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Alberta conservationist stunned by unauthorized police surveillance of meeting with environment minister

Former Alberta NDP cabinet minister and current MLA Shannon Phillips is calling for an independent, out-of-province investigation after the revelation that she was the subject of unauthorized surveillance by two Lethbridge police officers.

MLA Shannon Phillips says officers should be fired for 'political intimidation' worthy of police state

Harvey Locke, shown in a happier moment during a CBC interview in 2018. Locke, a well-known conservationist in Alberta, was shocked to discover that he and his wife, Marie-Eve Marchand, were among those under unauthorized surveillance by two Lethbridge police officers while meeting with an Alberta cabinet minister in 2017. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

A well-known conservationist who met with an Alberta cabinet minister at a diner says he's stunned two police officers did unauthorized surveillance on the informal meeting before one followed his vehicle.

Harvey Locke and his wife, Marie-Eve Marchand, were two of four people who met with Shannon Phillips, who was environment minister for the then-NDP government, at the Chef Stella Diner in Lethbridge in April 2017.

"I was listening to the radio at breakfast and my eyes just about fell into my coffee cup," Locke said in an interview from his home in Banff, Alta., late Tuesday.

He and Marchand were listening to a news story about a disciplinary hearing for Lethbridge police Sgt. Jason Carrier and Const. Keon Woronuk, as first reported by Medicine Hat's CHAT News Today on Monday. The officers have been temporarily demoted and the province has asked Alberta's police watchdog to review the investigation.

However, Phillips — now the Opposition NDP MLA for Lethbridge-West, says the two officers should be fired and has called for an independent review, calling it the type of "political intimidation" that can be found in a police state.

The two police officers admitted they had not been authorized to watch Phillips while she met with people in the diner. 

Both officers were involved in the off-roading community, whose members were upset by plans by the NDP government to restrict off-road vehicle use and create a provincial park in the environmentally sensitive Castle area of southwestern Alberta. One of them admitted his actions were motivated by his personal and political views.  

The police disciplinary decision stated in the agreed statement of facts that Phillips' meeting had been to discuss plans for the Castle area. Phillips contested that through a spokesperson to CBC News on Tuesday and said the primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss the reintroduction of bison into Banff National Park, although it is possible the Castle region might have come up. 

In any case, back in 2017, Carrier texted Woronuk, who was acting sergeant on duty, with a picture of the meeting and location, and Woronuk attended the diner.

They took photos of the meeting and, as they left, Woronuk said to Carrier that he "would hate to see Phillips drive away from the restaurant and there was a reason to stop her," an agreed statement of facts said.

Lethbridge-West MLA and former environment minister Shannon Phillips says demotions aren't sufficient sanctions for two police officers who surveilled her for political reasons. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Woronuk was also involved in following a blue Mazda that left the diner and he ran a police information check on it, the statement said.

Locke drives a blue Mazda.

Woronuk subsequently posted photos of the meeting on a Facebook page under the name "Mike Corps," which included identifying Locke and Marchand and a long caption criticizing Phillips and the NDP government.

A screenshot from the post saved by Locke and Marchand showed the officer also criticized Locke.

"He loves to hear himself speak … loudly. This proved to be beneficial because I (and the rest of the restaurant) could clearly hear most of their conversation," said the post.

It said Locke had a map laid out on the table, was pointing out areas and telling Phillips that "trails need to be closed and access restricted because these were traditional Buffalo migratory paths and breeding grounds."

The post prompted Phillips to complain to Calgary police, who uncovered the unauthorized database search. They passed the investigation on to Medicine Hat police. The review resulted in charges under the Police Act.

'It's not illegal to love nature in Alberta'

Locke, who noted he gave a brief statement early on, said he didn't know there was a formal investigation.

"The irony, of course, is the meeting wasn't about the Castle at all," he said.

It was about the reintroduction of bison in Banff National Park, he said, and how Phillips could protect the animals if they wandered onto provincial land outside the park.

Locke said what happened points to a community of people who get angry because they don't want to see nature conserved in Alberta.

"They just see red."

Phillips did sign a ministerial order a year later that protected the plains bison herd as wildlife if they wandered into a 239-square-kilometre area that stretches northwest of Banff National Park to the federally run Ya Ha Tinda Ranch.

Locke said he works with governments around the world to protect nature and he's shocked to hear that he was followed by police in his own province.

"It's not illegal to love nature in Alberta. It's not illegal to create parks in Alberta," he said.

Officers' conduct inexcusable, chief says

After the police disciplinary hearing, the officers were found guilty on seven total counts under the Police Act including corrupt practice, discreditable conduct, deceit and neglect of duty.

Lethbridge police headquarters is seen in a file photo. The police chief says LPS will have to work to regain public trust after two officers surveilled an MLA and were disciplined under the Police Act. (Sarah Rieger/CBC)

Woronuk, who had followed and ran the licence plate of the stakeholder, was demoted from senior constable to first-class constable for two years, while Carrier was demoted from sergeant to senior constable for one year.

Lethbridge police Chief Scott Woods said in a statement Tuesday that the officers' actions were inexcusable.

"But acknowledging the wrong-doing does not take away the embarrassment and shame that has been brought upon the LPS by their actions, nor does it mitigate the justified anger and profound disappointment of Ms. Phillips and others in our community who have a right to expect so much better from their police service."

'It was the stuff of police states,' Phillips says

Phillips says that isn't enough, calling for the officers' dismissal.

"I don't think we can tolerate … a mere demotion for the kind of abuse of power we saw these two officers undertake. It was political intimidation, it was the stuff of police states. It's just not something we tolerate in a free society," Phillips told CBC News on Tuesday.

She said she's grateful the provincial justice minister has asked the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) to review the investigation but called for an independent, out-of-province investigation.

The province said the Justice Department would arrange for an out-of-province prosecutor, should ASIRT require legal advice in conducting its investigation or laying charges. 

Robert Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, said the incident "cuts to the very heart of an impartial justice system."

Locke says nasty strain in society uses intimidation to block conservation

Locke said he's pleased to hear the United Conservative government is taking the matter seriously and has referred it to ASIRT.

Sharon Craig, a spokeswoman for the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), said it will be a comprehensive review of the professional standards investigation by police.

It wasn't immediately clear if that review will interview Phillips, Locke, Marchand and the two other people at the meeting, who have asked not to be identified.

Locke said there's a nasty strain in society that uses intimidation to prevent nature conservation.

"Putting people under suspicion for being environmentalists in Alberta must come to an end immediately," he said. "It just has to stop."

  • Read the full police disciplinary hearing penalty decision below, or click here.

With files from Sarah Rieger, Elise Von Scheel, CBC's Power and Politics

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