Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Access to Information Act?

The Access to Information Act is a federal law that gives Canadian citizens, other individuals and corporations present in Canada the right to apply for information or records kept by the federal government. The Act complements but does not replace existing procedures for obtaining government information. Nor is it intended to limit in any way access to government information that is normally available to the public upon request.

Individuals can ask for information, no matter what form it is in, including letters, memos, reports, photographs, films, microfilms, computerized data, sound recordings, videotapes or any other documentary material, which is collected or created in the conduct and transaction of official business.

Some information may be exempt or excluded under the Act. Exemptions protect certain types of information that could cause harm if released. For example, some information on scientific research and third party trade secrets fall into this category. It also excludes material such as Cabinet documents. The Access to Information Act does not apply to public information that is already available, such as publications and material in libraries and museums.

The applicant is required to pay a $5.00 application fee and additional costs may be charged per request. Government departments must respond to a request within 30 calender days. However, if searching through a large number of records is required or the request is very complex, a department may ask for more time, but it must inform the applicant.

If an applicant feels it is taking too long or is not satisfied with the government's response, he/she has the right to ask the Information Commissioner to conduct an investigation. If the applicant is not satisfied with the investigation, even if the Commissioner does not support the complaint, the applicant may still apply to the Federal Court for a review of the department's decision to refuse to disclose the records requested.

The Act does not oblige government institutions to create new records to answer a specific question - it only provides access to, or copies of, the documents that exist at the time the request is received by the department.

What is the Privacy Act?

The Privacy Act is a federal law that gives Canadian citizens and individuals present in Canada the right to have access to information about them that is held by the federal government. The Act also protects against unauthorized disclosure of that personal information. In addition, it strictly controls how federal departments will collect, use, store, disclose and dispose of any personal information. Individuals may also ask to have any errors corrected and, if the request is refused, require that a notation be attached to the information describing any corrections requested but not made.

There is no charge to apply for information under the Privacy Act. Under the law, all or most of the information requested should be disclosed within 30 calender days of receiving the request. If a time extension is required, the applicant will be notified within the first 30 days and told why up to another 30 days may be required.

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada is a special ombudsman who has the power to investigate how a federal department handled an applicant's particular Privacy Act request. Individuals have the right to complain to the Privacy Commissioner should they think that the federal government has mishandled or is mishandling their personal information or is collecting too much personal information about them. In addition, individuals who submitted a privacy request or tried using the Privacy Act to access their personal information and were denied some or all the information requested can complain to the Privacy Commissioner. The Commissioner also investigates how federal government departments collect, use, disclose and dispose of the personal information they hold on their clients and employees.

What Type of Information is Considered Personal?

The Privacy Act controls the way an institution collects, uses, stores, discloses and disposes of personal information about federal government employees, as well as about Canadians who receive goods, financial benefits or services from the federal government.

Information considered "personal" must remain confidential and can only be disclosed to the person concerned by the information, or to those federal employees who need the information to do their job. Information not considered "personal" can be accessed by anyone, either following a request under the Access to Information Act (which applies only to non-personal information), or if the information is published or otherwise released publicly.

Here are some examples of what is considered personal and non-personal information:

Personal Information

  • address at home
  • address at work, other than in right coumn
  • age (date of birth) & gender
  • blood type
  • color of skin / race
  • correspondence, other than in right column
  • credit card numbers
  • criminal record(s)
  • curriculum vitae
  • details of discretionary benefit, other than in right column
  • education history
  • electronic address, other than in right column
  • employment information, other than in right column
  • ethnic / national origin
  • financial history
  • fingerprints
  • health care / medical history
  • identifying number (PRI & SIN numbers), or symbol unique to person
  • name, other than in right columnmarital status
  • opinion from other individual about person
  • religious beliefs
  • exact salary
  • salary range, other than in right column
  • telephone number, other than in right column
  • title of job, other than in right column

Non-Personal Information

  • details of government discretionary financial benefit
  • electronic address, when account paid for by government
  • name as recipient of government discretionary benefit
  • employment information, when employed by government, specifically:
    • address at work
    • classification of job / position
    • correspondence when work-related
    • details of employment contract
    • fact that person is employed by government
    • name as recipient of employment contract
    • name on government contract
    • opinion about job
    • responsibilities of job
    • salary range
    • telephone number at work
    • fax number at work
    • title of job