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editorial

There is something terribly amiss in Canadian provincial politics right now, and that is the burgeoning misuse of government power for partisan reasons.

In Quebec, the Coalition Avenir Québec government is playing to populist prejudice with a law that prohibits teachers, police officers and other public employees from wearing religious headgear on the job. Bill 21 is an egregious and self-evident violation of individual freedoms that harms a minority in order to win votes from the majority.

In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative government is forcing gas station owners, under threat of fines, to put stickers on their pumps that advertise the government’s position on carbon taxes. That is forced political speech, and in a logical world it will be undone by the first court that gets its hands on it.

And now in Alberta, the United Conservative Party government of Jason Kenney is holding a public inquiry into a conspiracy theory – and not to debunk it.

The “Public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns” will look into the allegation that foreign operatives have conspired to fund a public-relations operation in Canada with the intention of harming Alberta’s oil industry, while at the same time going easy on oil from the United States, Russia and OPEC countries.

“For over a decade, a well-funded foreign campaign has defamed Alberta’s energy industry and sought to land-lock our oil," the government says. "The reputational harm to the province’s energy sector has limited provincial and industry revenue and cost thousands of jobs.”

The Kenney government is so dedicated to its theory of an international “anti-Alberta" conspiracy that is has ordered the inquiry’s commissioner, forensic accountant Steve Allan, to “examine” a relevant American government report – the one into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election – to see if he can spot any similarities. As if.

The theory of a foreign conspiracy was started a decade ago by a Vancouver-based writer named Vivian Krause. She discovered that American charitable foundations were funding Canadian groups opposed to the oil sands, and argued there is something inherently malevolent in that.

Ms. Krause’s claims will be a “potential source” of information and evidence for the commission, according to the government. Given that the Kenney government presents the outcome of the inquiry as a foregone conclusion – that the conspiracy exists and has been going on for a decade – we have to trust Mr. Allan will keep an open mind, because there is a good deal of doubt about Ms. Krause’s conclusions.

More importantly, the anti-carbon views of Canadian environmentalists are, lest anyone need reminding, constitutionally protected freedom of expression. Mr. Kenney is free to counter their arguments with the only legally permissible rebuttal: better arguments.

Perhaps Mr. Allan will be able to keep an open mind, in spite of his inquiry’s mandate to find something that isn’t there. If so, when he wraps up next July, he will report that the Alberta oil patch is suffering because of a global drop in crude prices, Canadian regulatory hurdles, the evolving jurisprudence on the need for more consultation with Indigenous groups, repeated regulatory holdups in the United States that have delayed critical export pipelines and growing international and Canadian concern about greenhouse gases, including within the oil industry itself.

But a foreign-funded, “anti-Alberta” conspiracy? Not so much, people.

Unfortunately, reaching such a conclusion is not what this inquiry was built for. Mr. Kenney is wielding the heavy hand of government power for partisan theatrics because he thinks doing so will endear him to voters looking for someone to blame for the province’s current downturn.

We have consistently argued in this space for projects such as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion because it’s possible to both lower emissions and develop the oil industry. When the government of Alberta pushes back against environmental critics, that’s fair game.

But for Alberta to create a public inquiry to go after critics is a McCarthyesque misuse of power. Public inquiries, which are court-like and can demand documents and compel witnesses, should not be called to investigate political opponents, just as governments shouldn’t force private companies to advertise political messages or force citizens to choose between their religion and their employment. Not in Canada.

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