An unidentified individual has asked the Ontario government to supply a full list of farmers and farm businesses by name and Farm Business Registration (FBR) number.
The formal request, filed under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, asks the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) to provide the following information:
“List of all Ontario businesses with a Farm Business Registration. If possible I would like their FBR number as well, but at the very least, I just need the names of the businesses that are registered.”
The FBR number system allows Ontario farmers to access farm-specific programs, such as property tax grants, risk management programs, and more. To qualify, a business or individual must have $7,000 in eligible farm sales in a year.
The request applies for the period from March 1, 2019 to February 28, 2020.
In coming up with its response to the freedom-of-information (FOI) request, OMAFRA sent letters to “a moderate sample” of producers, asking for feedback. A source says approximately 490 Ontario farmers and farm businesses received the letter, dated June 26, 2020.
In part, the letter reads as follows:
“The Ministry is required, by the Act, to provide you with 20 days to let us know whether you have concerns about disclosing this information and why. We would like you to: review the information that the Ministry has provided (Appendix A – the information and Appendix B – section 17 of the Act); let us know by July 17, 2020 by responding to this email: if you agree to having the enclosed information released in its entirety; or, if you object to having the enclosed information (Appendix A) released in its entirety, please highlight what you object to having released and let us know in your email why this is the case. Please ensure that you are as detailed as possible as this will help us make a decision. For example, do you consider the information to be confidential and why, and what ‘harm’ do you believe could reasonably be expected to result from the release of the information?”
Under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act, anyone has a right of access to information that public-sector organizations in Ontario hold. OMAFRA states it is required to follow a process for such requests. The Act, in sections 17 and 20, provides exemptions for withholding information based on “reasonable grounds that the request for access is frivolous or vexatious.”
At this time, the reason for the request — and what the person intends to do with the information — has not been disclosed, but Kurtis Andrews, an Ontario lawyer specializing in agriculture law says he’s quite sure he knows who is behind the request.
“These are activists for sure,” he says, via email. “They have a long history of trying to manipulate FOI legislation for their purposes. The information, if provided, will be used against farmers, probably to set up a map with a list of addresses to target farmers for protests. This happened in Australia. The Act is being manipulated to breach farmers’ privacy interests.”
Andrews says the request should be opposed vigorously by any individual who receives this type of letter.
“In addition, farmers should be contacting their MPPs to ask the Ministry to deny the request altogether,” he says.
If OMAFRA refuses the request on these grounds, the person or group responsible for the request could potentially take legal action to move the process forward. They would also have to prove they were not planning to use the information for nefarious purposes.
“Individual farmers really shouldn’t be expected to consult a lawyer to know how to properly deal with this. The government should be intervening to protect them,” he says.
OMAFRA says that it cannot divulge the identity of the requester, and, as part of processing this FOI request, it was determined that consultation with producers on releasing this information would be necessary under Section 17 (Third Party Information) of the Act.
“Due to the large number of producers impacted by this request and the challenges presented by the COVID-19 outbreak in reaching out to all producers, the Ministry is consulting via email with a sample of producers. 490 producers with a valid FBR number during the period of the request and whose email addresses had been previously provided to Agricorp were asked to respond in writing by July 17, 2020 if they had concerns with the release of this information,” says an OMAFRA spokesperson.
Information released under an FOI access request is viewed to be “disclosure to the public generally” and the government does not have the ability to limit the requester’s use of the information, OMAFRA says, however, information could be withheld based on feedback by third parties impacted by the release of this information (such as the farmers and farm businesses who hold FBR numbers).
Individuals who received the letter and have concerns with the release of the FBR numbers and names are to contact OMAFRA by email at [email protected]. It is not clear if those who did not receive the letter can also submit their concerns to the province.
In the letter sent to producers, the provincial agriculture ministry says it will make a decision on whether to provide the requested information by August 10, 2020, and that the information would be released shortly thereafter.