Quebec launches commission of inquiry into police spying on journalists

The Quebec government has given the body looking into the police surveillance of journalists the power of a commission of inquiry, including the ability to call witnesses and hold public audiences.

Probe will have powers of a commission, including ability to call witnesses and hold public hearings

Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée says the committee should be invested of the full powers of a public inquiry (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Quebec government has given the body looking into the police surveillance of journalists the power of a commission of inquiry, including the ability to call witnesses and hold public audiences.

The announcement was followed Thursday by new revelations in the ever-widening scandal, when Quebec provincial police confirmed to Radio-Canada journalist Alain Gravel, former host of the network's investigative program Enquête, that his cell phone call logs had been monitored for five years straight, from Nov. 1, 2008 to Oct. 1, 2013.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard had earlier sidestepped calls for a public inquiry and instead announced the creation of the committee after a La Presse columnist revealed Montreal police had put him under surveillance.

But following new revelations involving surveillance by the Quebec provincial police on Wednesday, the government decided the appointed experts will now be a public inquiry.

"We consider that it's important for the public of Quebec to trust their public institutions. And the information that came public yesterday at the end of the day are [so] important that we consider that the committee that was announced [should] be invested of the full powers of a public inquiry," Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said in Quebec City.

It is still unclear whether the proceedings will, in fact, be public and what time period the commission will cover.

PQ MNA temporarily sidelined

Earlier Thursday, Parti Québécois MNA Stéphane Bergeron announced he would be stepping aside from his role as public security critic until an investigation into the Sûreté du Québec spying on journalists is concluded.

Bergeron made the announcement in Quebec City this morning, flanked by PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée and Opposition House Leader Pascal Bérubé.

Bérubé will take over in the interim.

Parti Québécois MNA Stéphane Bergeron, centre, has stepped aside from his duties as public security critic after becoming embroiled in the revelation that the Sûreté du Québec spied on six journalists while he was public security minister. (Radio-Canada)

Bergeron was Quebec's public security minister in 2013, when the SQ spied on six journalists.

At the time, Michel Arsenault, the head of the powerful FTQ construction union, was under investigation by the SQ.

When wiretapped conversations involving Arsenault were leaked to the media, Arsenault wrote to Bergeron asking him to launch an investigation into the leaks.

Bergeron admitted he called Mario Laprise, the head of the SQ at the time, and asked him to look into it, but he says he never asked Laprise to investigate journalists.

Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux couldn't say if Bergeron would be called as a witness during the commission.

"The expert committee will decide who they want to hear," he said. "This is not up to us to decide."

Whistleblower's perspective

Former FTQ employee Ken Pereira was one of the most memorable witnesses in the Charbonneau Commission on corruption in the Quebec construction industry.

He said he felt the only way to expose his concerns about alleged connections between the union and organized crime was by going to the media, adding that it takes a lot out of a person to come forward with a story.

Ken Pereira's explosive testimony at the Charbonneau Commission blew the lid off deep ties between Quebec's largest union and organized crime. (CBC)

"Now, not only are you scared about how it's going to come out, you're scared there's going to be repercussions from the authorities," he said.

Pereira said telling his story turned him into a black sheep in the Quebec construction industry and forced him to find work in another province.

But despite everything that came to light in the past few days, Pereira said he would still go to a journalist if he had a story to tell.

He said he hopes the commission into the spying scandal sheds light on police tactics.

"Maybe we're going to expose what's going on … I think this has been going on for a while," he said.

With files from CBC's Steve Rukavina, Jaela Bernstien and Alison Northcott


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