Last Thursday, the first hearings took place regarding a motion in which McGill requests the ability to deny past and future Access to Information (ATI) requests. Filed last December, the motion seeks to deny ATI requests submitted by a total of 14 present and former McGill students, as well as the power to deny all future ATI requests that are similar in nature to those of the respondents.
The hearing was a preliminary meeting in which the respondents motioned to strike a clause that allows McGill to set out criteria that they would use to deem future ATI requests void. This clause requests a change from the procedure that typically applies to public bodies, which must submit a request to the Commission d’accés á l’information if they wish to deny any ATI.
McGill’s original motion requested the ability to deny ATI requests due to the “serious impediments to [McGill’s] activities” posed by the volume of ATIs that students were submitting. The university received 170 ATI requests last year—133 more than the year before.
Thursday’s hearing was scheduled to extend over a two-day period, but lasted only three and a half hours. Only four of the 14 respondents were present. The Commission will not reach a verdict for several weeks.
Kevin Paul, a McGill law student named as a respondent in the case, said he left the hearing feeling confident.
“There are no instances in the past where the Commission has delegated to a public body its power to determine what an acceptable request is,” Paul said. “The Commission’s power is limited to ruling on existing requests […. McGill] seeks unprecedented powers to judge ATI requests in place of the Commission and relies on fabricating a retaliatory conspiracy on the part of students against the university.”
However, McGill Secretary-General Stephen Strople said that there are more factors at play in the case than students’ ATI request rights.
“The law does not only give rights to those asking for documents; it also gives rights to those from whom the documents are requested,” Strople said. “At the hearing, we amended our application to provide for an alternative. If the Commission does not want to grant us permission to ignore future requests of the type we describe, then it could require that such requests for access first be submitted to the Commission for review before the university has to deal with them.”
Richard Kurland is a Vancouver-based lawyer who is not involved in the proceedings but has experience in ATI cases. He said that the phrasing of the students’ initial ATI requests should have been more specific in order to provide McGill with questions of an answerable scope, and that McGill should be granted the power to deny similar ATI requests.
“It’s a desirable result given the ineptitude that was manifested here by whoever drew up these questions,” Kurland said. “They ought to have consulted a professional.”
Cadence O’Neal, U1 arts and a respondent in the case, said she feels it is important for students to retain the right to request information from McGill on any topic, regardless of the wording of the questions.
“Necessitating that curious students ask legal professionals prior to sending in ATI Requests seems like it would deter a lot of folks from asking anything at all,” O’Neal said.
Robin Reid-Fraser, U4 environment and another respondent, expressed a similar sentiment, arguing that McGill’s request is unreasonable.
“From the information our lawyer presented, what McGill is asking the Commission to do goes well above and beyond its mandate as set out by the law,” Reid-Fraser said.
According to Kurland, while students have the right to request information, they should refine their requests to ask for more specific records that would be manageable for the university to procure.
“If students are worried about a policy at McGill, democracy means people have the right to know and McGill has the obligation to disclose,” he said. “But there’s a need for their requests to be crystal clear, manageable, and deliverable. The easiest thing to do is start fresh and get it right.”
A verdict is expected to be reached within several weeks. Trial dates are set for October and December to determine whether or not the ATI requests of the 14 respondents will be denied.