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Progress Alberta fights Jason Kenney's 'unconstitutional' witch hunt

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Progress Alberta director Duncan Kinney. Image: Dave Cournoyer, used with permission

Well, one thing's already clear, there's no way the mighty Kenney government will shut down its so-called inquiry into "anti-Alberta energy campaigns" on the say so of Progress Alberta, a small Edmonton-based research and activist organization.

That said, the day may come when the government's leaders wish they had.

Yesterday morning, Progress Alberta director Duncan Kinney announced the organization's lawyer has fired off a letter to inquiry commissioner Steve Allan demanding that he immediately end what critics have termed a political inquisition or face having it shut down by the courts.

Progress Alberta's complaint is based in part on the argument the organization has repeatedly been targeted by Premier Jason Kenney and his UCP government, both during the provincial election last spring and since, "with false accusations that our group was a part of a conspiracy, working in league with American foundations, to sabotage Alberta's economy."

"Those attacks appeared to be in retaliation for Progress Alberta exercising its constitutionally protected right to campaign against Jason Kenny and the UCP," Kinney said in a statement.

In reality, he said yesterday, "we are not a part of the Tar Sands Campaign. We have never campaigned against pipelines or oilsands projects. We have never conspired with the Rockefellers to sabotage Alberta's economy."

"But that didn't stop Kenney from smearing us and turning us into an enemy of Alberta," Kinney continued, suggesting that's what the premier had to do in order "to distract Albertans from the brutal austerity he's inflicting on Albertans."

"We have a clear message for Kenney," Kinney continued. "Shut down this unconstitutional and undemocratic witch hunt of an inquiry or we will shut it down for you."

Now, if the government of Alberta is a Goliath in such matters, Progress Alberta is certainly David.

But since many of the most enthusiastic supporters of Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government are among those who believe the contents of Bible are literal journalism, it probably behooves us to review the Old Testament narrative found in Chapter 17 of the first Book of Samuel.

Little David, as alert readers of Scripture will recall, put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote big Goliath in his forehead. Thereby, history was made and a terrific metaphor created.

The rock in Progress Alberta's metaphorical slingshot -- Amir Attaran -- is not just some spiky haired law graduate out to make a name for himself.

Attaran is a full professor in the faculties of both law and medicine at the University of Ottawa. A distinguished scholar, in other words. He has had, as they say, a diverse career as a scientist, lawyer and advocate for public health, human rights and environmental protection.

Folks like Premier Kenney are not likely to be among Attaran's greatest fans, of course, since many Conservatives took vociferous offence at his tweeted observation last summer that their party had become "the party of the uneducated."

Regardless of his willingness to court controversy, the point is that Attaran is no piker when it comes to the law.

"The attacks on Progress Alberta have created a chilling effect that has discouraged Progress Alberta's traditional donors from supporting the organization," Attaran wrote in his letter to Allan. "The threat of the Inquiry has also forced Progress Alberta to divert resources towards research and legal defense, rather than reaching its target audience."

Since the commissioner cannot exercise his mandate to inquire into "anti-Alberta energy campaigns" without making a determination information distributed by opponents of the government's policies is "misleading or false," the letter argues, "the Commissioner must arrive at a value determination of the content of the Canadian organization's expression, simply to cross the threshold of acquiring jurisdiction over it."

"We do not believe that it is legal for the Inquiry's jurisdiction to be predicated upon the value of constitutionally-protected expression."

The letter continues:

"While government can place proportionate restrictions on the right of free expression where there is a pressing and substantial objective, that is not the Inquiry's function. Instead the Inquiry, by its Terms of Reference, has the intent of subjecting organizations who campaign and advance allegedly 'anti-Alberta' beliefs about the oil and gas industry to a legal process in which their associations with foreign organizations are examined by a Commissioner having coercive powers in the Public Inquiries Act. This has a chilling effect a priori upon organizations wishing to express themselves, and hinders their participation in political discourse about the oil and gas industry."

The letter also notes that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled "government interference in political discourse is highly unconstitutional."

Similarly, the letter says, the inquiry's terms interfere with government opponents' charter-guaranteed right to freedom of association.

These matters are in addition to concerns about whether the inquiry's mandate is even allowed under Alberta's powers set out in the Constitution Act, 1867, which are the subject of litigation brought by other parties, the letter added.

Accordingly, Attaran's letter concluded, "I caution the Government of Alberta to repeal the Terms of Reference and disband the Inquiry forthwith, failing which we may commence litigation, in anticipation of which I instruct the Government of Alberta to retain all records in connection with the Inquiry or its establishment."

Well, Kenney and his commissioner won't like that very much. Indeed, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer soon advised the Toronto Star's Edmonton reporter to tell Progress Alberta to "bring it on."

Attaran responded on Twitter: "'Bring it on' is not exactly thoughtful constitutional analysis, @Doug_Schweitzer. My client, @ProgressAlberta, hopes for a more intelligent, mature response."

You have to admit, though, it was a great way to start "Red Tape Reduction Awareness Week."

That risible occasion was launched today as well by so-called Red Tape Reduction Minister Grant Hunter in coordination with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, a lobby group that is obviously no foe of the Kenney government.

Allan's inquiry is one bit of red tape that Alberta, and Canada, could do without.

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Dave Cournoyer, used with permission.

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