A new Centre for Access to Information and Justice (CAIJ), which opened at The University of Winnipeg this fall, will be a leading international hub for public interest research on matters of freedom of information (FOI) and access to justice in Canada and beyond.
CAIJ Director Dr. Kevin Walby envisions a space that not only opens doors for individuals to access vital information, but also fosters a sense of community among a diverse team of researchers, journalists, and activists.
Having access to information creates a terrain for justice in our society.
Dr. Kevin Walby
“My hope is that we can get people to think about collaborating, who maybe haven’t collaborated before,” said Walby. “The real power in this kind of public interest research comes from a group effort, when you have multiple people from different backgrounds working on the same question.”
Walby uses FOI all the time for criminal justice records, but would like to see more researchers from across disciplines use FOI to support their work.
“I find FOI records more valid than interviews and rhetoric on websites,” said Walby. “I don’t think people understand how powerful those records are compared to what we usually have access to with open sources. And if you come across a record in the archives and it’s classified, the mechanism to declassify it is FOI.”
Providing community tools to access information
According to Walby, many people don’t understand the depth of records available to them through FOI. To encourage more social scientists to use FOI requests in their research, the CAIJ will host its first colloquium on Wednesday, January 15, 2020; How to Use Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests in Social Science. This will be the first of many initiatives to provide the community with the tools they need to access information.
The CAIJ provides FOI training to researchers, classes, and community groups throughout the year, including helping individuals through the process of submitting an FOI request and providing resources to make the process easier, such as making free copies of the book, Access to Information and Social Justice, available upon request.
CAIJ members have recently published Freedom of Information and Social Science Research Design, a new volume of research providing readers with resources to carry out freedom of information requests, and to understand the influence such requests can have on debates within multiple disciplines.
CAIJ’s peer-reviewed journal, The Study Up, will publish its first edition in 2020. The publication – which is currently accepting submissions – will feature critical, investigative research using FOI requests to examine the state and corporate entities governing our lives.
A series of working groups will meet throughout the year to encourage interdisciplinary research. The groups will collaboratively analyze records and examine trends in areas such as policing, prisons, border agencies, and government surveillance. From investigating government practices, tracking general trends in FOI and access to justice, and documenting national and regional variations in these practices, these groups will work together to support one another’s research and ultimately increase access to justice locally and globally.
“I am lucky to have some incredible researchers, such as Alex Luscombe, working at CAIJ and conducting investigative, collaborative research,” said Walby. “A team-based approach is what really makes the investigations happen.”
Beginning in 2020, the Centre will initiate an annual FOI audit to investigate how organizations in Manitoba respond to Freedom of Information requests. Walby says a similar study is undertaken nationally by an association of investigative journalists, but it doesn’t go very deep into any particular province. He would like to replicate that research provincially to better understand how easy it is for Manitobans to access justice.
“Access to information is access to justice,” said Walby. “Access to justice isn’t just having access to a lawyer or being able to participate in legal debates. Having access to information creates a terrain for justice in our society. Without Freedom of Information, it’s very difficult to push for social, environmental, or any kind of justice.”