By Connor Lynch
GUELPH — Most farmers would probably not assume that their personal information is subject to freedom of information requests.
They got a rude awakening in July, when an anonymous person made a freedom of information request for the names and personal information of every farm with a Farm Business Registration number in Ontario.
OMAFRA agreed to the request, after the requester pared it down to just the names of every farm instead. All three general farm organizations — The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Christian Farmers Federation and National Farmers Union – Ontario — jointly opposed and appealed the request.
OFA president Keith Currie also filed his own appeal, and encouraged other farmers to do so. One appeal, technically, is enough to potentially stop the release of information. But more appeals will signal to OMAFRA how upset farmers are by the decision, he said.
Currie said that the OFA office was flooded with hundreds of calls and emails from farmers unhappy with the request and wanting it stopped. He added that OMAFRA sent out letters to nearly 500 farmers asking for their input. Just 15 said they were ok with OMAFRA releasing the info.
It might sound odd that some random person can request so much personal information. Currie explained that because farms access government programs and services, like crop insurance and AgriStability, they become subject to the Freedom of Information Act. That act also explicitly allows for anonymous requests.
But whether the requester is above board or wants the information for nefarious purposes, using the FOI Act to get the information is suspicious and concerning, Currie said. The obvious go-to assumption is that the requester is some kind of activist. The Act does include the stipulation that information “cannot be used to cause undue harm,” Currie said.
Farmer Ian McGregor at Braeside in Renfrew County told Farmers Forum last month that he hadn’t even heard about the request, but it most definitely concerned him. “My initial reaction would be that they shouldn’t release that information,” he said, adding that a business or other organization looking for that info has more transparent ways of getting it.
Currie concurred, and added that the province has since said it will be looking at whether the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act are too broad and whether this type of request should even be possible. “We’ll certainly have a chance to have some input on that.”