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La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé is seen on a mobile phone screen in this illustration. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé is seen on a mobile phone screen in this illustration. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Tracking of Quebec journalist a sign of power that’s too close for comfort Add to ...

History teaches us that bad things tend to happen when the distance between governments and law enforcement grows too small.

Thus, the more one learns about l’affaire Lagacé – which precipitated revelations that Quebec cops have spied on more than half a dozen investigative journalists – the worse the police and their political masters look.

It now transpires that La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé, whose smartphone data were monitored for more than five months, was subjected to a fully fledged wiretap warrant, along with colleague Vincent Larouche, contrary to earlier Montreal police service assertions.

On Monday, it emerged that Mr. Lagacé was also monitored in 2014, after Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre phoned the head of the municipal force to complain about the journalist obtaining details of a $444 traffic citation he had received. (Mr. Lagacé decided not to write about it.) A criminal investigation was launched to find the source – unlike an internal disciplinary hearing, it had the benefit of allowing detectives to ask a judge for permission to poke into Mr. Lagacé’s affairs. Which, surprise, they evidently obtained.

In a radio interview Mr. Coderre intimated that if the press is “checking” him, it’s only fair they be checked out as well.

If only he were so trenchant. He said he did so as a citizen, as if it’s possible for just anyone to have the city’s top cop take their call. The “political police” is a recurring theme in Mr. Lagacé’s work; he has chronicled and decried it over his career. It is, unfortunately, an enduring refrain, and not just in Quebec. When the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation found its reputation under assault last week after its director stuck his nose into the presidential election, it brought back unhappy memories of the 2006 federal election in this country and then-RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli’s ill-advised letter confirming an investigation into a sitting cabinet minister. Both investigations ultimately proved to be unfounded.

It’s often said that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks changed the world. That may indeed be the case, as it relates to the proximity between politicians, the security apparatus and the police. The definition of what constitutes privacy has evolved, and technological advances have made it easier than ever to pierce it. Piecing together the data points, the resulting picture doesn’t inspire confidence.

As The Globe and Mail reported last week, recent federal legislative amendments have given police new powers to track the whereabouts of smartphone users in real time.

It’s not clear those powers were used to track Mr. Lagacé, whose main sin appears to have been that he contacted internal dissenters within the Montreal police force (one of whom, it turns out, was a corrupt cop).

The fact that the police had permission to do so should concern every Canadian.

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