Environment Canada taking years to answer questions from the public

Some requests went unanswered for up to six years; in other cases, the department said it had no records related to the inquiry being made.

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And there’s a second pattern: While some requests died of old age, many more were dropped after the department’s searches turned up no documents.

In some cases the reasons are obvious. Someone asked for “jokes, memes, doodles and amusing material on office walls” and got nothing.

But some are more puzzling:

• In 2014, the department said it had no information related to a request about nutrient pollution (sewage and fertilizer). That was the year when a severe algae bloom covered Lake Erie. Algae blooms are caused by nutrient pollution.

• Someone asked for all records relating to Canada’s target for reducing greenhouses gases under the Copenhagen Accord of 2009. Again, the department said it found nothing.

• There was also no information about nationally endangered wildlife that has been the subject of court actions.

Frequent users of the ATIP system say too many requests go unanswered or take too long.

“It’s maddening, particularly for stuff that you know is relatively simple,” said David Reevely, who covers federal politics for The Logic.

“You’re really at the mercy of a system that does not appear to be working the way it should, and you don’t really know why.”

The ATIP offices processing requests “are grossly under-resourced and there’s only so much work that a limited number of human beings can do in a day,” he said. “Processing this stuff does genuinely take time,” but the delays “get longer and longer … The system is just gumming up and breaking down.

“The public as a result never really gets a clear picture of what their government is doing,” he said, either because answers don’t come out or they arrive years too late to matter.

Me: “Can you provide any more information about what’s causing the delay?” ATIP officer: “Imagine standing in the ocean with a shovel, and you’re trying to shovel the water away, but the tide is coming in, and the waves just keep crashing over you”</p>— Claire Brownell (@clabrow) November 10, 2021</a></blockquote>n

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“If you’re a journalist and you’re trying to report to the public, you can’t get it. Then there are innumerable ones (requests) from the public.” He suspects that funding for access-to-information offices is too low, “but more worrisome is that it (Environment Canada’s situation) reveals an attitude that data belong to the government and not to the public … It’s like: This is our information and we’ll make it available if we have time and the interest to do so.”

These examples contrast with staff in some information offices “who really treat their responsibility serious and get the material for you and help you frame your request. It shows that it can be done.”

Environment Canada spokesperson Samantha Bayard responded that requests are abandoned for various reasons, including: A request doesn’t contain enough detail to start a search or doesn’t include the $5 fee; a request is submitted under the wrong Act; it is sent to the wrong federal department; the sender doesn’t respond to the ATIP office or can’t be found; or the sender decides he or she no longer wants the information.

As well, the government doesn’t do searches for information that is already publicly available or can be found through an informal request.

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