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Ecojustice throws down the gauntlet, Kenney responds with bravado

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

The Ecojustice Canada Society threw down the gauntlet yesterday and the sound of it landing may well reverberate around the country. It was certainly heard here in Alberta.

The respected Vancouver-based environmental litigation charity handed an ultimatum to Premier Jason Kenney's "public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns" on Tuesday.

Its message in a nutshell: stop acting like a kangaroo court that has already decided the outcome of its deliberations or prepare to be stopped in the courts.

The group's Alberta lawyers gave Commissioner Steve Allan 30 days to respond to three fundamental flaws they identified in the inquiry and its process:

  • Appearance of bias
  • Potential violations of Canadians' charter rights to freedom of expression and association
  • Lack of protections for due process and fair participation

Now, some readers may think such a challenge to Alberta's United Conservative Party is a forlorn hope.

They may need to think again. For all the money now in the control of Kenney and the UCP, Canada remains a country of laws where you can't just make up jurisprudence as you go along in the middle of a show trial presided over by a reliable apparatchik from Calgary because you couldn't find a real judge willing to take on such a transparently politically motivated assignment.

Moreover, Ecojustice is not made up of hand-wringing tree huggers but hard-nosed lawyers in business for more than 25 years with an excellent track record of success. In this case, I daresay, they have the wind in their sails.

So if Amnesty International's September 12 open letter was a cri de coeur by idealistic civil libertarians outraged at Kenney's apparently willing slide into authoritarianism, the letter emailed off to inquiry commissioner Allan via Alberta's notorious enviro-snitch line on Tuesday and released to media yesterday was something considerably sterner.

It's not an exaggeration to call it an ultimatum. In addition to eviscerating the intellectual premises of the inquiry piece by piece, it had a tone at times reminiscent of messages from diplomats from countries with plenty of gunboats.

The 14-page letter lays out the society's legal strategy, presumably because its signatories, Alberta-based Ecojustice lawyers Barry Robinson and Kurt Stilwell, are confident they have the law on their side.

In a news release, Ecojustice's executive director Devon Page called the inquiry "a political exercise intended to silence and intimidate environmental charities like Ecojustice."

"It is a targeted attack on organizations working to combat climate change and prepare Albertans -- and all Canadians -- for the necessary and inevitable shift away from fossil fuels," Page said.

He continued, "It is indisputably unconstitutional for the Government of Alberta to interfere with organizations lawfully participating in social and political discourse about Alberta's energy resources and the environment. Government interference in free speech is unconstitutional, an abuse of power, and ultimately a threat to democracy."

"If the commissioner does not address the fundamental issues of fairness at the heart of this inquiry, Premier Kenney and his government can and should expect further legal action," Page said.

Unsurprisingly, Kenney tried to blow this off with his usual bravado, vowing to reporters while visiting far-right think-tankers in New York that nothing will change with the way the inquiry will be conducted and accusing Ecojustice of using Alberta as a punching bag.

He also reminded reporters that the inquiry is popular with many voters in Alberta -- a statement that is undoubtedly true, although not necessarily much help in a courtroom.

Media reported that the premier's staff sent reporters links to Ecojustice's tax returns, which showed less than 14 per cent of its revenue came from foreign donations in the most recent tax year. But as Page said, "this isn't the first time a premier has resorted to name calling us. That doesn't get them anywhere in the courts."

The lawyers' letter to Commissioner Allan concluded: "It is Ecojustice's submission that the Inquiry is ill-conceived, promulgated for purely political purposes, and does not meet the test of expediency or being in the public interest. … The Government of Alberta has established an inquiry that is unlawful and potentially unconstitutional."

After 30 days have passed, presumably, the matter will swiftly go before the courts, which in Canada, unfortunately for Kenney and the UCP, remain impartial, unbiased and independent.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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