.

TBS allocated as many resources within its pensions unit as it could to these requests without unduly disrupting operations. By the time we concluded our investigation, 10 program officials had spent more than 1,600 hours, on a rotating basis, searching for and retrieving records. In addition, executives (including an assistant deputy minister) have been heavily involved in reviewing the records and making recommendations for disclosure.

For its part, the access office developed a plan to respond to the requests, dedicated a significant amount of resources to processing the records, and has been regularly issuing interim responses as information becomes ready for release. TBS has assured us that these releases will continue until the request is completely processed.

In the end, we were satisfied that TBS had provided us with sufficient information to justify the length of the extensions, taken all necessary steps to ensure it would be able to respond to the request by the extended deadline and demonstrated its commitment to processing these large requests despite the challenge they represent. In light of these circumstances, the Commissioner found the unusually long extensions to be reasonable.


Inventory Investigations completed in 2018-19 Outcome
Institution Complaints registered before April 1, 2018 Complaints registered April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019 Total Complaints registered before April 1, 2018 Complaints registered April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019 Total Well-founded Not well-founded Settled, or re-solved Discontinued
Royal Canadian Mounted Police 407 369 776 232 138 361 72 30 189 70
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada 128 557 685 90 477 567 35 34 446 52
Canada Revenue Agency 485 183 668 131 55 186 78 40 38 30
National Defence 164 144 308 90 63 153 56 13 58 26
Canada Border Services Agency 142 256 298 96 69 165 54 16 65 30
Privy Council Office 188 82 270 60 21 81 36 11 16 18
Global Affairs Canada 192 59 251 47 16 63 17 6 13 27
Health Canada 74 123 197 36 30 66 22 14 15 15
Library and Archives Canada 39 142 181 15 23 38 19 2 11 6
Department of Justice Canada 123 41 164 41 11 52 16 17 8 11
Parks Canada 133 21 154 16 4 20 12 5 3 0
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation 146 4 150 83 1 84 10 29 3 42
Public Services and Procurement Canada 69 59 128 44 23 67 18 14 27 8
Correctional Service Canada 58 56 128 44 28 60 33 11 14 2
Transport Canada 82 30 112 47 7 54 27 5 5 17
Canadian Security Intelligence Service 86 25 111 54 8 62 14 30 6 12
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada 85 23 108 39 7 46 15 9 5 17
Department of Finance Canada 61 41 102 25 6 31 12 5 8 6
Canada Post Corporation 92 7 99 18 2 20 9 8 0 7
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada 46 38 84 23 10 33 10 7 9 7
Natural Resources Canada 73 10 83 31 3 34 11 12 1 10
Employment and Social Development Canada 43 38 81 30 11 41 21 6 4 10
National Energy Board 67 5 72 29 2 31 5 9 1 16
Public Safety Canada 28 27 55 6 6 12 2 4 2 4
Sub-total 3,011 2,240 5,251 1,306 1,021 2,327 604 337 947 439
Others institutions (71) 478 227 705 212 69 218 124 63 36 62
Total 3,489 2,467 5,958 1,518 1,090 2,608 724 400 983 501

Date modified: 2019-06-21