Edmonton

Ecojustice asks court to stop inquiry into alleged foreign-funded anti-Alberta energy campaigns

An environmental law group is seeking an injunction that would suspend the provincial government's controversial inquiry into alleged foreign-funded attacks on Alberta's energy industry until the court can rule on an earlier legal challenge.

Environmental law group wants inquiry stopped until court rules on previous challenge

On the second day of the court hearing, the lawyer for inquiry commissioner Steve Allan argued his client has no predetermined views of the issues before the controversial inquiry. (CBC)

An environmental law group is seeking an injunction that would suspend the provincial government's controversial inquiry into alleged foreign-funded attacks on Alberta's energy industry until the court can rule on an earlier legal challenge.

In November, Ecojustice filed a judicial review application in the Court of Queen's Bench that asked the court to halt the inquiry. It alleged the $2.5-million inquiry was created for "partisan political purposes" and had been tainted by bias from the outset.

The non-profit group claimed the inquiry was called for an improper purpose outside the Public Inquiries Act, and that both its terms of reference and public comments by the United Conservative Party, Premier Jason Kenney, and Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer predetermined facts that inquiry commissioner Steve Allan had not yet established. 

It also alleged Allan's donations to the UCP and Schweitzer — who appointed Allan — contributed further to a "reasonable apprehension of bias."

In a news release Monday, Ecojustice said a hearing on the judicial review application was originally scheduled for April, but "has been indefinitely delayed due to COVID-19."

In June, the provincial government extended the inquiry by four months and an additional $1 million, giving Allan until Oct. 30 to submit his final report. 

Ecojustice said the inquiry's website states interviews have been conducted "with more than 100 academics, researchers, industry officials, environmentalists, not-for-profit organizations and members of Indigenous communities to gather a variety of views. It has researched voluminous records of charitable grants, tax filings, and public records of organizations."

The website says the next stage of the inquiry will "afford parties an opportunity to consider and respond to relevant material collected through the research and investigative work to date."

But in its injunction application, Ecojustice said it and other organizations "now face the prospect of having to respond to the public release of evidence or submissions made to the inquiry that may be harmful to their reputation and prejudicial to their position in the application for judicial review, under a yet-to-be-determined process."

Ecojustice and other organizations have told CBC News and other media outlets that they have never been interviewed by Allan or anyone representing the inquiry.

"Organizations and individuals — particularly those working at the grassroots level — should not be expected to redirect resources away from the critical work they're doing to prevent the climate catastrophe and take part in a process that is stacked against them," the charity's executive director, Devon Page, said in the news release.

In a statement, the press secretary for Energy Minister Sonya Savage said "Ecojustice has made it clear that they oppose an inquiry into well funded foreign campaigns that seek to discredit Alberta and its energy sector.

"The Government of Alberta is committed to protecting Canada's largest economic subsector from attack by foreign opposition, and we will see this inquiry through to its completion," Kavi Bal said.

A spokesperson for Allan declined comment except to say the matter will be dealt with in court.

'Irreparable' harm

Ecojustice's injunction application states that it, and other organizations, "had no opportunity to review, test or respond to such evidence despite several requests to the commissioner to set out a process to do so.

"The inquiry commissioner has also not made any determination with respect to the applicant's allegations of improper purpose, bias or jurisdiction."

Ecojustice claims it and other organizations may suffer "irreparable reputational harm" through Allan's planned release of "unproven evidence with no procedural protections in place." 

It also claimed further irreparable harm may be caused if the inquiry is allowed to proceed but is later ruled invalid by the court.

"The potential harm to the applicant and other organizations far outweighs whatever public interest there may be in concluding the inquiry by an arbitrary date," Ecojustice's court application states.

None of the allegations in the Ecojustice court actions have been proven in court.

Earlier this month, Alberta's ethics commissioner concluded Schweitzer did not breach the province's conflicts of interest act by appointing Allan to lead the public inquiry. 

In her ruling, ethics commissioner Marguerite Trussler said she had no jurisdiction to investigate Allan's awarding of a $905,000 sole-source contract to Dentons, where his son was a partner and his good friend, Quincy Smith, also works.

But Trussler noted that "it does stretch credibility that Mr. Allan did not consider whether or not there may possibly be a conflict of interest in his engaging of Dentons as counsel for the inquiry, given that, for all intents and purposes, the firm gave him free office space and both his close friend (although that alone is not significant) and his son were partners at the firm."

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