Canada Revenue Agency rapped for failing to shred mountain of hard copies

The Canada Revenue Agency asks Canadians to dispense with paper and file their taxes electronically. But a new report suggests the agency doesn't practise what it preaches — it's holding on to too many paper files without disposing of them as required. A spokesman says there are shredding plans in the works.

Tax agency stores paper files stretching 241 kilometres and needs to act, report says

Even as the Canada Revenue Agency pushes Canadians to file their taxes electronically, many still send in paper, which is creating storage and disposal headaches. (CARP.ca)

Canadians are repeatedly asked to abandon paper forms and send their income-tax files electronically, but it turns out the tax agency is stubbornly holding on to its own mountain of paper.

A government report card on the Canada Revenue Agency's progress in disposing of its warehouses of paper files gives the department a score of … zero per cent.

The Canada Revenue Agency holds on to more paper than any other government department, a whopping 241 kilometres' worth at last count. (VESTIDD.com)
The annual assessment by the Treasury Board says the agency did nothing in 2014-15 to shred its vast holdings of hard copies, even though it's required to do so under federal policies.

The 34 other big departments surveyed averaged a score of 50 per cent; that is, they ditched about half the records that were due for disposal that year.

The findings are spelled out in a briefing note obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

Highest volume

The Canada Revenue Agency has the highest volume of paper records among all federal departments and agencies.

The most recent inventory found that all the hard-copy tax files pressed together would stretch some 241 kilometres, nearly filling a giant shelf from Toronto to Kingston, Ont.

"The agency is constrained by law from disposing of records before certain timeframes and conditions are met," said spokesman David Walters. "For example, most individual paper tax forms are kept for five years."

Most of those records are warehoused in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa by a hired records-management firm, while the CRA holds on to litigation files and other records in its own offices across Canada. The agency has files on about 35 million Canadians and businesses.

Millions of Canadians continue to file on paper.- Canada Revenue Agency spokesman

More than 80 per cent of individuals now file their income taxes online, but many others prefer paper forms.

"As millions of Canadians continue to file on paper, the CRA has a responsibility to properly manage these records through their lifecycle, resulting in higher volumes of paper records," says Walters.

"Records must also be retained in order to support audit activities, some of which can last for years, or to allow reassessments requested by taxpayers, which can be made several years after a particular tax year."

The agency's score on the planned disposition of electronic files, though, is just as bad as for its paper versions.

Zero progress

The briefing note says the Treasury Board gave CRA another zero per cent for its progress in wiping out electronic records that are no longer needed, compared with an average score of 14 per cent for the 34 other departments.

Walters says the report card failed to include the agency's recent success in eliminating more than 30,400 internal and external web pages that were duplicates or outdated. In addition, as part of a government-wide email modernization project, the agency has wiped out some 13 terabytes of email storage since 2014.

An internal report says that in addition to holding on to too much paper, the Canada Revenue Agency is also failing to wipe out its growing store of electronic files. (Canada Revenue Agency)
Under federal rules, departments are permitted to eliminate records deemed to be "transitory," defined as records "required only for a limited time to ensure the completion of a routine action or the preparation of a subsequent record." 

Walters says the agency has several information-management projects this year that will improve its paper-disposal scores, and electronic file-handling scores, for the next report card.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


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