Five environmental groups are suing the Alberta government and Premier Jason Kenney for defamation, saying that they have deliberately misrepresented the findings of an inquiry into foreign influence on campaigns targeting the pace and scope of energy development in the province.
The challenge, which was launched by Environmental Defence, West Coast Environmental Law, Stand.earth, Dogwood and the Wilderness Committee, alleges Kenney and the Alberta government have made “defamatory statements that directly contradict the findings” of the final report of the public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns, which emphasized that “no individual or organization … has done anything illegal.”
After the report was made public, Alberta published a “key findings” document which contains a statement that said the report had in fact concluded that the groups had been “waging a decade- long campaign of misinformation” about energy development in the province. Kenney later posted statements on social media about “foreign-funded misinformation campaigns.”
The groups say the key findings document and the posts are false and defamatory, and are seeking $15,000 each in actual damages and an additional $500,000 in punitive damages against the premier. The statement of claim says the plaintiffs wrote Kenney last November to ask for a correction and an apology, but to date he has not done so.
“In a democracy like Canada, a high-ranking government official should be held accountable for attempting to publicly alter the results of a public inquiry and for using his office to condemn and defame those he doesn’t agree with,” Environmental Defence executive director Tim Gray said in a release.
The inquiry was launched in July 2019, shortly after Kenney took office, and was led by commissioner Steve Allan. After several delays and legal challenges, it issued its final report in July 2021.
Media and defamation lawyer Howard Winkler noted the inquiry report does not include the phrase “decades-long campaign of misinformation,” but also said that it is “not a vindication of the advocacy groups.”
“There are specific findings in the report about foreign funding flowing into Canada to support these campaigns, and the report calls for increased transparency with respect to the funding of these organizations. The issue in the lawsuit, if it proceeds, is going to be the truth of whether these groups engage in a campaign of misinformation,” he said. “In a society like ours there is a strong public policy in encouraging expressions of public interest related to political policy and politicians, so you don’t want to discourage people from engaging in a free flow of ideas even if they are critical or outrageous. But if you say something knowing it to be false that suits the definition of malice, and if you add to that some collateral of improper motive then it becomes even more objectionable and offensive.”
But Winkler who is not affiliated with any parties in the case, said if it had been brought in Ontario or British Columbia, he felt it would likely be struck under legislation aimed at preventing strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
“Ultimately the test in the anti-SLAPP legislation comes down to whether the plaintiff can satisfy a judge that the harm caused to them by the words complained of is sufficiently serious to outweigh the public interest in the expression itself,” he said. “But I think in the context of the report, and the public interest in the role these advocacy groups play, that the public interest in the expression, whether it be true or false, would be so high that they wouldn’t be able to demonstrate sufficiently serious harm.”
A representative from Kenney’s office did not reply to a request for comment. The allegations
made in the lawsuit have not been tested in court.
The Environmental groups hit Alberta government, premier with defamation lawsuit was published by The Lawyer’s Daily on February 16, 2022.