Frequently asked questions
When can I make a complaint?
If you submitted a request for information to a federal government institution under the Access to Information Act and you are not satisfied with how the institution processed it, you may complain to us.
You must file a complaint within 60 days after one of the following:
- the institution refused to grant you access to the requested records;
- you received some or all of the records you requested; or
- you become aware of other grounds for a complaint.
Types of complaints
How do I make a complaint?
To ensure the most efficient processing of your complaint, we strongly encourage you to file it electronically, using our online complaint process (click “Submit a complaint,” below). Alternatively, you may download and complete the complaint form and submit it by fax to 819-994-1768 or by email to Greffe-Registry@oic-ci.gc.ca.
Individuals seeking accommodations for a disability or for needs related to one of the grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act should contact our Registry (1-800-267-0441 or Greffe-Registry@oic-ci.gc.ca).
When will the investigation be complete?
Some complaints can be easily resolved, while others may require an extensive investment of time and resources. In all cases, we investigate complaints as quickly as possible.
Every case is different, so it is difficult to predict exactly how long an investigation will take. However, investigators generally aim to complete investigations into administrative complaints within 90 days and refusal complaints with nine months.
The following factors can affect how long an investigation will take:
- the number of records to be reviewed;
- the complexity of a case, or the number of issues to be investigated;
- the level of cooperation or ease of communication with institutions, complainants and other concerned parties;
- the availability of witnesses and documentary evidence;
- the completeness and quality of the information institutions, complainants and other parties have provided; and/or
- legal issues.
What is my role as a complainant?
When you submit your complaint, ensure that the wording is clear, concise and complete and that you have included all relevant details and attached any related documents. For example, for refusal and time extension complaints, include a copy of the letter you received from the institution in response to your request.
You may provide any other details you think we need to know. Please do not send additional information that is not directly relevant to the complaint.
During the complaint process, we may ask you to further clarify the issues in your complaint. Your organized and timely response to these request, along with your cooperation with the investigator throughout the process, will help us complete the investigation faster.
What is the institution's role in the complaint process?
During the investigation, the institution must justify the decisions it made when it responded to your request, by providing us with the following:
- a clear description of the relevant facts and circumstances of the processing of the request;
- copies of any documentation relevant to the matter under investigation, including any correspondence between the institution and the complainant, and relevant institutional policies or procedures;
- a clear and well-thought-out statement of the institution's position on the complaint, about which the institution consulted with the appropriate internal parties; and
- the specifics of any action the institution has taken to date, or plans to take, to address the complaint.
Early investment of effort and cooperation by institutions in responding to complaints facilitates our investigations.
What are representations?
During investigations, we give complainants, institutions and other connected parties a reasonable opportunity to provide their position on the matter.
These representations, as they are known, outline why these parties think the Information Commissioner should resolve the matter in a certain way. For example, when an institution applied exemptions to withhold a record, their representations would explain why they did so. The complainant’s representations might provide reasons why the exemptions do not apply.
It is up to institutions to show that exemptions apply; therefore, they must provide reasons and evidence that they do.
What is the difference between an exemption and an exclusion?
Exemptions: Institutions use exemptions to withhold information. Exemptions are found in sections 13 to 24 and section 26 of the Access to Information Act.
Exclusions: The Act does not apply to certain records, including published material or material the public can buy, and Cabinet confidences.
Is there a limit to the number of complaints I may submit?
No. However, we may not be able to give equal priority to all of your complaints and will decide on a suitable approach for managing the files while respecting your rights under the Act. In particular, we will work with you to prioritize your complaints.
On occasion, we may defer investigating new complaints submitted by a complainant until their existing complaints are closed. This enables us to ensure fair distribution of resources among all complainants.
What are the Commissioner’s powers with regard to criminal offenses?
The Act contains two offences:
- Section 67 prohibits the obstruction of the Information Commissioner and anyone acting on her behalf or under her direction in the performance of their duties and functions under the Act.
- Section 67.1 prohibits all persons from destroying, mutilating, altering, falsifying or concealing records with the intent of denying a right of access under the Act. It also forbids directing, proposing or causing anyone else to do any of the prohibited acts.
The Office of the Information Commissioner is not a court or tribunal, and has no authority to determine civil or criminal liability. The Information Commissioner has no authority to investigate criminal offenses. She can only disclose information to the Attorney General if, in the Commissioner’s opinion, there is evidence of a possible commission of an offence by a director, an officer or an employee of a government institution (Subsection 63(2)). Such information was disclosed to the Attorney General in the past.
There are some instances where the Commissioner is not authorized to disclose information, as explained in a special report regarding a case where political staff instructed public servants to "unrelease" a report and to only disclose a portion of the report despite the delegated official’s decision to disclose the entire report. The Commissioner’s investigation centered on an incident of interference with an access request by a political staff member in a Minister's office, but the confidentiality provisions of the Act made it impossible for the Commissioner to disclose information related to interference involving political staff members to the Attorney General, as they are not “a director, an officer or an employee of a government institution”.
What if my complaint is against the Office of the Information Commissioner?
submit complaints about our handling of your access request to the Information Commissioner ad hoc.
Information Commissioner’s orders
What actions may the Commissioner order institutions to take as a result of investigations?
When a complaint falls within the scope of paragraph 30(1)(a), (b), (c), (d), (d.1) or (e) of the Access to Information Act and the Commissioner determines that the complaint is well founded, she may order the institution to take any action with respect to a record she considers appropriate to resolve the matters that were at issue during the investigation.
For example, the Commissioner may order the institution to disclose information it had withheld under a section of the Act or to respond to an access request.
Since orders must relate to a record, the Commissioner may not order an institution to, for instance, provide additional training to employees on processing access to information requests or sanction an employee for not responding to an access request quickly.
Why do some orders direct institutions to take an action by a particular date and others use the word “forthwith”?
The Commissioner may determine a reasonable date for the institution to take the action she orders. In those instances, the order will contain a specific date.
During an investigation, the institution may have indicated that it plans to respond to the access request at issue or to disclose previously withheld information by a specific date. When that is the case, the Commissioner may determine this date to be reasonable and issue an order accordingly.
Otherwise, she may determine another date or choose to order the institution to take the necessary action forthwith, when this is reasonable, having regard to all the circumstances.
The meaning of the word “forthwith” must be interpreted within the circumstances of the case. The term suggests urgency or immediacy, which is consistent with institutions’ responsibilities under the Act to provide timely responses to access requests.
When do the Commissioner’s orders take effect?
The date an order takes effect is based on the date of the Information Commissioner’s final report on the investigation and on whether anyone applies for a review by the Federal Court:
- When the complainant and institution receive the final report, and neither apply for a review, the order takes effect on the 36th business day after the date of the final report.
- When a third party, the Privacy Commissioner or both also receive a copy of the final report, and no party applies for a review, the order takes effect on the 46th business day after the date of the final report.
What can complainants do when they disagree with the terms of an order?
When a complaint falls within the scope of paragraph 30(1)(a), (b), (c), (d), (d.1) or (e) of the Act, complainants may apply to the Federal Court, under paragraph 41(1), for a review of the matter that is the subject of the complaint. They must apply for the review within 35 business days after the date of the final report.
What must institutions do when the Commissioner has issued an order to them?
Institutions must comply with the order in its entirety. If they choose not to, they must apply to the Federal Court under paragraph 41(2) for a review of the matter that is the subject of the order. (The Treasury Board Policy on Access to Information [updated in July 2022] emphasizes this point; see section 4.3.12.) They must apply for the review within 35 business days after the date of the final report.
Complainants have the right to appear before the court as a party to this review. Third parties and the Privacy Commissioner may also participate as parties to the review, but only in situations when they were involved in the investigation and the Information Commissioner must send them a copy of the final report.
See also “A stronger role for the Information Commissioner,” from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.
What can a third party do when it disagrees with the terms of an order?
If neither the complainant nor the institution applies for a review, third parties that have received the final report have 45 business days after the date of the final report to apply for a review. This is also true for the Privacy Commissioner.
When that is the case, the complainant has the right to appear before the court as a party to the review.
If either the complainant or the institution applies for a review, third parties and the Privacy Commissioner have the right, if they received the final report, to appear before the court as a party to the review.
Can the Commissioner take any action under the Act when an institution does not implement an order?
Once the Commissioner issues her final report with her findings and order, she has exhausted her powers to investigate the allegations in the complaint. The Commissioner has no power under the Act to force the institution to implement all aspects of her order.
The Office of the Information Commissioner generally does not track institutions’ compliance with the Commissioner’s orders. However, non-compliance is a concern for the Commissioner because her orders are legally binding—this is the basic difference between them and recommendations.
Institutions are legally obliged to abide by an order from the Commissioner unless they apply to the Federal Court for a review of the matter that is the subject of the order. Such a review has the effect of staying the implementation of the order pending the court’s decision. The Act does not provide any other alternative to complying with the order.
When the Commissioner learns of allegations of non-compliance with orders, she follows up with the institution in question to ensure compliance is a priority. Should that not be the case, she considers her options, including taking action in Federal Court.
What can a complainant do when an institution does not implement an order?
Complainants have no recourse under the Act to force an institution to implement an order when the institution chooses not implement it and does not seek a review under subsection 41(2).
Complainants may wish to consult a lawyer to see whether other laws contain remedies related to the implementation of orders.