Comprehensive information about privacy and the laws regulating personal information in Canada both in relation to the government and private institutions is provided in Alberta Civil Liberties and Research Centre’s handbook on privacy. See: ACLRC’s Privacy Handbook for Canadians. [ACLRC Privacy Handbook]. Some of the salient information is included below but it is advisable to read the handbook because of the wealth of knowledge it provides.

Disclosing Personal information

In Canada, there are several sources of privacy protection laws. The federal government’s power to protect citizens’ privacy comes from the Privacy Act (hereinafter referred to as PA). This piece of legislation deals with the collection, disclosure and correction of personal information held by the federal government. Its purposes are:

  • To protect the privacy of individuals regarding their personal information

  • To provide individuals with a right to access that information. 

Every province in Canada also has some type of access to information and protection of privacy legislation. In Alberta, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act [the “FOIPP Act”] is the governing legislation. FOIPP’s function is as follows:

  • To allow any person the right to access records in the control of the government, subject to certain limited exceptions.

  • To regulate the manner in which the government collects, uses and discloses personal information in its custody.

  • To allow individuals the right to access information about themselves held by the government.

  • To allow individuals to request corrections to personal information held by the government.

FOIPP applies to government bodies within Alberta, including departments and offices of the provincial government, educational bodies like universities and school boards, health care bodies like hospitals (the Health Information Act applies to health information as well), law enforcement bodies like police departments and local government bodies such as the municipal government.

When we are talking about personal information here, we are referring to information that is identifiable to a specific person. The following are examples of personal information:

  • Race, nationality, colour, religion, age, marital status

  • Education history, medical history, criminal history, financial or employment history

  • Identifying number assigned to an individual (e.g., Social Insurance Number)

  • Address, fingerprints or blood type

  • Private and confidential correspondence 

  • Name

When can the Canadian Government disclose personal information?

Under the PA, the general rule for the federal government to be able to disclose personal information is if the person consents. In order for the government to disclose without consent, it must fall under certain limited circumstances. The following are example of these exceptions:

  • For a purpose for which the information was obtained or a use consistent with that purpose

  • When federal law authorizes the disclosure

  • To comply with a court order, subpoena or warrant

  • To a provincial, federal or international government or institution for law enforcement reasons

The one major exception that must be noted is that the government may release personal information for any purpose where they decide the public interest in disclosure clearly outweighs any invasion of privacy that could result from the disclosure. Also, personal information may be released if the disclosure would clearly benefit the individual to whom the information relates.

There are some types of information that the government can never disclose. This information is covered under the mandatory exemptions and is forbidden from being disclosed by any government institution. The information covered under this exemption is the following:

  • Information obtained from other governments (including municipal and provincial governments)

  • Information about individuals other than the requestor

  • Information about investigations by the RCMP on behalf of a province

When can the provincial government disclose personal information about me?

FOIPP allows the provincial government to disclose personal information to someone other than the person it concerns in some circumstances. The following are some examples:

  • When the individual provides written consent

  • If the disclosure is not an unreasonable invasion of privacy

  • For a use consistent with the purpose of compiling the information

  • To comply with federal or provincial law

  • To a relative of a deceased person

  • To avert or minimize an imminent danger to public health or safety.