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OFA responds to FOI decision

OFA responds to FOI decision

The farm organization is working to guide members through understanding the process and their options moving forward 

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer
Farms.com

A farm organization in Ontario has sprung into action to help their membership understand and react to OMAFRA’s decision regarding the Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the names of businesses in the province with a Farm Business Registration (FBR) number.

OMAFRA announced recently that it will release the names of businesses to the requester, but not the FBR numbers.

“There’s a lot of confusion by membership on the process; certainly their concern is the release of personal information to someone they know nothing about,” Keith Currie, president of the OFA told Farms.com. “Part of the Freedom of Information Act is that the requester does not have to be identified, and really the only person that knows who the requester is, is the FOI coordinator … so there’s the fear of the unknown. What is behind this request and, more importantly, who is behind it?”

The spirit of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) is to provide transparency around anything involving government processes, Currie explained.

Also, “there’s an act around the FBR and what that means is that if you want to have access to government programs in Ontario you have to have a registered farm business,” he added. Those programs would include any cost-sharing through Canadian Agricultural Partnership funding or the provincial Risk Management Program.

So, any farm businesses in the province who access those programs have an FBR, and the FIPPA stipulates that business information, regardless of whether or not the business is located at a personal dwelling, does not qualify as personal information.

“The fear of the membership is that (the unknown requestor) is somebody who’s going to cause undue harm. There are provisions within the act that state that anyone requesting information cannot use that information to cause undue harm,” Currie said.

However, the challenge is that the anonymity of the requester makes it impossible to determine the use case of the information that will be released.

“There is some fear that (the requester) could be, for example, an activist,” Currie added.

The information will be released through OMAFRA. “Through this process, the government’s hands are tied as well, because of the act,” Currie said.

“Certainly, from a farm organization’s standpoint, to get massive information of a membership base is very concerning. … Through this process we’ve discovered that there were changes made to this legislation in 2006 that actually allow for this kind of release of massive data. … So we may have to have conversations with the government moving forward with respect to how we can look at protecting that information of the membership and everyone registered in the province,” he explained.

Moving forward, the OFA will be sending information to members about the current situation and next steps.

“We’re going to be sending a letter to our membership … explaining the process, explaining the concept of the act, and what they can do and encouraging people to file an appeal,” Currie said.

The fulfillment of the FOI request can be halted by just one appeal.

“It only takes one person to appeal to stop this process going forward, and that’s already happened. I know an appeal went in yesterday,” Currie said. “Once an appeal goes in, the process of honouring that request stops until the appeal is heard. That could take months to maybe even years depending on the situation.”

Appeals go through the information and the privacy commissioner, who will work with the FOI coordinator, he added.

Overall “there’s a concern out there that there’s more to this request than what meets the eye,” Currie said. The OFA’s “approach is that we are worried that it will have a negative impact on (farm businesses) and we don’t want that to happen.”

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