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Alberta public inquiry saga takes another confusing and secretive turn

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Alberta Inquiry Commissioner Steve Allan (Image credit: Lieutenant Governor of Alberta).

Has Steve Allan finally gotten around to starting work looking into whether that supposed environmental conspiracy that became an issue during the 2019 Alberta election campaign is an actual thing? Or what?

Late last week, Albertans learned the forensic accountant from Calgary who leads the so-called public inquiry into anti-alberta energy campaigns had notified 40 organizations he'd like to chat with them about his work to date, such as it may be.

In a Friday afternoon news release from the inquiry, commissioner Allan said "about 40 organizations are being sent confidential notices asking for their response to potential findings of the Inquiry that pertain specifically to each of them." (Emphasis added.)

Whatever the heck Allan has been up to until now other than receiving four extensions and a substantial cash infusion since the inquiry was announced with great fanfare in July 2019 remains about as clear as mud.

Well, we know he paid too much for a trio of tendentious screeds described by observers as "textbook examples of climate change denialism," and that he took a nice mid-pandemic break in Palm Springs. But other than that, pffft!

The bits of homework he'll be handing around are a secret. So are the identities of the 40 or so organizations he says he’s contacted. Remember, this is supposedly a public inquiry.

"The formal Notices sent to individual organizations grants them standing as a Participant for Response, which is the second phase of the Inquiry Engagement Process," says the news release, which in addition to a 19th century approach to capitalization is rich in bureaucratic gobbledygook. "Participants for Response may include an individual, group, organization, society, government, agency, institution, body corporate or other entity."

"The potential findings, the related evidence and the material that will provide the context for considering a potential finding will be made accessible in a secure dataroom platform (the Dataroom)," Allan said in his letter to the unidentified recipients. "Any potential finding is based on this available information and I will not make any finding in respect of you until I have had an opportunity to consider and analyze any submissions you make in this process."

I guess that's supposed to cover the commission's collective butt on the legal requirement to let people and groups the commissioner intends to criticize, and who up to now he's failed to contact, rebut his claims.

"The Notice informed Participants that the materials made available to them are provided on the basis that they are confidential, are not to be disclosed and may only be used for the purposes of the Inquiry unless and until they become part of the public record," the release went on.

"Release of the materials prior to their inclusion, if at all, in the Final Report may result in prejudice or harm to parties who may not be subject to a finding in the Final Report."

That could be seen as a threat, or as a lure to get organizations to lend a little legitimacy to Allan's efforts by responding to something that deserves to be ignored, presumably on the grounds that if they don't they won't be able to sue the inquiry later.

It's not clear Allan has the power to order any such thing.

For all we know now, and may ever know, the allegations that are being shared are nothing more than bait in a fishing expedition. It remains to be seen if any fish are biting.

The conspiracy theory that big American corporations and foundations were bankrolling Canadian environmental charities to achieve a market advantage over their supposedly more ethical Canadian counterparts was at the heart of Premier Jason Kenney's successful crusade to unite the right, drive the Alberta NDP from power, and restore Conservative rule in Wild Rose country.

So as a political gimmick, it has to be acknowledged as a success.

Since there was never really any evidence for that proposition, though, Allan's real job appears to have been to come up with some evidence. Whatever he's been doing for the past two years, he doesn't seem to have had much success beyond getting time extensions and that increase in his budget to $3.5 million.

Last month, the Vancouver blogger generally credited by the premier and media with the theory announced she has never accused environmental organizations of being used by U.S. interests to landlock Canadian bitumen. They were just looking out for the environment, Vivian Krause said she thought all along, which is sort of what you'd expect environmental organizations to do.

So, if Krause didn’t come up with the theory once taken as gospel on the Alberta right, who did? Maybe Allan could look into that mystery too.

Even before Krause spoke up, the Allan inquiry appeared to be in trouble.

Friday's confusing announcement does nothing to alter that impression.

This time the inquiry's report is due on July 30.

What do you want to bet the Kenney government decides to "study" it for a long, long time after that? Certainly until after the next provincial election.

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: Government of Alberta

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