Thursday November 03, 2016

'I'm sad for our democracy': Radio-Canada's Alain Gravel on 5 years of Quebec police surveillance

Alain Gravel was among the journalists spied on by Quebec police.

Alain Gravel was among the journalists spied on by Quebec police. (Radio-Canada)

Listen 7:39

At the beginning of the week, it was one journalist. Now, there are half-a-dozen more.

Quebec's provincial police, the SQ, have confirmed that they monitored six journalists' phones in 2013. Earlier this week, As it Happens spoke with La Presse journalist Patrick Lagace, after he learned that his phone was surveilled by Montreal police this year.

The province has now launched a commission of inquiry into spying on journalists by police.

Alain Gravel Michel Arsenault

Alain Gravel, left, was among journalists spied on by Quebec police in 2013. The spying began after union boss Michel Arsenault, shown on the right in an image of a TV screen at the Charbonneau Commission, had filed a complaint about wiretapped conversations leaked to the media. (Radio-Canada & Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Alain Gravel is one of the journalists who was monitored by the SQ. The Radio-Canada host discovered Thursday that police looked through five years of his phone records, from Nov. 1, 2008 to Oct. 1, 2013. He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off from Montreal. Here is part of their conversation.

ALAIN GRAVEL: I'm really, really sad. Not for me. I'm really sad for the people who had the courage to put their life or their reputation or their job at risk because they felt that it was their duty to speak or to give us, secretly, some documents or interviews. They wanted to serve their society to give information. So I'm really sad for our society, for our democracy, for Quebec, for all these people.

CAROL OFF: These people, if the police knew of their names, knew the identities of your sources, we've also learned that the police were leaking a lot of information. So what kind of personal risk are some of those people now in? ... What repercussions might there be for those people?

AG: I don't know. There are a lot of people who talk with us. Quality people. People who are really competent and who were in key positions in some companies, police, lawyers. A lot of people talked to us, because a lot of people felt the necessity to give the people all the information. So these people today, I'm sure they are scared or worried. These people now, I guess they have to be at the minimum a bit worried, because their phone numbers are somewhere. And the police have the capacity to identify these people by their phone numbers.

Patrick Lagacé

This week's revelations began with news that police had obtained warrants to spy on La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé. (CBC)

CO: There's going to be an inquiry. But do you know at this point what reasons they gave to the judge who gave the warrants to have your phones searched?

AG: We don't know yet. The only things we know: We were targeted, and that's it. It started from letters from the president of the FTQ, the big union, he complained that some people said he was on a wiretap. From there, the minister of public security called the chief of the main provincial police in Quebec asking what's happening. From there, they started investigations against, I don't know how many people, but we know for sure six journalists. 

Que Corruption Inquiry 20140127

Former FTQ president Michel Arsenault, seen on a photograph taken off a television monitor, arrives at the Charbonneau Commission in 2014 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)


CO: So this is the union boss, Michel Arsenault. He was the target of a lot of the work you were doing, trying to find out his connections. He complained to police that there were leaks about wiretaps on him. That's the reason police said they were doing it. That was the Montreal police. Why were the Quebec police investigating you?

AG: I don't know. We don't know, officially. Nobody told us. Our lawyers at Radio-Canada tried to get the papers which were given to the judge to get the mandate. The only thing we know is that it started with the letters from Mr. Arsenault, and this investigation started from that moment in 2013. But for the rest, I don't know. We're not criminals. We just did our job honestly. It was our duty to do what we did. We changed our society in giving information and making reports about this troubling era in Quebec. But seeing that, it's disgusting, really.

Enquête team - Friday reception

Alain Gravel, left, and Marie-Maude Denis, centre, of Radio-Canada were among the journalists spied on by police in 2013. They're pictured here with fellow Enquête staff member Claudine Blais in 2014. (Michelle Rosner)

CO: I think that outside of Quebec, it's difficult to describe the effect that your journalism, the journalism of Enquête, had on the province, just how much was changed because of it. The public trust that was shaken by your reports on the corruption. People in very high places went to jail because of it. Mayors of cities, and entire city governments were taken to court because of it.

AG: Everything's changed because of that. Laws were changed. Rules were modified. High-ranking people were arrested. The mayor of Montreal, the mayor of Laval, others were arrested. Kingpins of the industry were arrested, put in jail. A lot of trials. And the mentality, everything is changed, too. Today, everybody is so careful in public positions to be sure that nobody will fill their pockets with dirty money because of a lack of responsibility, or many motivations. This society is not the same society of 10 years ago because of the investigation journalist in Quebec.

CO: What effect is that going to have on public trust in the police?

AG: I don't know. I can speak for me. Maybe a bit more cynical, unfortunately. Maybe more fearful. But that's life.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Radio-Canada journalist Alain Gravel.