$3.5-million provincial inquiry into 'anti-Alberta' activities struggles to find a bad guy

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage is urging all Albertans to read the final report of the government-sponsored Steve Allan public inquiry into anti-Albertan activities.

Allan inquiry report a dud masquerading as fireworks, writes columnist Graham Thomson

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage delivers the findings from the Allan inquiry on Thursday, October 21, 2021. (Government of Alberta/YouTube)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage is urging all Albertans to read the final report of the government-sponsored Steve Allan public inquiry into anti-Albertan activities.

I'm not sure how many people will do that considering the report that is 650 pages long.

So, let me sum up the inquiry's conclusion into one brief paragraph from Allan himself: "To be very clear, I have not found any suggestions of wrongdoing on the part of any individual or organization. No individual or organization, in my view, has done anything illegal. Indeed, they have exercised their rights of free speech."

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of Premier Jason Kenney's assertion that a conspiracy of environmental organizations funded by sketchy foreign forces had used subversive means to successfully shut down a litany of Alberta energy projects.

It would seem the targets of the government's $3.5-million, two-year-long inquiry into "anti-Alberta energy campaigns" did nothing wrong or illegal and were in fact simply practising a basic constitutional right.

Alberta energy minister says $3.5 million spent on report is money well spent

2 years ago
Duration 2:07
Energy minister Sonya Savage said Thursday that the amount spent on Commissioner Allan's report is a drop in the bucket compared to what environmentalist groups spent trying to disparage Alberta oil and gas.

During a news conference Thursday, Savage said she didn't care whether any of the "anti-Alberta" activities by environmental groups were legal or illegal; she just thinks they were wrong and that they killed various energy projects including pipeline projects such as Northern Gateway, Energy East and Keystone XL, as well as the Frontier Oilsands Mine.

Except that neither she nor Allan can say any anti-pipeline campaign definitively stopped any projects. And in fact, you could easily argue that projects such as Northern Gateway were fatally wounded by court decisions and Keystone XL was a victim of American politics.

Allan was also unable to "trace with precision" the amount of foreign money that made its way into Canada for environmental campaigns against pipelines or the oilsands.

The report suggests the amount is around a billion dollars but that seems to be a puffed up number. It includes "environmental initiatives" for all kinds of national programs and organizations including more than $400 million directed to Ducks Unlimited, a water-fowl-friendly organization not known for any anti-Alberta activities – that, by the way, happens to have Jason Kenney's former principal secretary, Larry Kaumeyer, as its CEO.

You won't find many financial details about Ducks Unlimited in Allan's report or in a report he commissioned from the accounting firm, Deloitte. Oddly enough, some sections of the Deloitte report have been redacted.

That's a hypocritical look for an inquiry and government demanding environmental organizations be more transparent and accountable about their finances.

Even after all that digging into finances, Allan could only find $54 million that was specifically detailed to "anti-Alberta resource development activity" from 2003 to 2019, or a little more than $3 million a year.

Compare that to the government's much maligned – deservedly so – Canadian Energy Centre that was originally awarded a $30 million-a-year budget that was whittled down to $12 million once the government realized its "war room" was adept at little more than shooting itself in the foot.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks at a news conference last month. The Allan inquiry was the result of an election promise from Kenney and the UCP. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Interestingly, Allan is not enamoured with the energy centre, saying, "there were several missteps from the outset that damaged its reputation from which it has not been able to recover."

And he criticizes the governance of the centre, saying its credibility "is seriously compromised by having three provincial cabinet ministers compromising its board of directors." One of those cabinet ministers is Sonya Savage.

Despite Savage insisting the energy centre is open and transparent, it actually operates under a cone of silence where Albertans, including the news media, are barred from using the province's freedom of information laws to get a peek inside.

It would seem we again have a government demanding a level of accountability from others that it refuses to practise itself. 

Political theatre

Interestingly, Allan – commissioner of the Alberta Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns – never liked the combative term "anti-Alberta," saying it "is not helpful or constructive."

You could argue Kenney's "fight back" strategy, of which the Allan inquiry is a part, is not helpful or constructive, either.

Allan wasn't at Thursday's news conference, instead issuing a statement saying he would not comment due to legal restrictions placed on commissioners. Yes, but we have seen commissioners hold news conferences in the past, such as when Judge John Gomery issued his inquiry's 2005 report into the federal sponsorship scandal.

Kenney wasn't at the news conference, either, even though he had been loudly front and centre when he announced the Allan inquiry in July of 2019.

The awkward reality for Kenney is that his "fight back" strategy unveiled during the 2019 provincial election has only scored a hit against one target: his own government's credibility. The war room has been such a joke its logo should be a plastic flower that squirts water, and the Allan inquiry into anti-Alberta activities found no evidence of wrongdoing while offering up a jumble of financial information that even Savage admitted had her confused at times.

The Allan report has six recommendations, including the need to push for greater transparency in monitoring the flow of foreign money to Canadian charitable organizations and energy non-profits.

But there is nothing here that will stop or change the practice of environmental groups.

The Allan inquiry was pure political theatre aimed at riling up people's emotions during a recession while cynically ignoring the fact the real "culprit" is a world moving away from fossil fuels.

Here's another way to sum up the $3.5-million, two-year-long Allan public inquiry that, by the way, never held any public hearings: Some environmental groups, worried about climate change, have spent time and money legally campaigning against the oilsands and pipelines.


Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.