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Devon Page, executive director at Ecojustice, stands near a Coastal Douglas fir tree in Stanley Park in Vancouver, in this file photo from Nov. 30, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

One of the targets of Alberta’s public inquiry into environmental groups will be in court this week to argue that the process is an unconstitutional attempt to intimidate critics of the province’s oil sector.

The Vancouver-based legal charity Ecojustice filed a court challenge after the inquiry was launched in 2019 to investigate the funding of Canadian environmental advocates who oppose the oil industry. The case is scheduled to be heard in Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench on Thursday and Friday.

The inquiry was a campaign promise from Premier Jason Kenney, who contends that a foreign-funded campaign has spent years attacking Alberta’s oil sector. It has been plagued by delays and is $1-million over its initial budget of $2.5-millon. Commissioner Steve Allan’s final report was due last July but he has received three extensions, which he has blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Ecojustice argues in court documents that the government launched the inquiry in a blatant effort to intimidate and harm critics of the oil sector, pointing to Mr. Kenney’s public statements condemning environmental activists and accusing them of “economic sabotage.”

The court filing goes on to say that the inquiry’s terms of reference are unfair and that the process is unconstitutional because it deals with an issue – the funding of federally registered charities – that is outside the province’s jurisdiction. Ecojustice also argues that there is possible bias because Mr. Allan donated to the campaign of UCP cabinet minister Doug Schweitzer, who was justice minister when the commissioner was appointed.

Devon Page, Ecojustice’s executive director, said it’s completely inappropriate to use a public inquiry, which has legal powers to compel evidence and make findings of misconduct, to go after political opponents.

“A political leader saying, ‘We’re going to go after you,’ and then manifesting that in a judicial inquiry will have the effect of silencing opposition,” Mr. Page said in an interview.

“We want to defend not only the right of Ecojustice to participate in public debate about things like whether we’re developing our energy assets appropriately in the context of climate change, but also to defend Canadians at large.”

Environmental groups have said that non-Canadian funding makes up just a small portion of their overall revenues. Mr. Page said the theory around foreign funding also assumes that U.S. funders are directing the activities of Canadian environmental charities.

“We determine what the significant environmental legal issues are, and then we go out and fundraise for them,” he said.

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Ecojustice sought an order to stop the inquiry’s work while the court case was under way. A court rejected that application in November. Mr. Page said the group will ask the court to prevent the inquiry’s final report from being released until there is a decision in the case.

Mr. Kenney has defended the inquiry in the face of repeated delays and its increased budget, saying that the province needs to understand who is opposing Alberta’s oil industry and why. He has blamed campaigns funded by American philanthropists for derailing proposed pipelines, including the Keystone XL pipeline that was recently cancelled by U.S. President Joe Biden.

Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. In its court filing, the province says the inquiry is lawful and that its findings will help the government respond to critics of the energy sector.

“The [cabinet order establishing the inquiry] appoints a commission to make an independent inquiry into matters that, if true, would be of significant concern to the province of Alberta,” the document says.

The province also rejects the assertion that Mr. Kenney’s public statements about the inquiry before it was launched are relevant, arguing that there is no evidence that those views informed cabinet’s ultimate decision to launch the inquiry.

Mr. Allan’s spokesman declined to comment and referred to the inquiry’s legal filing. The document says Mr. Allan’s political donations don’t show bias, as he has also made donations to other political parties. It also agues that it is premature to allege bias because Mr. Allan has yet to release his report and any claims about what he might find are speculative.

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There is also a group of interveners that include the Indian Resource Council, the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, and Calgary businessman and former Dragons’ Den star Brett Wilson. They argue in their court filing that the inquiry is performing a valuable fact-finding role and that it would be wrong to prejudge that work before its final report is released.

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