On October 27, investigative journalist Robyn Doolittle presented the 2023 Harold Innis Lecture, an annual event held by Innis College.
Doolittle, who covered former Mayor Rob Ford’s political and personal life for years for the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail, spoke about Canada’s Freedom of Information (FOI) system, which she argues is broken in ways that can lead to a breakdown of democracy.
The Harold Innis lecture
Harold Innis joined U of T as a professor of political economy in 1927, rising to head of the department 10 years later. His works include research on Canada’s economic history as well as media and communication theory. The Innis College website characterizes him as “one of Canada’s most influential thinkers.”
The Harold Innis Foundation, established in 1969, aims to honour Innis’ work by providing scholarships and presenting the annual Harold Innis lecture, which first took place in 1974. According to the Innis College website, the foundation invites speakers whose lectures echo Innis’ work. Past lecturers include the novelist Dionne Brand, politician David Miller, and last year, Inuit activist Aaju Peter.
In an email to The Varsity, a representative of the Harold Innis Foundation’s Board Of Directors connected Robyn Doolitle’s recent project examining FOI with Innis’ works on media and communications theories. Around 100 people attended the lecture in Innis Town Hall, according to Lina Yan — a fourth-year sociology major and work-study student who helped organize the event.
“I’m glad we could host Ms. Doolittle and raise some awareness/generate public knowledge,” wrote Yan in a message to The Varsity.
What is FOI law?
Following an introduction from city councillor Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, Robyn Dolittle began by warning that her subject matter is “very wonky.” However, she also told the audience to be wary of their disinterest, claiming that “our governments are counting on you to be completely bored by freedom of information.”
FOI law enshrines citizens’ right to know what officials are doing, how government systems are run, and where governments direct their spending.
Doolittle explained that the United Nations (UN) sought to universalize FOI law after World War II. World leaders argued that ensuring the public could access government information could have possibly prevented atrocities such as the Holocaust. The 1946 Convention on Freedom of Information deemed freedom of information a fundamental human right.
While Canada was one of the first 10 countries to adopt an FOI system, the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD) — a Canadian-based non-profit corporation that aims to educate and research the human rights underpinning democracy — currently ranks Canada 53rd globally in ensuring the right to information.
Doolittle argued that the FOI system plays a necessary role in ensuring people trust their government and can hold that government accountable. “Democracy is built on trust,” Doolittle told the audience. “But what happens if that trust is lost?”
Problems with Canada’s FOI system
To access records in Canada, one must submit an FOI request, which costs between five and 25 dollars. The CLD notes that the cost of collecting these fees exceeds the amount the federal government makes from them.
Although Canada’s federal Access to Information Act (ATIA) requires authorities to respond to requests within 30 days, it allows authorities to extend this wait time if they can’t reasonably complete the request within the 30 days, provided they notify the requester. The CLD noted that authorities often arbitrarily claim long delays, meaning that the wait time for an FOI request can range from weeks to months. Even then, authorities only grant 21 per cent of requests in full, according to an audit that Doolittle conducted for the Globe and Mail.
According to a document the CLD submitted before the UN’s November 10 review of human rights in Canada, the AITA also excludes many public authorities — including the prime minister and their cabinet — from having to comply with people’s right to access information.
Doolittle explained that, as an investigative journalist, much of her work relies on FOI requests, giving her firsthand experience with the system. Among other topics, she reported on Toronto’s former mayor Rob Ford while he was in office. Ford suffered from multiple forms of substance use disorder and initially refused to admit that he had smoked crack cocaine, even after video evidence surfaced. Doolittle filed FOI requests asking for police reports related to Ford’s multiple scandals, but she said that the police would often deny or delay her inquiries — which limited her ability to report on Ford’s actions.
Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard — an official responsible for monitoring and advising members of parliament on the access-to-information system — has also urged the federal government to reform the FOI system, describing in a 2022–2023 report the “decline [of the system] to the point where it no longer serves its intended purpose.”
In June, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics published a report entitled “The State of Canada’s Access to Information System.” The report recommends a “comprehensive review and overhaul of the access to information system.” However, parliament decided to table the report and not make any changes at this time — a choice that Commissioner Maynard has asked it to reconsider.
Comparison to the US
Doolittle described the gap between the US and Canadian FOI systems through the Champlain Towers incident, in which an architecturally flawed building collapsed overnight in Florida, killing around 90 residents.
The Globe and Mail investigated the tower’s collapse, which a group of Toronto-based developers designed and built. According to The Globe, the American leg of its investigation took a few days. The Canadian part of the investigation took four months and more than $4,000.
“We also spent thousands of dollars in fees pulling Canadian property records, incorporation documents and court filings that were either free or available for a nominal fee in Florida. In many cases, information that we found to be readily accessible in the United States was not even available here,” wrote Doolittle in The Globe’s article describing the investigation.
Even then, The Globe couldn’t find a full list of buildings developed by the group of Toronto developers responsible for Champlain Towers, limiting its investigation into the current state of the developers’ other projects.
When it comes to its information access system, Dolittle told The Varsity in an interview, “Canada is a complete international embarrassment.”
Doolittle and her colleague Tom Cardoso decided to compile a database of declassified FOI documents on a website called Secret Canada. Users can type in a few keywords and view documents on the subject matter previously declassified through FOI requests. The project includes more than 320,000 FOI summaries from 2010 to 2023.
The website — which Doolittle and Cardoso have worked on for the past two years — also aims to educate users on how to formulate an FOI request, including a guide for writing FOI request letters. The “news” section of the website includes information on individual cases and opinion pieces about the FOI situation in Canada.
In an email to The Varsity, a communications spokesperson for the Office of the Information Commissioner wrote that Maynard has “followed the Secret Canada project” with “great interest” and spoke to Cardoso last month about it.
Doolittle explained that public ignorance about Canada’s access-to-information system influences the system’s flaws. She ended her lecture by asking the audience to spread the word about the FOI system.
Doolittle told The Varsity after the lecture, “I think if you were a student, this would feel like a very far away issue. And I totally get that. So, I think that this is something you can just be aware of and move forward with.”
Disclosure: Tom Cardoso served as The Varsity’s editor-in-chief during the 2011–2012 school year and as a design editor during the 2010–2011 school year. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, which oversees the ATIA’s administration, did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment in time for publication.