How access to information and personal information requests work

From Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat

Do you want to make a request and want to know more about the process? Here is more information on how access to information and personal information requests work, and how the Government of Canada protects your privacy when handling your personal information.

What is the difference between the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act?

The Access to Information Act gives Canadian citizens, permanent residents and any person or corporation present in Canada a right to access records of government institutions that are subject to the Act. The Act complements other policies and procedures to make government information publicly available, such as open government initiatives and proactive disclosure of travel and hospitality expenses, contracts and other frequently-requested information.

In order to provide services to Canadians, the Government of Canada may collect personal information. The Privacy Act gives Canadian citizens, permanent residents and individuals present in Canada the right to access their personal information held by government institutions that are subject to the Act, and protects that information against unauthorized collection, use, retention and disclosure.

What are the roles and responsibilities of institutions concerning my request?

Government institutions subject to the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act are responsible for how the Acts are applied within their institutions. Each government institution has a duty to assist requesters, as provided for by subsection 4(2.1) of the Access to Information Act and by the Government’s access to information and privacy policies.

Each government institution has an Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator. The Coordinators are responsible for ensuring that any access to information or personal information requests received by the institution are responded to in accordance with the Acts. A list of all Access to Information and Privacy Coordinators, along with their contact information, is available online.

Government institutions are responsible for providing comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date descriptions of their programs, activities, related information holdings and personal information banks. This inventory is available online. They are also responsible for sound management practices and decisions related to handling and protecting personal information.

Library and Archives Canada is charged with various responsibilities through the Library and Archives of Canada Act related to the preservation of records of historical or archival value, and for policies concerning the disposition of records at the end their retention period. Records from other government institutions that have been transferred to Library and Archives Canada for preservation may be accessed there.

The Access to Information and Privacy Acts assign overall responsibility to the President of the Treasury Board of Canada (as designated Minister) for the government-wide administration of the Acts. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat carries out these duties on behalf of the President. These duties include:

  • Developing and setting government-wide policies to support the administration of the Acts;
  • Providing training, tools and support to government institutions relating to the administration of the Acts;
  • Overseeing the publication of an inventory of information about the programs, activities and information holdings of government institutions subject to the Acts (also known as Info Source);
  • Collecting statistics on the performance of the Government’s access to information and privacy programs and publishing a statistical report each year; and
  • Publishing a summary of federal court decisions related to the Acts each year.

The Minister of Justice is responsible for certain provisions of the Acts (for example, specifying investigative bodies for the purpose of paragraph 16(1)(a) of the Access to Information Act). The Department of Justice supports the Minister of Justice in those responsibilities.

How do I make a request for government records or my personal information?

If you are seeking access to government records generally, you can submit an access to information request under the Access to Information Act.

If you are seeking access to your own personal information held by a government institution, you can submit a request for personal information under the Privacy Act.

Read about making an access to information or personal information request for further information on the steps involved.

Will I be charged fees?

There is no charge to request access to your personal information under the Privacy Act.

To request access to records through the Access to Information Act, there is a $5 application fee.

How long will it take to process my request?

Government institutions have 30 days to respond to an access to information request or a request for personal information. The institution may be able to process your request more quickly if your request is more specific and detailed.

For a request made under the Access to Information Act, an extension beyond the original 30 days may be taken if the request involves a large number of records, or if consultations with other government institutions or third parties are necessary because the records include information provided by them. If an extension is required, you will be notified within the first 30 days and told the reason why more time is needed.

For a request for personal information made under the Privacy Act, government institutions may take an extension of up to 30 additional days if meeting the 30-day deadline would unreasonably interfere with the operation of the government institution, or consultations with other government institutions or third parties are required. If an extension is required, you will be notified within the first 30 days and told the reason why more time is needed.

Will I have access to all the information in my request?

On May 5, 2016, the Government of Canada issued the Interim Directive on the Administration of the Access to Information Act. It guides institutions on how to administer the Access to Information Act in ways that are consistent with the Government’s commitment to more open and transparent government. The Interim Directive enshrines the principle of "open by default," and underscores the important purpose of the Act: to enable public debate on the conduct of government institutions, strengthening the accountability of government to its citizens.

However, under the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act, not all information can be released. Some information needs to be withheld to protect other important democratic values, such as national security considerations, or to protect the privacy of personal information.

Certain kinds of information are excluded from the application of the Acts. For example, information that is already publicly available, publications or material collected in libraries and museums, as well as Cabinet confidences, fall into this category.

The Acts also exempt some kinds of information from release. For example, exemptions protect information on national security, law enforcement, trade secrets, personal information and advice to Ministers from release. Sometimes the exemption is mandatory, and sometimes it is up to the government institution’s discretion.

Sometimes there are no records that respond to your request; or the records may not be under the control of the government institution that receives your request. For access to information requests, if another federal government institution could have these records, your request may be transferred to that institution. Requests would not be transferred if the records are under the control of provincial or municipal governments or of private institutions, such as commercial banks and credit bureaus.

How do I view records?

You may receive records either electronically or by mail. Or, if you prefer, you can make arrangements with the government institution, through the Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator, to view the records in person.

Records are generally provided in the language in which they were created. You can request that the records be translated into either French or English. Requests for translation into another language are subject to limitations. Your request will be accepted if the government institution considers that a translation would be in the public interest. If the records already exist in the other language, you will be provided the records as requested.

If you have a sensory disability, you can also request that the records be provided to you in an alternative format. Requests for an alternative format are subject to limitations. Your request will be accepted if the government institution decides that it is reasonable and necessary to provide records in an alternative format so that you can exercise your access rights.

You may also request information in an open and reuseable format, such as in a form that can be read and used by a computer. The Interim Directive on the Administration of the Access to Information Act directs government institutions to accommodate such a request when feasible.

How do I correct my personal information?

If you believe there is an error in the information a government institution has on file about you or that information is missing, you may ask to have it corrected. If the institution agrees, they will make the correction to their file. If the institution does not agree to change the information on file, the institution must make a note of your request for correction and attach it to the record.

They may have also shared your information with other government institutions in the last two years. The government institution will contact these other institutions so that they can make the same correction or notation.

Learn more about how to correct your personal information when you read about making an access to information or personal information request.

How do I make an access to information or privacy complaint?

If you are not satisfied with how your access to information request is processed or with the records you receive, you can make a complaint to the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada.

If you are not satisfied with how your personal information request is processed, with the information you receive or with how your personal information has been handled or protected, you can make a complaint to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Both Commissioners receive and independently investigate complaints from requesters or may self-initiate complaints on any matter related to access to records held by government institutions subject to the Access to Information Act or the Privacy Act. They may also initiate or intervene in court proceedings where necessary. They are required to report annually to Parliament on their activities and may issue a special report to Parliament at any time on any important topic that falls within their powers, duties and functions.

The Privacy Commissioner may also review the practices of government institutions related to the collection, retention, accuracy, use, disclosure and disposal of personal information.

For more information as well as how to contact each Office, please visit the Office of the Information Commissioner’s website or the Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s website.

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