Access to Information blind to geography: be persistent

QUESTION: As it turns out I am following up on a story that I wrote after the last federal election.

Now that expenses from the election have been filed with Elections Canada I phoned the media line to request copies of invoices from a number of people and companies listed on [a newly elected MP’s] statement of electoral campaign expenses. I was informed that as per the Canadian Elections Act a person must come to Elections Canada office in Ottawa in person to see and make photocopies of the invoices. She said the department does not have the capacity to fulfill requests from journalists outside Ottawa. I live in Alberta and she suggested I find a j-school student in the city to get the documents I want as she informed me an access to information request would also not be granted (although I did send one in anyway).

Is this true? Can this department refuse me this information unless I appear in person to get it? Can I fight this and how can this rule be changed?

Thanks for your help!

Tanya Foubert
Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook

Answer by Dean Beeby

Hi Tanya,
Initially you made a voluntary request, and therefore no special rules apply. Elections Canada can indeed tell you they’re too busy, understaffed, etc., to provide documents to out-of-town journalists. And they have support in the Canada Elections Act which indicates citizens must come to their offices.
However, a request under the Access to Information Act brings into play a set of rules that is largely blind to geography. The rules apply equally to every applicant, no matter where in Canada they reside. The fact that a person on their “media line” was answering questions about how the Access to Information Act works is inappropriate, and in this case the person mislead you. There’s nothing in the Act that discriminates against applicants outside of Ottawa, except for one section that says if you don’t want photocopies of the records, you can view them in a government office. If there’s no office in your local community, you’d be required to travel to a community that does have one. But if you ask for photocopies, this doesn’t affect you.
Good luck with this, and be persistent.  
Dean Beeby
Dean Beeby, deputy bureau chief in Ottawa for The Canadian Press, is a frequent user of freedom-of-information laws.