Wording tweaks change terms of Alberta inquiry into environmentalist foreign funding

The terms of reference for the Alberta public inquiry on alleged foreign funding of environmental groups has been amended to include language that hints at the possibility that it might not have actually happened.

Inquiry investigating role of foreign funding, 'if any,' in anti-Alberta energy campaigns

Steve Allan, who is heading Alberta’s public inquiry into allegations of foreign-funded reputational attacks on the province’s oil and gas industry, has been granted a four-month extension to file his final report. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

The terms of reference for the Alberta public inquiry on alleged foreign funding of environmental groups has been amended to include language that hints at the possibility that it might not have actually happened.

The $2.5 million inquiry was launched in July 2019 by Premier Jason Kenney to investigate "the anti-Alberta campaign," in which foreign groups were allegedly helping fund Canadian environmental groups that opposed Alberta's oil and gas industry. 

The inquiry was a key plank of the United Conservative Party's platform in the 2019 provincial election.

The June 25 order-in-council, signed by Energy Minister Sonya Savage, makes some wording changes to the terms of reference. It now states that the "commissioner shall inquire into the role of foreign funding, if any, in anti-Alberta energy campaigns." 

It originally said, "the commissioner shall inquire into anti-Alberta energy campaigns that are supported, in whole or in part, by foreign organizations." 

Another amendment adds the word "if" to this statement: "The commissioner shall make such findings and recommendations as the commissioner considers advisable to...enable the Government of Alberta to respond effectively if any anti-Alberta energy campaigns funded, in whole or in part, in the manner described in [a previous section]."

The order in council also made some other changes, which were announced by Savage on Thursday.

It extended the deadline for commissioner Steve Allan to submit his report by four months to Oct. 30, and increased his budget by $1 million. The extra money is coming from funding set aside for the Canadian Energy Centre, also known as the energy war room. 

Savage said the extra time was granted to allow the commissioner "to fairly and justly complete the inquiry process and follow up on the materials discovered to date."

Allan is required to submit a revised budget to the minister by July 6.

Interim report not released

Savage was not available for an interview on Friday.  Allan's spokesman Alan Boras referred CBC to the energy minister's office. 

Kavi Bal, Savage's press secretary, said the changes to the terms of reference were made for "legal clarity and consistency," adding they weren't based on findings in the interim report. 

"Government would not be approving further work on due diligence if there was no indication or reason to conduct this work," Bal wrote in an email to CBC News. 

Calgary-McCall MLA Irfan Sabir, energy critic for the Opposition NDP, thinks the inquiry didn't find evidence of foreign meddling so it needed to come up with a justification for spending public dollars. 

"They're changing the terms of reference; they're softening the language — that 'OK, we spent $3.5 million to find out something,'" Sabir said. 

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer appointed Allan, an accountant from Calgary, to lead the year-long probe. Allan was given the option of holding public hearings, if he felt they were required, following the completion of an interim report. 

A preliminary report submitted by Allan to Savage at the end of January was not released by the government.

A statement posted on the website for the inquiry states the report was extended to Oct. 30, 2020 "to hear from funding entities that have been identified in the Inquiry's research to date, and to accommodate challenges due to COVID-19.

"In its work to date, the inquiry has conducted more than 100 interviews with academics, researchers, industry officials, environmentalists, not-for-profit organizations and members of Indigenous communities to gather a variety of views."

The statement goes on to say the commissioner "will afford parties an opportunity to consider and respond to relevant material," and further information on the processes will be released in the near future.