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Judicial inquiry needed to investigate Lethbridge police spying on NDP MLA

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Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips as Alberta NDP environment minister in 2015. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) may be an OK place to start the investigation into the concerted effort by the Lethbridge Police Service (LPS) to spy on Shannon Phillips, a local woman who just happened to be the environment minister in the NDP government that led Alberta from 2015 to 2019.

ASIRT is the investigative body that proves time and again Alberta's police are well trained, completely professional, and almost never shoot at anyone who doesn't need shooting at. Either that, or maybe they come to police misconduct already inclined to find that sworn police officers did nothing wrong.

Whatever, ASIRT's conclusions are unlikely to be very reassuring or persuade many people something isn't deeply wrong inside the Lethbridge police department that extends far beyond a few "bad apples" in the shocking circumstances uncovered by Phillips and her staff and made public to a national audience Sunday evening by the CBC.

No, to get to the bottom of whatever was happening in the southern Alberta city of 93,000 over the past four years will require an independent inquiry run by a judge.

Unfortunately, Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu's expressions of outrage notwithstanding, that's about as likely to happen in a province run by Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party as the "Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns" led by a Calgary accountant and UCP supporter is to produce a fair and unbiased report.

After all, if this is how independent police forces in Alberta operate, it's not going to help Premier Kenney's campaign to get rid of the RCMP, which will have been investigating voting irregularities in the UCP's 2017 leadership race for two years next Monday, and replace it with his own loyal provincial police force.

Sunday's CBC story outlines how, among other things, sworn Lethbridge police officers took surreptitious photographs of Phillips at a restaurant meeting with a well-known environmentalist and posted them anonymously on the internet.

More serious than this kind of Keystone Koppery, however, was the apparent fishing expedition "without investigative purposes" by LPS members that included illegal searches of government databases to see if they could turn up any embarrassing gossip about the Lethbridge-West MLA or people she was meeting.

This has the distinct feeling of a political campaign by the police against their local MLA.

Were they just doing it for fun, or because they were part of the frequently violent and destructive off-road-vehicle crowd that infests Alberta's woodlands? That group was furious at times during the NDP's years in power for its plans to restrict off-roading in parks.

Two officers said to be associated with that bunch were investigated by a neighbouring municipal police department and received demotions, a gentle tap on the wrist. Last month, the Law Enforcement Review Board called the investigation "tainted, flawed and grossly inadequate" and gave Phillips the right to appeal. You can depend on it, she will.

Or were officers working for someone outside the small police force? Did they have political connections in Lethbridge? Did they have the tacit approval of senior officers on the force? And who else gets subjected to the same treatment by Lethbridge police?

These questions and many more like them need to be asked in a venue where answers can be compelled and be subject to meaningful penalties if they are not truthful. That doesn't sound like ASIRT.

None of this would have come to light had Phillips herself not been a tough fighter who has the knowhow to push back effectively. She filed Freedom of Information requests seeking LPS documents with her name on them. The result was more than 9,000 pages of mostly redacted documents, but with enough in them to give a hint of what the force was up to.

This kind of behaviour directly threatens our democracy, and Albertans deserve answers they can trust.

The people of Lethbridge, a city with a strong progressive tradition in the middle of a deeply conservative rural region, deserve to know their police are not using their powers to campaign politically against their elected representatives.

Kenney caves to Conservative caucus COVID skeptics

Yesterday morning we noted here that Premier Jason Kenney was facing an open revolt by MLAs who favour responding to COVID-19 restrictions on trade and social activities with a complete Texas-style opening.

Yesterday afternoon Health Minister Tyler Shandro got up at a virtual news conference and announced Alberta would be hurrying immediately into the next stage of its reopening schedule.

Coincidence? Probably not.

"I want to reassure all Albertans that this is a careful step," Shandro told the journalists on the line. "It's a cautious step."

It is genuinely ironic that almost no one is going to believe that, neither the 80 per cent of Albertans polls show generally support meaningful efforts to control the pandemic, nor the 20 per cent of COVID-deniers that actually frighten Kenney.

Nor is that the only irony in this situation. We are quite close now to being able to safely reopen thanks to the supplies of COVID-19 vaccines that, despite Premier Kenney's efforts to cast doubt on the federal government's efforts, are now flowing into the province.

But if a few more needless COVID deaths are what it takes to keep Kenney's disunited Conservative party from coming apart at the seams, I guess we'll have to put up with them.

So if you’re part of the 80 per cent, you're going to need to stay out of local restaurants for a few more weeks until you've had your jabs and they've had long enough to take effect.

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.

Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

Editor's note, March 9, 2021: This story was updated to clarify that it was Shannon Phillips who filed the original Freedom of Information requests, with the support of her staff.

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