'Sources have stopped talking to us': Witnesses testify at Day 1 of police-spying commission

The provincial commission tasked with looking into how reporters became the subjects of secret surveillance by police forces in Quebec opened its hearings Monday, just five months the first allegations came to light.

Government called commission after learning police used warrants to track metadata, call logs of reporters

The commission is being led by Justice Jacques Chamberland, a judge on Quebec's Court of Appeal with 45 years of experience. (CBC)

The provincial commission tasked with looking into how journalists became the subjects of secret surveillance by police forces in Quebec began its hearings Monday, five months after the first allegations came to light.

The first witnesses before the commission, led by Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Jacques Chamberland, included leaders of several Quebec newsrooms who described the chilling effect this controversy has had on sources. 

Michel Cormier, Éric Trottier and Brian Myles, the heads of Radio-Canada, La Presse and Le Devoir, respectively, spoke before the commission Monday.

"We've had sources who are now very ... nervous that their identity will be revealed. Other sources have stopped talking to us," said Cormier.

He said he wants to see the commission recommend new legislation be drafted to ensure journalists' sources are properly protected.

Police monitored call logs, GPS

The commission was announced in November, days after La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé revealed Montreal police had received 24 warrants from a Quebec justice of the peace to collect metadata from his cellphone.

The data would allow police to monitor every incoming and outgoing call as well as phone numbers for incoming texts. The warrants also allowed police to access his phone's GPS.
La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé revealed in October 2016 that he was put under police surveillance. (CBC)

Montreal police defended their actions by saying they were investigating an officer who was believed to be sharing information with Lagacé.

Following the revelation, other journalists including Radio-Canada journalists Marie-Maude Denis, Isabelle Richer and Alain Gravel discovered that they too had been the subject of warrants to track data and call logs during an investigation by Quebec provincial police.

 Criminal lawyer Jean-Claude Hébert told CBC that this kind of monitoring has become all too easy.

"On the technological side, there is no problem for police to get information on anybody, and of course the information related to reporter, to journalist," he said. 

CBC is a participant in the commission.

Radio-Canada journalists Marie-Maude Denis, Alain Gravel and Isabelle Richer said the Sûreté du Québec tracked their portable phones in 2013. (Radio-Canada)

Setting a clear mandate

Alexandre Matte, a police technology teacher and former police officer, and Guylaine Bachand, a lawyer specialized in media law, are sitting alongside Chamberland on the commission.

The commission will cover a roughly six-year time period beginning May 7, 2010, the day the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a ruling on the protection of confidential journalistic sources.

Its mandate is threefold:

  • Investigate and make recommendations regarding the investigative practices police use that may undermine the protection of journalistic sources, including looking into allegations of political interference that may have led to the initiation of police investigations.

  • Investigate and make recommendations on how warrants that may compromise the identities of journalistic sources are obtained and executed.

  • Make recommendations to the government on best practices when it comes to protecting sources, which may focus on how the the Crown prosecutors' officer works, the guidelines surrounding how warrants are authorized and ways to revise legislative and administrative frameworks.

The commissioners have until March 1, 2018 to submit their report.

With files from Alison Northcott