80-year extension on access-to-info request appears to be a record

Delays in responses are a growing problem in the federal access-to-info system, but this one is a doozy: a minimum of 80 years to deliver documents related to an RCMP money-laundering investigation. The requester, Michael Dagg, 70, says he'll narrow the request so he can receive something in his lifetime.

Requester to narrow access-to-info request after being told he has to wait until 2098 to receive documents

Ottawa-based requester Michael Dagg received this extension letter for his access-to-information request. An accompanying email made clear the extension was for 29,200 days, not 292,000 - but even that correct number amounts to 80 years, believed to be the longest extension ever invoked. (CBC)

A federal institution has given itself what may be the longest-ever time extension to respond to a citizen's request under the Access to Information Act — at least 80 years, which will delay the delivery of documents to 2098 or beyond.

"I may get those records in my next lifetime," 70-year-old Michael Dagg, the requester and longtime user of the act, said in an interview.

Dagg asked Library and Archives Canada (LAC) for files from Project Anecdote, an RCMP investigation into money laundering and public corruption that was launched in May 1993.

No charges were ever laid in the massive probe, which concluded in 2003. The voluminous Mountie files were eventually turned over to the government archives.

Former information commissioner Suzanne Legault warned about a 'culture of delay' within the federal government when it comes to responding to Access to Information Act requests. (The Canadian Press)

"You will note the extensive list of responsive records … and we will need up to an 80-year minimum (bringing the due date to the year 2098)," LAC advised Dagg in writing last week, warning that consulting other departments would add more time.

"There are certain records that will need to be consulted with DOJ [Department of Justice], PCO [Privy Council Office] and RCMP."

Library and Archives determined there are a minimum of 780,000 document pages to review, in addition to audio and video recordings.

Dagg was advised that the review of the material would normally take at least 130 years, but many of the records will automatically become public after 80 years, without need for review under the Access to Information Act, helping to shorten the extension period.

Difficult to process

The April 10 letter to Dagg, from senior analyst Diana Gibson, erroneously cited an extension of 292,000 days when, in fact, an accompanying email from Gibson made clear the extension was 29,200 days, or 80 years.

RCMP investigative files, especially large ones, are difficult to process under the act because analysts must remove all personal information and information related to investigative techniques, deletions required under the legislation.

The act allows departments to charge requesters for searching, processing and reproducing records, after certain free minimums such as five hours of search time.

But on May 5, 2016, the Liberal government announced that all departments would be required to waive such fees, beyond the standard $5 application fee, removing one disincentive for requestors seeking voluminous files.

Some departments, including the RCMP, have said the fee waiver has resulted in increased workloads under the act.

Dagg runs a small information business that draws heavily on use of the Access to Information Act, and has been active in challenging decisions made under the legislation.

I would narrow the scope so I can get something within a year or two, rather than beyond my lifetime.- Michael Dagg, entrepreneur,who plans to rephrase his Access to Information Act request, which will otherwise take 80 years to complete.

In the landmark Dagg v. Canada case, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1997 that names of public servants on documents cannot be withheld as personal information when they are carrying out public functions.

Dagg says he plans to contact Library and Archives to negotiate a smaller subset of the Project Anecdote documents.

"I would narrow the scope so I can get something within a year or two, rather than beyond my lifetime," he said in an interview.

Timeliness of responses has been a growing issue under the act. In 2016-2017, for example, responses to 2,326 requests took more than a year, up from 1,526 the year previous — or 2.7 per cent of all requests, up from 2.1 per cent.

Beyond legislated deadlines

And 19.3 per cent of all responses to requests in 2016-2017 were in so-called "deemed refusal," that is, they were late — delivered beyond legislated deadlines.

That level of 'deemed refusals' has almost doubled in the last five years. And some 1,741 of these late requests were delivered more than a year after deadline.

In 2016, former commissioner Suzanne Legault warned of a "culture of delay" within the federal government that has created "a slow and arcane system that seems bent on denying access."

The main Library and Archives Canada building on Wellington Street. Officials say they need at least 80 years to process a request for a set of RCMP files under the Access to Information Act. ((CBC))

The office of the information commissioner of Canada once received a complaint about an extension of 9,840 days, or almost 27 years, though the case was later discontinued, said spokesperson Natalie Bartlett when asked about the lengthiest extensions dealt with by the office.

In another complaint case involving a 1,110-day extension (more than three years) by National Defence, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in 2015 that the department "acted as though it was accountable to no one but itself in asserting its extension." The extension was unreasonable and invalid, said the court.

The Project Anecdote file has been requested previously, notably by Arnprior, Ont., lawyer Martha Coady, who is fighting a 2011 ruling from the Federal Court that has denied her access.

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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

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