Ecojustice lawsuit seeks to quash Alberta inquiry into oil and gas foes

Lawyer Devon Page, Ecojustice Canada Executive Director, pauses during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday September 26, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

An environmental law firm is asking a court to strike down Alberta’s inquiry into the role that foreign money has in financing the activities of charities that oppose the oilsands.

In its application, Vancouver-based Ecojustice claims the province’s inquiry into what it calls anti-Alberta activities is politically motivated, prejudges its conclusions and is outside provincial jurisdiction.

“It really means something when a government decides to use the judicial process to silence people,” said Devon Page, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit in Calgary Court of Queen’s Bench on Thursday.

READ MORE: Alberta inquiry into oil and gas foes could face legal challenge from Ecojustice

Soon after the election last spring, the United Conservative government created a $2.5-million inquiry to examine concerns that U.S. environmental charities are funnelling money to their Canadian counterparts in an effort to landlock Alberta oil to benefit U.S. energy companies.

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Inquiry commissioner Steve Allan has already been conducting interviews as part of the “Public Inquiry Into Funding of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns.”

The inquiry’s factual premise has been seriously challenged several times, but this is the first challenge to its legality.

“The inquiry has been called not to address a matter of pressing public interest, but to justify a predetermined intent to harm the reputations, economic viability and freedom of expression of certain organizations,” says the lawsuit.

The inquiry’s terms prejudge its findings, alleges the lawsuit, because they assume that such campaigns exist, that they spread lies and that there is a plot to frustrate an industry assumed to have been doing a good environmental job.

The document notes that he government’s order in council applies perjorative terms such as “anti-Alberta” to those who may be subject to the inquiry.

The lawsuit also alleges that inquiry commissioner Steve Allan was a donor to the UCP leadership campaign of Doug Schweitzer, now Alberta’s justice minister, who appointed him to the job.

Those concerns, it claims, “(transform) the inquiry from an independent fact-finding mission into a predetermined demonstration of misconduct, resulting in a reasonable apprehension of bias.”

Alberta government responds

Two government spokespeople emailed identical responses to the lawsuit: “A foreign-funded activist group opposing the inquiry on foreign-funded attacks on Alberta’s oil and gas workers is not surprising and speaks for itself.”

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Energy Minister Sonya Savage also responded to the lawsuit Thursday afternoon, echoing the government spokespeople in a statement saying, “Ecojustice’s opposition to the inquiry into the foreign-funded attacks on our oil and gas workers speaks for itself.”

Savage said she saw the challenges Canada’s natural resource industry faced first-hand when working in the pipeline industry from 2005 to 2018 and is “committed to uncovering the truth and working to revitalize the energy sector.”

“Our government was elected on the promise to launch a public inquiry into the foreign sources of funds behind the anti-Alberta energy campaigns. This inquiry is long overdue and will examine if, how and why foreign funding has contributed to landlocking our energy sector,” the minister said in a statement.

READ MORE: ‘A witch hunt’: Critics question intentions of Kenney’s anti-oil sands inquiry

Savage said Ecojustice has been one of the leading activist groups seeking to block the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, and claimed it has received US$815,000 from the U.S.-based Tides Foundation — a left-of-center donor-advised fund provider.

Ecojustice says about 14 per cent of its funding comes from outside Canada.

Jonah Mozeson of Alberta Energy forwarded an article to The Canadian Press from the Daily Telegraph newspaper in London, that suggests Russian money has also fuelled energy disinformation campaigns.

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Other concerns about the inquiry

It’s not the first time concerns have been raised about the inquiry. Amnesty International has said it threatens freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Last week, a longtime Edmonton charitable foundation that doesn’t fund environmental groups or receive U.S. money released an open letter that said the inquiry’s assumptions come “dangerously close to government direction of speech and thought.”

In a 174-page letter to Allan, the Muttart Foundation says the Public Inquiry Into Funding of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns is creating a “climate of fear” by suggesting there is a price to be paid for disagreeing with the government.

READ MORE: Longtime Edmonton charity questions ‘anti Albertan’ inquiry: ‘Everybody tone down the rhetoric’

Martin Olszynski, a University of Calgary administrative law professor, compares the dispute to when former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis tried to stop Jehovah’s Witnesses from spreading their message. His attempt was crushed by the courts.

“This has echoes of that previous effort to stifle views that are not consistent with the majority and with the government of that time,” Olszynski said.

There’s no question of criminality in the inquiry, only of disagreeing with the government, he noted. As well, he points out the inquiry doesn’t indicate who might be called as a witness — a bedrock requirement of procedural fairness.

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The inquiry has also been criticized for awarded a million-dollar contract to a Calgary law firm in which Allan’s son is a partner.

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