Lawton and True North: 1. Canada: 0

I never thought I’d wind up in a battle against my own country, but for what it’s worth, they started it.

We finished it.

The Federal Court in Toronto heard Andrew James Lawton and True North Centre for Public Policy v. Canada (Leaders’ Debates Commission/Commission Des Debats Des Chefs) and Attorney General of Canada on Monday.

Or as the case will appear in court records, Lawton v. Canada, which has an oddly satisfying ring to it given events of the past few weeks.

It felt from the day True North’s and my stellar lawyer filed the case as though it was a David and Goliath story in the making. (Though I must admit by friend Mark Steyn thought Canada was the David in this analogy).

“In any showdown between you and the Dominion of Canada, a mere G7 and Nato member has to be accounted the underdog,” Steyn wrote to me.

He was right.

We won. Justin Trudeau’s government lost. Press freedom and freedom of speech were the real victors, however.

This whole case came about because the Leaders’ Debates Commission – a government agency set up to organize and run “independent” election debates, banned me from covering the debate for True North, a startup media outlet published by a registered charity, the True North Centre for Public Policy. Also banned were Keean Bexte and David Menzies of Rebel News, who filed a similar successful suit.

I applied on September 24th for accreditation – one day after the Government of Canada accreditation portal for the debates opened up. I heard nothing until October 4th, which was the last business day before the Monday debate. The rejection was a mere two sentences long. The reasoning was that True North, in the eyes of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, to which accreditation had somehow been outsourced, is “actively involved in advocacy.”

As I’ve noted in interviews and posted online, True North has no advocacy mandate. The charity’s sister organization, the True North Initiative does, but I have no role with it, nor does it have any role in the media division of the True North Centre for Public Policy. This may seem a bit confusing – my friend and True North’s founder Candice Malcolm’s column in Quillette offers more detail about the organizational structure, and how it’s not uncommon even in the mainstream media world.

Neither the Leaders’ Debates Commission nor Parliamentary Press Gallery asked any questions about this though. Had they done so, we could have easily cleared things up. No, they decided to drop the hammer on my coverage plans, which had been in the works for nearly two months, in the eleventh hour so no challenge or appeal would even have been possible.

So we did the only thing we could do by filing for an emergency injunction, which was granted after a hearing of less than 90 minutes, in which the presiding judge not only recognized True North and I as producers of journalism, but also accepted that we would be irreparably harmed, as would Rebel, by exclusion from a debate funded by Canadians for the benefit of Canadians.

I would have loved to have been in the courtroom, where our lawyer, Jessica Kuredjian, delivered a stellar case by the accounts of those present (and by the result). But I was following it all on Twitter from my hotel room in Ottawa, ready to get to the leaders’ debate in Gatineau on a moment’s notice in the event our case succeeded. Spoiler alert: it did.

The judge delivered his finding at about 4:45pm. Within 15 minutes I was in a car on the way to the debate location, where my press credentials were being printed off.

I can’t overstate that this was a team effort. Our lawyer worked all-nighters through the weekend to meet the federal government’s arbitrary timeline demands. Malcolm exhibited immense confidence in my journalistic credentials by deciding True North would take a stand and fight this. Our legal bills cleared $20,000. Had we not been successful and had the judge not awarded costs, we would have been on the hook for that as an organization. Malcolm put up a hefty sum of her own money to kickstart the case.

I must also thank donors from across Canada and as far away as the United States and Australia for believing in our fight as well.

My role in the case was a small one – albeit I have the honour of going down in the law books as the one who took on Canada. As much as I joke about it, I don’t take it lightly. I had minutes to decide whether I was comfortable putting my name on this case. I did so because I recognized instantly it was about something much bigger than me, and much bigger than True North. It is about the freedom for all journalists in Canada, and for those wishing to start their own ventures in a climate that’s inhospitable to traditional, legacy business models.

This is why I chose to use the first opportunity I’ve had in this campaign to formally pose a question to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to challenge him on his commitment to press freedom.

Trudeau claims to be a stalwart defender of press freedom while his party has banned me from covering its campaign. His attorney general vigorously fought against our press freedom fight in court.

“This afternoon, a federal court judge ruled that I had a right to be here, to cover this debate as a journalist despite opposition from your Attorney General,” I said to Trudeau in the scrum. “This comes after two weeks of me being kicked out or not being allowed into your campaign rallies. The Conservatives have criticized you for being ‘not as advertised.’ You’ve advertised yourself as a champion of press freedom. Will you take a stand right now sir, as the leader of the Liberal party, and allow me to cover your campaign like every other journalist?”

“We are a party, and we are a country that respects journalistic rights and who respects the freedom of the press and we will continue to,” Trudeau said.

Even a day later I’ve no idea whether his answer to my question was yes or no. My attempt to get a clarification yielded a nearly identical response.

“We are a party and a country that respects the hard work and the freedom of the press, and we will continue to,” Trudeau said on the second go-round.

Well at least he changed a few words.

While most of the response to this exchange has been critical of Trudeau, a few in the mainstream media commentariat have criticized my question as being self-serving. I was asking to be treated like every other journalist who’s asked to cover the Liberals – a question that would have been unnecessary had the mainstream media been standing up for press freedom for all, as my media colleagues did a few months back at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London.

I had to ask Justin Trudeau about his party’s opposition to my press freedom with the country watching, because this attitude will extend to other journalists if it isn’t exposed and challenged now. And by court order and the grace of God, I had an opportunity to do that Monday night.

Trudeau’s answer, if one can call it that, shreds his ability to blame staff or a miscommunication. He had an opportunity to right a wrong in front of a national audience and didn’t take it. Silence, as they say, is deafening.

Nothing changed. The day after the debate, the Liberals made their way to Iqaluit, in Canada’s north. I would have followed them there, but no commercial flights could get me there before his event. Instead, I caught up with the campaign Wednesday in Markham. Once again, I was told I couldn’t enter the supermarket for Trudeau’s announcement, because I’m not “accredited media.” Even with a court decision saying I am. My inquiries to the Liberals’ communications director went unanswered. Trudeau’s press secretaries briskly walked past me in Markham with no willingness to stop and explain why, still, I am persona non grata in their view.

Despite the undoubted victory in the Federal Court’s ruling, Trudeau’s evasion of my question and the Liberal party’s continued refusal to recognize my credentials underscored the main issue facing independent journalists in Canada: rights are meaningless if governments and politicians don’t respect them.

Trudeau proved that his laudatory words about journalists and press freedom only extend to those his party approves of, which defeats the purpose of a free press.

Maxime Bernier’s letter to debate commissioner David Johnston

The Leaders’ Debate Commission sent the first round of invitation to its two official leaders’ debates, including in it the leaders of the Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic, Green and Bloc Québecois parties. Absent from the invitation recipients was Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada.

In his letter to Bernier, debate commissioner David Johnston requested information on three to five ridings in which the PPC believes it has a legitimate chance of victory, to satisfy the criterion that “candidates endorsed by the party have a legitimate chance to be elected in the general election in question.”

Today, Bernier sent this letter to Johnston, citing five ridings in which PPC candidates have considerable profile, as well as media monitoring findings showing more coverage of Bernier than of the Green and Bloc Québecois leaders, who were invited to the debate.

Maxime Bernier’s letter to debate commissioner David Johnston by Andrew Lawton on Scribd

The Liberals want to end fake news, but who decides what that is?

If you’re singing the fake news blues, the federal government wants you to believe it has the answer.

My Loonie Politics column this week tackles the announcement made by a panel of cabinet ministers laying out how the Justin Trudeau’s government plans to safeguard this year’s federal election.

You can read the full column here if you’re a Loonie Politics subscriber. (If not, use promo code ‘Lawton’ for a discounted subscription.)

Here’s an excerpt:

Canada’s long-awaited answer to foreign interference in elections has arrived, but it seems to create an opening for domestic meddling — by the government itself.

With nine months to go until this year’s federal election, a team of ministers from Justin Trudeau’s cabinet announced this week a “sweeping series” of measures aimed to safeguard Canadian democracy.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally I don’t know, but a glaring question remains after the government reiterated its commitment to purging misinformation from social media sites: who decides what misinformation really is?

Facts are black and white, but interpretations of them aren’t always so clear, especially when politics is concerned.

Most people would agree social media companies should spike content posted by Russian bots falsely linking politicians with criminality.  But what about content that isn’t as easy to parse?

Such as a claim that a carbon tax is nothing but a cash grab.  Or a study critical of the government’s track record on economics.  Or someone saying the Liberals have been dishonest about their balanced budget plans (or lack thereof.)

These all sound like critiques that fall within the boundaries of civilized debate, but they share something in common: all were called “fake news” by high-ranking government officials.

Discount Maxime Bernier at your peril

A part of me feels as though I’m spending too much time writing and talking about Maxime Bernier and his exit from the Conservative Party. But, at the same time, it’s one of the most interesting–and potentially disruptive–episodes of Canada’s politics for several years.

While I will endeavor to diversify, I also won’t apologize for shining the necessary light on this, especially as what it is Bernier is creating continues to become a bit more clear. In my Loonie Politics column this week, I look at Bernier’s fundraising success right out of the gate, and also the polling that’s showing he’s making an impact. As I note, there’s no guarantee he’ll maintain that support for the next 13 months, but it’s a start that should worry the Conservatives.

You can read the full column at Loonie Politics, for which you can pick up a discounted subscription by using the promo code ‘Lawton’.

A Nanos poll, commissioned by the Globe and Mail, found Bernier’s as-of-yet-unnamed party enjoys 17 per cent support among Canadians, with 12 per cent unsure.

This is far from majority — or even minority — government territory, but it’s a strong enough showing for him to be a spoiler for the Conservatives, or, if the number increases, a potential official opposition leader.

What Bernier is able to accomplish electorally will depend not only on his support, but also the distribution of it.  He’ll be able to win votes in Quebec that are generally closed off to conservatives.  His support in Alberta will be strong.  In Ontario, where Conservatives sometimes win with razor thin margins, he has the potential to sabotage the Conservative Party of Canada’s path to a majority.

Anyone telling a pollster this far out from an election that they’ll vote for Maxime Bernier’s party irrespective of its name, platform, candidates and debate performance is either a diehard supporter or someone merely flirting with an exciting, new anti-establishment party.

A fuller picture of what the party is all about will help cement new supporters, but it may also lose support from the fair-weather types who so readily boarded the Bernier bus.

This is all to say that no one should count him out.  Not Andrew Scheer, not the media, and not the Liberals.

This isn’t a prediction, but a warning.  Ignoring or downplaying grassroots movements is an easy way to look like a fool.