How to File a Freedom of Information Request

FOIs are a great way to get information that is normally behind closed doors. Anyone can file an FOI but it does take some practice to develop the skills to both pull the information you want out from the government and read them correctly and efficiently.

This article talks about the process of filing FOIs; read it in conjunction with Getting the Data to understand both the process and the policies.

Filing an FOI involves 2 important parts: framing the question and going through the procedure correctly (see Filing an FOI: Step-By-Step below).

1. Framing the Request

To frame your request, you need to understand a little about how the government bureaucracy works so you know who the request is to be directed to and what is exempt from the Municipal Protection of Privacy and Freedom of Information Act. Each request needs to be directed to a specific City division (or sometimes a couple) so, you need to know who has the information you want. If you are trying to get correspondence, you need to know who would be writing about the issue. The City of Toronto Directory can help with this.

Different types of requests include:

Communications

E.g. All documents and communications containing the term “encampment” or “encampments” from the following email…

Policy

E.g. Please provide the full and complete Housing Stabilization Fund policy.

Or Please provide any and all policies, briefing notes, internal memos, chains of command and training manuals about the clearing of encampments by Parks Ambassadors.

Specific Files

E.g. Please provide all minutes and notes from the “health and harm reduction care in physically distancing” table.

Individual’s Files

E.g. Any and all files, notes and records about or respecting PERSON’S NAME. Only the person who is named in the request can make this request or someone acting on their behalf with a signed waiver (usually a social worker, lawyer, etc.).

Incident reports

E.g. Please provide and and all notes, records and files relating to the fatal fire at the shelter-hotel on [date].

Raw Data

E.g. Please provide any and All Wrap-up Code data, including but not limited to all anonymized raw data by date and all reports.

Or, This question relates to violent incidents in the respites, shelters and hotels. Please indicate the number of incidents including threats of violence and sexual violence and the following, as expressed by month, for the period in question: a) type of violence (threat, physical, sexual, etc) b) if a weapon was used c) if injury occurred d) if an injury occurred if it was to a resident, staff or other e) if anyone was taken to hospital d) if police were called f) if an arrest was made g) what the outcome was (how many barrings, arrests, warnings, etc). From March 1, 2016 until date request is filled.

Exemptions:

Sections 6-15 of the MFOIPPA lay out the kinds of information that are exempt from the Act. The big ones are it: violates an individual’s privacy, involves a 3rd party (unless they consent), is publicly available.

Other exceptions include: jeopardizes information other governments or Indigenous communities provided in confidence, is from an in-camera Council meeting, is over 20 years old, interferes with a police investigation/criminal trial, it is advice from the City Solicitor or an outside lawyer.

Also, the City doesn’t have to produce anything not in its possession. That includes Councillor’s constituency records and anything it has never created or that has been deleted as a “transitory record” – a record that is needed for the short-term but can be deleted thereafter.

Specificity

The question needs to be narrow enough to “provide sufficient detail to enable an experienced employee of the institution, upon a reasonable effort, to identify the record.”1 But you don’t want to make it so narrow that you are limiting your search unnecessarily. City staff respond to the majority of requests, in our experience, saying they are insufficiently narrow. This is a marked change in recent years. The requestor can advocate for themself, narrowing when and where it is appropriate, to ensure they get the records they need and are entitled to through the Act.

2. Filing an FOI: Step-By-Step

With a Credit Card:

1. Go to the City’s FOI portal

2. Type your question into the box, provide the division and the date range (if applicable) and click “Confirm Request.” Don’t worry, you will have a chance to review and edit it later.

FOI online form. Request for data question box says: "All communications containing "pizza party" from the following person: Maryann.Bedard@toronto.ca"; Division: Shelter, Support and Housing; Date range beginning January 1, 2019

This is what the request looks like. You do not have to fill in any dates or divisions but they will contact you for divisions if you are asking for email records. This request will likely be denied as it would be considered “frivolous or vexatious” to want to know if the General Manager of SSHA is organizing pizza parties. You could argue with the City about why it isn’t, appeal the decision or frame a question to try and ‘capture’ pizza parties some other way.

3. Confirm your request. Read it over and make sure it all makes sense. You can add more requests if you like. Then, confirm.

FOI confirmation request. Text from request is displayed as is the deposit fee for the request ($5). 

Options to edit request, delete request, cancel the whole thing or move ahead to payment.

4. In the next screen, enter you home address and contact info. It says that providing an email is optional but it is best that you do. This way they can contact you about your request and you can keep track of what you discuss. If you have to appeal a decision, you may need these emails for the appeal.

5. Print the confirmation as a PDF or take a screenshot and save it.

Cheque, Money-order or Cash

1. Download the Freedom of Information Access Request Form

2. If you only have one request, you can fill it out and send it in with $5.

3. If you have a long question or if you have multiple requests, write “See Schedule A” in the “Description of Information Requested” box. Attach a separate page(s) with each request clearly indicated, including the relevant divisions and time periods as applicable.

4. At the bottom of the page or on a separate page indicate how many requests you have X $5 each and state the total. For example, 5 requests would be: 5 requests X $5.00 = $25.00 (enclosed).

5. Mail the form, “Schedule A”, your calculation of the amount owed and the funds to:

City Clerk’s Office
Corporate Information Management Services
Toronto City Hall, 13th Floor West Tower
100 Queen Street West
Toronto ON M5H 2N2

Be sure to keep a copy for yourself.

Next Steps: Both Methods of Payment

6. Check your mail/email. It will take a few weeks. It is supposed to be sent within 30 days. If you don’t hear within that time, follow up with them, the City is in violation of the Act.

7. There is a good chance your request will be “granted in part” because some of the information will be held back for privacy reasons (s. 14.1). Sometimes it costs a lot of money for separating this information. It may make sense to think about how to narrow the request based on the response. Ideally, a request would be $10 or not much more. $10 is the cost of the USB key or CD that they send the data on (sometimes it is just a few pages and then they email it to you without charge).

8. Write a cheque or money order for the amount due payable to the City of Toronto and mail it following the instructions in the decision letter. Put the FOI # in the memo line (AG-202X-00XXX). Include a note that says funds for FOI request # AG-2021-00XXX [you will write in the proper number you are provided]. Say: “please provide the data on a USB stick” because it isn’t 1996 and you don’t want it on a CD.

9. Check your mail

10. When you get the USB stick, check it out. Make sure there isn’t anything missing and it is all legible. Sometimes they send data with tables that you can’t read, with missing attachments or missing pages. Or, sometimes you can figure out that a particular individual didn’t fully send all the data because they received emails but didn’t disclose them. Follow up with the Clerk’s Office to get everything you are entitled to.

Sometimes you get more information than you asked for. When we have experienced this, it has not been by mistake; rather it has been because staff are trying to gloss over something significant in the data by including additional years or more information. If you get an FOI like this and it is related to homelessness or housing, consider sharing it with FactCheck Toronto.

If you need or want to appeal at any point, you appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s Office.

Conclusion

Filing an FOI is not hard. It takes time to develop the knowledge about how to really work the system. Without that yet, however, you can sometimes get very interesting information. You use your FOIs to help you understand what is going on in order to ask new questions and file more FOIs.

Notes:

  1. MFOIPPA s. 48(2).