I know I’m not alone when I say the recent decision by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) surprised me.
I’m also likely not alone when I say the decision made me incredibly angry. And angry for a few reasons, I might add.
Angry, because I assumed (wrongly) that my name (first and last, as many farms are registered) and information when submitted to the government, would be considered private. Angry, because the spirit of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPP) Act is to keep government transparent and accountable, not make people targets.
Some in the farming community were very OK with this freedom of information (FOI) request, and offered up their registration number and name (as was their right to do so). There were some who during this process accused those who were against the FOI request being granted of “hiding something” or being otherwise overly protective.
Let’s address that, shall we?
I work and farm very much in the public eye. I’m not hiding anything or in any way trying to hide. My Twitter profile is public; my DMs are open. My farm has a website, a Facebook page, and an Instagram account. You can find me on Google maps. I stand at a farmer’s market every Saturday, introduce myself, and answer any darn question that a passerby has. I am not afraid of the public, their questions, scrutiny, or concerns. I work in agriculture media and farm on a major road in a city of a million people. I am not hard to find or get ahold of, so let’s get that part of my issue with the FOI request out of the way.
Instead, let’s recognize that while we aren’t privy to whoever asked for the information, and won’t ever be unless said person comes forward, we’d be rather naive to think this person did so for purely innocent reasons. There’s plenty of evidence worldwide of similar FOI requests being used for nefarious purposes — and the legislation, as written, expressly allows for names to be released. We know this now.
In response to my follow-up questions regarding how this all came to be, OMAFRA says, “We understand there have been concerns raised related to the Freedom of Information request for farm business names and registration numbers.”
In 2006, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (the Act) was amended to codify the interpretation of personal information to officially exclude business names as personal information.
The government has an obligation to comply with the Act which grants the general right of access to government-held information, subject to specific exemptions.
Frankly, it’s exhausting and tiresome to be constantly vigilant against the next roundabout way someone or some group is working against agriculture (assuming that is the case here). But here we are.
So, what do we do now? For one — anyone who takes issue with this decision can file an appeal. Appeals have already been filed, which means that no information will be released under the Act until directed by the Information and Privacy Commissioner once they have reviewed and ruled on the appeal(s).
Secondly, I do think we lobby to change the Act to protect farm names and otherwise identifiable information.
Third— and in the interim or in lieu of regulatory change — I want Agricorp’s farm business registration number paperwork to fully explain what farmers are agreeing to when signing up in regards to who may potentially access their name, farm name, or farm business name. Finding out how personal — yes, my name is personal! — information will be used or shared by the government shouldn’t be a nasty surprise.