Imagine if a senior operative working behind the scenes of Premier Danielle Smith’s government scheduled a private meeting with a bunch of oil industry lobbyists to chat about Alberta’s policies.

One of the lobbyists responds to the invitation by sending over an agenda with a range of topics and proposals including the creation of new subsidies for the oilpatch, crafting a strategy to fight federal government rules aimed at cracking down on pollution and introducing obstacles to make it difficult for renewable energy projects to launch.

The lobbyist also proposes they discuss a bailout plan for a company that is near bankruptcy, but facing a multimillion-dollar bill to clean up a bunch of contaminated sites where it used to operate.

This scenario is not all that far-fetched in a province that has access to the world’s third-largest reserves of oil, following Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

But what happens when a government that is supposedly operating in a free democracy breaks the law to conceal its dealings with lobbyists?

Sadly, I believe this is what happened earlier this year when the Alberta government began to systematically refuse to release records of its meetings with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and other oil and gas lobbyists. Although we know officials from at least four ministries have been significantly influenced through regular meetings with industry lobbyists, the departments collectively refused to accept more than 20 separate requests I made through freedom of information legislation since the beginning of 2023 to get the details.

But there’s also some good news I can share. Thanks to The Narwhal’s persistence, a provincial watchdog — Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta Diane McLeod — has agreed to launch a systemic investigation after we filed a complaint detailing a plethora of evidence we have collected about an apparent cover-up.

How Alberta government secrecy prompted my watchdog complaint

Through my research, I learned officials from across the Alberta government arranged private meetings amongst themselves to discuss how to deal with my requests. And it isn’t clear whether any of the seven people invited to the meeting took any notes about what they discussed, since the government was unable to provide anything when I asked about this.

In refusing to respond to my requests, officials offered a range of excuses such as claiming they were unable to print out the calendar appointments of their own staff or saying it would be too much of a burden to retrieve email correspondence between their staff and the lobbyists unless I agreed to scale back my requests to emails on a single topic within a date range of less than 12 months.

The latter excuse would have made it very difficult for anyone to uncover how oil and gas lobbyists had put a 132-item wishlist as a top priority on the government’s agenda, as my colleagues Carl Meyer and Drew Anderson reported last year. It also provides a twisted and Orwellian interpretation of a section of Alberta’s transparency law that says requests “must provide enough detail to enable the public body to identify the record.”

That’s because under this new interpretation, a member of the public might be required to file hundreds of requests in order to discover any of the emails that listed everything the industry pressured the government to adopt.

A screengrab of a meeting document showing Alberta government officials held a meeting to discuss how they would refuse FOI requests from The Narwhal's Mike De Souza.
A group of Alberta government officials held a meeting in March 2023 to discuss how they would refuse freedom of information requests from The Narwhal’s managing editor, Mike De Souza.

Alberta’s transparency law requires public bodies to release copies of internal records to anyone who pays a $25 fee unless the agency has a valid reason to refuse. But with all of these tactics it could become prohibitively expensive and time consuming for anyone to obtain the records they actually requested.

Was the government deliberately breaking the law to avoid releasing anything that would cause embarrassment to the governing United Conservative Party in the middle of a general election campaign that resulted in the UCP’s re-election in May?

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time evidence emerged suggesting the Alberta government was trying to cover things up.

Thanks to an investigation by Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell in The Tyee, we have heard about other allegations suggesting provincial staffers previously used questionable and potentially illegal tactics such as the destruction of records to prevent embarrassing details from coming to light.

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This is all part of what I asked the watchdog to investigate in a 10-page complaint I sent in April. Included in that complaint, I also asked the commissioner to review how the government is interpreting a rule that defines how much detail a requester must provide to obtain records they haven’t seen. In addition, I asked whether the government was failing in its obligation to assist people in efforts to locate records that reveal how the government operates and whether it is acting in the public interest.

Within two weeks, McLeod’s office confirmed she was interested in launching a probe. By August, watchdog staff told me they were sending out notices to various ministries based on the mounting evidence compiled by a variety of sources, including The Globe and Mail, which released its Secret Canada project about freedom of information laws in June.

I haven’t seen copies of the notices delivered to Alberta ministries, but earlier this week, The Globe and Mail reported that revelations from its Secret Canada project were mentioned in those letters.

Chris Stinner, the director of investigations at the provincial commissioner’s office, told The Narwhal that it was looking at three different sections of Alberta’s transparency law as part of its probe, including two raised by The Narwhal and one raised by The Globe and Mail.

“Since all these topics relate to how Government of Alberta departments carry out their duties under the FOIP Act, they are part of the same investigation,” Stinner said.

The commissioner is a watchdog who has some enforcement powers allowing her to intervene when people break the province’s information and privacy laws.

A systemic investigation like this one is rare. While it is common for information commissioners to review individual complaints about decisions to withhold or censor records, “only a handful of systemic reviews involving access-law compliance have been executed in recent years,” wrote Globe and Mail reporters Robyn Doolitle and Tom Cardoso in their report this week.

It also takes a significant amount of due diligence to compile enough evidence to file a complaint. In this case, it took me weeks to file 22 separate requests to various Alberta ministries and carefully parse through the responses before I identified a disturbing pattern.

After this I spent a few days drafting the letter, highlighting what I found. Special thanks also to lawyer Sean Hern who offered to review my letter and provide some guidance before I sent it off.

Governments may assume the average person isn’t paying attention to the ins and outs of what happens when journalists file freedom of information requests.

But I’m writing this today because I think you have the right to know about all the obstacles we face in getting the full story about issues that matter to you.

My colleagues at The Narwhal are constantly spending time on efforts like this one to expose what governments do when they think no one is watching.

While we don’t know where this watchdog investigation will lead, we hope this gives you a special glimpse behind the scenes and shows you just how far we’re willing to go to get the truth.

Updated on Oct. 5, 2023 at 3:59 p.m. MT: This story was updated to include a new comment from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta.

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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