Locking Roddick Gates

McGill’s ATI-Dodging a Reason to Review Freedom of Information Laws

Graphic Paku Daoust-Cloutier

McGill University’s decision to ask for special powers regarding Access to Information requests filed by some McGill students and reporters from The McGill Daily and The Link has been covered extensively.

But a more general discussion about the usefulness of ATI requests has been missing.

Last year, I reported on the five-day student occupation at McGill nicknamed “#6party.” After it ended, I filed an ATI request with McGill to know the costs associated with the extra security put in place during what occupiers dubbed a “surprise resignation party” for Deputy Provost Student Life and Learning Morton Mendelson.

Thirty days later, I got my answer: over $141,000.

It’s a perfect example of how journalists use ATI requests. They allow us to gain access to information we wouldn’t otherwise know. Mainstream media organizations—from the Ottawa Citizen to La Presse —make extensive use of ATI requests in much the same way.

Earlier this year, Chris Bangs, a McGill student who runs the website McGilliLeaked, contacted me. He was gathering all ATIs filed to McGill on his website.

I gave him my findings—any document released under the Access to Information Act is considered a public document.

And that’s how The Link appeared in a motion filed by McGill to the Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec, the ATI regulatory body.

In total, I filed two ATIs to McGill—the only two that The Link filed that year.

Besides some of the ridiculous claims made by McGill—like assuming that students purposely file requests “intended to fail” or that The Link is taking part in a “complex system to acquire documents and information whereby different persons will submit within a short period of time a series of ATIs”—McGill’s motion ends by making a disturbing request.

They want the ability to deny any request made by McGill students or reporters from The Link or The McGill Daily or any “persons that could reasonably be linked to such requestors” if they consider the request to be “overly broad” or “frivolous” or “similar or identical to previous documents.”

Aside from the fact that this motion has been a public-relations disaster for McGill, it begs the question: did the McGill legal team even read the Access to Information Act?

See, there aren’t just one or two sections dealing with restrictions to the right to access, but an entire chapter. That’s right, the act contains 23 sections defining in what situations a public body can deny a request.

Concordia, for example, routinely accepts and denies ATIs—mainly over concerns of privacy, security and economy.

Though McGill is playing the victim, the current Access to Information Act does more to protect public bodies than it does to empower journalists to do their work.

This is not merely my personal opinion, but the revelation of the latest international rankings of countries based on freedom of information.

Canada ended up 51st of 89 countries in the rankings—behind Angola, Colombia and Niger.

McGill claims the requests are part of “retaliation measures against McGill in the aftermath of the 2011-2012 student protests.”

The student strike demonstrated, however, that there are multiple ways students could disrupt universities—filing ATI requests for that purpose seems comparatively weak and inefficient.

This motion could set a dangerous precedent for infringing on student journalists’ right to information.

In times of cuts to universities, one should question such a waste of time and resources by McGill, as well as the costs associated with it—and perhaps even file an ATI about it.

For more information on Access to Information in Quebec, visit cai.gouv.qc.ca .