Sudbury

Laurentian should respond to Freedom of Information requests: Privacy Commissioner

The Information and Privacy Commissioner is now asking Laurentian University to meet its obligation to respond to Freedom of Information requests.

New hearing on the matter scheduled for April 1

Sudbury's Laurentian University has not had to respond to Freedom of Information requests for more than a year due to its restructuring under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act. (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada)

The Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) is now asking Laurentian University to meet its obligation to respond to Freedom of Information requests.

Laurentian hasn't had to do so for more than a year.

The IPC said in documents filed last week that the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) was enacted for two fundamental reasons: to grant members of the public access to information under the custody or control of public institutions, and to protect the privacy of individuals with respect to their personal information held by those institutions.

Shortly after declaring insolvency in February, 2021, the university administration asked that it not be required to answer to FIPPA requests, fearing a large number of applications and limited resources to respond during a time when it was trying to deal with its perilous financial state. 

The judge in the case agreed with that argument.

Subsequently, the university asked for the measure to be extended with no objection from the IPC.

That is until Laurentian's last request for an extension to the order on Jan. 27, when the IPC did speak up against the extension.

The Laurentian University Faculty Association and the Canadian Association of Teachers also objected in court but the judge didn't make a ruling because no supporting documents had been submitted.

Now they have filed documents and a judge is scheduled to hear the matter on  April 1.

Robert Hache is Laurentian University's president and vice-chancellor. (Parliament of Canada)

Few requests, historically

In a statement of facts the IPC noted that historically, the university has never had to deal with a huge number of requests under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

"...the number of annual FIPPA requests for the past few years has been modest, ranging from only 10 to 26 requests. There is no reasonable basis to continue to fear that "there will be an extraordinary influx of FIPPA requests," it said.

It also said there are only four current FIPPA requests that have been suspended because Laurentian is undergoing restructuring under the Companies Creditor's Arrangement Act.

The IPC said Laurentian's president, Robert Haché argued in August that the university didn't have the human resources to deal with any requests.

New calls for access to information

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)  is supporting the IPC motion.

"CAUT's member associations, as bargaining agents for academic staff, rely on sound financial information in order to negotiate collective agreements," it wrote in its factum. 

"Often, this information can be obtained from the university or college employer by virtue of the governing labour laws. It is not uncommon, however, for academic staff associations and unions to have to resort to freedom of information requests to obtain specific information to support their bargaining and labour relations."

Sarah Godwin, general legal counsel for CAUT, said the recent release of reports on Laurentian's governance and operations means access to more information about the university will be necessary.

Now, a year after the stay was issued, CAUT and the IPC argue Laurentian is no longer financially unstable and has proven it has the resources to deal with requests for information, as seen by its response to the Auditor General's investigation.

The commissioner says the vital public interest should be considered when assessing whether FIPPA access rights should be stayed..

It says the public is entitled to know how Laurentian operates, including how it spends public funds.

In an email to CBC News, Laurentian said is has remained in discussions with the IPC since it filed for insolvency.

"Laurentian has been in discussions with the Information and Privacy Commissioner since the outset of the CCAA proceeding, including with respect to the motion that will be heard by the Court on April 1, 2022," the email said. "Laurentian will be filing responding materials in due course."

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