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Judge dismisses attempt by Ecojustice to quash 'anti-Alberta' activities inquiry

A judge has dismissed an attempt to quash the United Conservative government's inquiry into whether foreign groups have conspired against Alberta's oil industry.

No reason to believe political context around inquiry suggests bias, court rules

Devon Page, the executive director of Ecojustice, an environmental law charity speaks during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., in this 2012 file photo. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

A judge has dismissed an attempt to quash the United Conservative government's inquiry into whether foreign groups have conspired against Alberta's oil industry.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Karen Horner said Friday the environmental law firm Ecojustice failed to prove the inquiry was called to intimidate charities that have raised concerns about the industry.

She also said there's no reason to believe that the political context around the inquiry suggests it's biased.

"I have considered whether there is a basis to hold that the context of the [order in council establishing the inquiry], its terms of reference and the past conduct of commissioner [Steve] Allan combined to raise a reasonable apprehension of bias and I find that they do not," Horner said in her decision.

The provincial government and some industry leaders have said Canadian environmental charities that accept U.S. funding are part of a plot against Alberta's energy industry.

The province has said the plot aims to block pipelines and landlock Alberta's oil to benefit its American competitors.

"We are very pleased with the court's decision today," Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in a statement.

"We make no apologies for standing up for Alberta's oil and gas industry by thoroughly investigating the widely reported foreign funded campaign aimed at discrediting the province's energy sector."

Legal scholars and non-profit groups say the inquiry is an attempt to bully and silence industry critics.

Ecojustice had argued in its challenge that the inquiry, a plank of the "fight-back" strategy the United Conservatives touted during the 2019 election campaign, was formed for an improper purpose.

Public inquiries are meant to investigate tragedies or "worrisome matters of public concern," and the inquiry does neither of those things, the group's lawyer had argued.

Lawyers for the provincial government said in their written submissions that cabinet is entitled — and mandated — to decide what's in the public interest and what issues warrant a public inquiry. They also said that questions before the inquiry concern the province's economic viability.

In a brief statement, Allan welcomed the verdict and said he looked forward to completing his work.

Inquiry's final report due by end of month

In November 2019, Ecojustice filed a judicial review application of the inquiry. 

The charity contended the inquiry must be shut down because it was created for partisan political purposes, has been tainted by bias from the outset, and is outside the province's legal jurisdiction.

Ecojustice executive director Devon Page said the group is disappointed but not surprised by Friday's decision.

The charity is awaiting Horner's written reasons and has not decided whether it will appeal, he said.

But it achieved its initial objective to challenge the basis of the inquiry, Page said.

"We pushed back. We opened up the debate, incredible debate around the issues."

The inquiry was ordered by the government of Premier Jason Kenney to fulfil a campaign promise. The province's lieutenant-governor formally established the inquiry through a July 2019 order-in-council.

Since it was announced, the inquiry has gone $1 million over budget and blown past several deadlines

The inquiry's final report, already delayed, is due to the energy minister May 31. 

The commissioner's spokesperson would not say if Allan will meet that deadline and the minister's office has so far refused to say if he has requested an extension. 

Ecojustice, Pembina Institute and Greenpeace — three organizations often cited as possible targets of the inquiry — say they have not received notice from the commissioner about his findings. Allan must give parties a chance to respond if he finds misconduct.

The province must publicly release the report within three months of its submission.

With files from Jennie Russell

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