“Soft” Law

“Soft" Law can be used with, or as an alternative to, going to court. Here are some examples:

Freedom of Information

Freedom of Information legislation is a tool for gaining access to government documents that applies at all three levels of government. See the Provincial Resources section for a website link to your province’s access to information process. Federally, see the Access to Information Act and the Department of Justice webpage on accessing information.

To apply, write a letter or fill out the appropriate form and submit it to the government organization that has the information you seek. Check to see if an application fee is required. Avoid being too broad or vague. Direct the government to the specific type of documents you seek. The FOI Coordinator has 30 days to respond to you. If you don’t hear back within 30 days, your request is deemed to be refused. The FOI Coordinator can apply for an extension if she provides written notice and reasons for the extension. If the FOI Coordinator can respond to the request, she will send a Fee Estimate and deposit requirements (50% of the Fee). Fees may be waived in certain circumstances, such as financial hardship or if the information will benefit public health and safety. If you apply for the fee waiver you need evidence to support your claims.

If the Coordinator refuses your request, s/he must provide written reasons. Certain documents such as Cabinet records, documents dealing with law enforcement or national security, and documents covered by solicitor-client privilege are exempt from FOI legislation and will not be released.

You may wish to appeal the decision. Provinces each have their own rules regarding appeals of the FOI office’s decision. Generally, there is a time limit for requesting a review of the decision. You will be entitled to make representations to the responsible official. The official will report to the head of the relevant government body, who will decide upon further action, if any. If you are not satisfied with the investigation and review decision, you have a certain number of days to decide whether to appeal to the Court of Queen’s Bench.

Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA)

CEAA applies when a physical work or physical activity is proposed and the federal government is implicated somehow. For example, the proponent may be a federal body or the project may require a federal permit, be federally funded or on federal land. CEAA requires that the federal government conduct the assessment. There are three types of assessments: Screenings (98.5% of EAs), Comprehensive studies (1.4%), and Panel reviews (0.1%). Public participation in comprehensive studies and panel reviews is mandatory while public participation in screenings is discretionary. Keep up to date by checking the Canadian Environmental Assessment Registry.

Law Reform

Law reform is the attempt to convince governments to change the law. You can get involved in law reform by providing input into the legislative process (for example, submit a written brief or give oral testimony to a legislative committee); by responding to public participation processes; by proposing a new law under the federal Auditor General Act.


Prepare a petition under the federal Auditor General Act (Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development) and ask for an investigation by a particular ministry. Write:
Office of the Auditor General of Canada
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development
Attention: Petitions
240 Sparks Street
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0G6 Canada
613–995–3708 or 1–888–761–5953 (toll free) Fax: 613–941–8286


Ask for a formal investigation by the federal Minister of Environment under section 17 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. (Note that the investigation must be limited to CEPA offences.)

International Law

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation was established by Canada, Mexico and the US under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (a side agreement to NAFTA). The CEC’s mandate is to foster cooperation on environment issues and to oversee enforcement of environmental laws by NAFTA parties.

The Secretariat is an independent body under the CEC. NAAEC Article 14 allows citizens to make written submissions to the CEC regarding the lack of enforcement of a domestic environmental law.