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.

Government-approved journalism coming to Canada

Canada will be co-hosting a press freedom summit in July with the United Kingdom, which I need your help to cover.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition for Canada to be lecturing the world on the importance of a free press when, this week, Canadians learned the federal will be putting together an A-list of approved media outlets to serve as the basis for who gets to benefit from a fund of tax money meant to bolster news subscriptions.

The problem for Canadians is that this creates an economic imbalance between government-funded outlets, and those not on the dole. It also raises integrity questions about the quality of content emanating from outlets wishing to stay in the government’s good books–literally.

I unpack this in my latest video for True North.

If Trudeau wants to ban guns, he has to face the voters and tell us

I’m not sure what the Liberal-friendly version of the expression “Shots fired” is, but whatever it is, it happened last week in Question Period.

Independent Member of Parliament Tony Clement rose with a pointed question for the government, inspired by information Clement received from a source he couldn’t name.

“I am told on good authority that the prime minister has a secret plan to ban legal firearms,” Clement charged. “Apparently this plan is to be executed by cabinet directive, with no debate in Parliament. The prime minister plans to announce this gun ban at the Women Deliver conference to be held in early June in Vancouver, which New Zealand Prime Minister (Jacinda) Ardern will also attend. Could the prime minister confirm or deny this zero-accountability secret plan?”

The question was so specific that it could easily be answered with a yes or a no. But Bill Blair, the minister supposedly tasked with overhauling Canada’s gun laws and curbing organized crime, gave no such clarity.

“I want to assure the House that the government remains absolutely committed to undertaking all measures that are effective in keeping Canadians safe,” Blair said. “As I believe every member of the House would agree, there is no greater responsibility for any order of government than the safety of its citizens and the protection of its kids, and we are prepared to consider whatever measures would be effective in this regard.”

Nowhere in that mush was a direct answer either way, through Blair’s spokesperson later denied Clement’s assertion in a media statement, saying the government has not yet finalized its course of action on gun reform.

True or not, Clement’s belief is plausible, which is why it spread so rapidly through Canada’s community of gun owners, of which I’m a part.

Even if reforms are not announced on the time and date he thinks, his question reveals a troubling and often overlooked possibility—that any sweeping changes to Canada’s gun laws could happen without a parliamentary debate or vote.

With the Canadian government’s view that gun ownership is a privilege and not a right, it would be easy to restrict gun ownership under the cloak of cabinet directives rather than openly and democratically.

This is Clement’s biggest worry, he told me in an interview.

“Cabinet, by its definition, is a secretive and secret process,” he said. “Passing an order-in-council is not done in front of a committee or in front of parliament. It’s done by cabinet ministers in secret. Then Canadians are presented with fait accompli.”

The millions of lawful Canadian gun owners—from farmers to aboriginals to hunters to sport shooters—deserve a debate.

The only times the Liberals want to have such a discussion is in the wake of tragedy, when the emotional climate makes it politically difficult to defend gun ownership.

Policies like a national handgun ban or mandatory central storage are only on the table because of the Danforth Ave. shooting, despite the killer using an illegally-acquired handgun. (But hey, never let facts get in the way of a good narrative.)

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale even said the Christchurch mosque attacks—in New Zealand—could justify further gun control in Canada, making it entirely plausible Trudeau would announce measures at an event featuring Ardern, the Kiwi prime minister.

With merely five months until the election, and few sitting legislative days, the only way Trudeau could deliver any changes would be through cabinet fiat. Subverting parliament on contentious issues is always egregious, though it’s especially so when a leader will soon have the opportunity to seek a mandate from the voters.

Process aside, further restrictions on gun ownership in Canada will do nothing, given it’s the illegal guns that are being used so routinely in Toronto’s rising gang homicides.

Toronto Mayor John Tory fancies himself a saviour of lives with his gun amnesty program, though New Zealand’s recent dalliances reveal how fruitless these efforts are.

Only 37 of New Zealand’s 1.2 million guns were turned in under the government’s voluntary surrender program. That’s not a typo—37. These things don’t work because the few people who hand their guns over are not the ones whose gun ownership causes any problems.

Defiant as the government’s denial of Clement’s allegation is, the question still stands of why Blair himself, in the moment, didn’t unequivocally shoot down the question.

It’s possible he wasn’t involved enough in the plans to know one way or another, which wouldn’t surprise me. Also possible is that Clement revealed a previous, abandoned version of the plan. This would mean both Clement and the Prime Minister’s Office are telling the truth.

Or Blair was misrepresenting the government’s plans.

Either way, Clement may have applied the necessary heat for the government to walk this back.

This column was originally published at True North.

Recapping day one of Ontario’s carbon tax hearing

The Ontario government is challenging Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax in court, with a four-day constitutional hearing taking place this week at the Court of Appeal for Ontario. Thanks to the support of donors to our crowdfunding campaign, True North fellow Andrew Lawton is covering the hearing live from Toronto.

The much-awaited constitutional challenge of the federal government’s carbon tax kicked off Monday at Osgoode Hall, with lawyers for Ontario’s attorney general first up on the docket laying out their objections to the carbon pricing scheme.

It was made clear early on in the provincial government’s submission, as well as its opening argument, that climate change and global warming are not, themselves, on trial. Rather, the federal government’s one-size-fits-all approach to tackling it is.

Whether a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, an incentive program or some other penalty for big polluters is the best way to curb environmental issues is a “policy question, not a legal question,” one of Ontario’s lawyers, Joshua Hunter, argued.

Ontario’s legal approach appears, at least on the surface, to be rooted in separating the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act’s policy implications from its constitutionality, though a good chunk of the opening argument was nevertheless devoted to pointing out how the federal plan is, in fact, inefficient and ignores other actions undertaken by Ontario.

Hunter argued the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, which imposes a carbon tax on provinces lacking their own pricing schemes meeting the federal government’s standards, focuses solely on the price governments put on emissions and not the broader picture of climate and environmental policy, even when such policy specifically reduces emissions.

One compelling example offered by Hunter is the decision by Ontario’s previous government under Kathleen Wynne to shutter its coal-powered electrical plants. Doing so reduced emissions by 22 per cent—arguably more than a carbon tax ever could—but amounts to nothing in the federal government’s view because it isn’t a pricing scheme.

Hunter also pointed out that the Climate Action Incentive, an income tax rebate given by the federal government to residents of provinces without carbon prices, redistributes carbon tax revenue indiscriminate of actual personal emissions and carbon output. For example, a long-haul truck driver based in Ottawa who burns thousands of dollars of fuel each year will receive the same amount as a Torontonian who walks to work every day.

While this observation speaks to the ridiculousness of Trudeau’s climate plan, it doesn’t appear to advance the idea of unconstitutionality, though I’m no lawyer.

Unfortunately, Canadian courts have opted to weigh in on policy questions in the past rather than taking a strict constitutional view of things, so I won’t dare predict an outcome this early.

Ontario raised a significant concern about where federal government’s claim of jurisdiction could lead on this matter. Hunter argued that if the federal government is able to regulate greenhouse gases per se, it would also give the government license to regulate anything that causes greenhouse gases. This would run the gamut of pretty much all human activity, letting the federal government trump provincial jurisdiction on whether cars are allowed, how people heat their homes, and virtually everything else.

In the afternoon the case got a bit into the weeds on subjects I’ll have to explore further before rendering an opinion. One of Ontario’s lawyers, Padraic Ryan, spent a considerable amount of his time on the semantics of whether Trudeau’s carbon tax is, in fact, a tax.

There’s a political question about whether a price on carbon is different from a tax on carbon. As it turns out, there’s also a constitutional question there. Ryan argued the federal government doesn’t explicitly refer to it as a tax in the legislation authorizing the price on carbon; ergo Parliament hasn’t yet authorized a tax in the eyes of the law. This would make it an unconstitutional tax because it has the practical effect of being a tax without the legal authorization to be one. It occupies a weird twilight zone in Ontario’s view because the price also doesn’t meet the legal threshold to be termed a regulatory charge.

There was a fair bit of attention given to how Ontario defines it, suggesting this will play heavily as the week progresses.

Aren’t you glad I’m sitting in on this and not you?

The court reconvenes Tuesday morning at 10:00 am with the federal government laying out its opening arguments.

Remember when SNC-Lavalin funnelled $100k to the Liberals?

A bombshell Globe and Mail report accuses key players in the Prime Minister’s Office of attempting to interfere in the prosecution of Montréal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin.

The report alleges the PMO tried to pressure former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to force the public prosecutor to settle, which is what SNC-Lavalin wants. When she refused, she was demoted to a less significant cabinet role.

The Prime Minister’s Office denies the allegations, and Wilson-Raybould is refusing to comment.

The ongoing case involves millions of dollars in alleged bribes to Libyan officials—including $160 million to Saadi Gaddafi. This is just one of several instances where SNC-Lavalin or its executives have faced prosecution for corruption, typically revolving around bribes.

The firm’s former CEO just last week pleaded guilty on a multimillion dollar bribery scheme involving a $1.3 billion contract for a Montréal superhospital.

Another key executive illegally funnelled a six-figure sum to the federal Liberals.

Last May, former SNC-Lavalin vice-president Normand Morin was charged with engineering a scheme to illegally donate more than $100,000 to the Liberal Party of Canada, as well as Liberal riding associations and leadership candidates.

These donations took place over a period of seven years, during which $8,000 was given to Conservatives through the same scheme.

Employees would donate in their names, but the company would cover the donation through reimbursements for “false refunds for personal expenses or payment of fictitious bonuses.” Corporate contributions have been illegal in Canada since 2006.

Despite the scale and significance of the scam, Morin was required to pay only $2,000 as punishment after pleading guilty in November. The media didn’t report on his plea until last month.

SNC-Lavalin admitted there were other executives involved, though they were never publicly identified and Morin was the only one charged.

Though this didn’t stop SNC-Lavalin from having high-level access to Justin Trudeau’s office.

Since 2017, the company’s representatives have met with senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office—including Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts—on 14 occasions, purportedly to lobby for “justice,” which seems to be an odd topic for an engineering firm.

For optics alone, the PMO shouldn’t have been taking meetings with representatives of a company facing ongoing criminal prosecution.

I’m inclined to side with NDP member of parliament Charlie Angus in saying SNC-Lavalin shouldn’t even have access to federal contracts, given its track record of corruption.

If the Globe report is true, thank goodness Wilson-Raybould had the moral grounding to say no, despite it coming at a personal cost.

It’s clear the ties between the Liberals and SNC-Lavalin run deep.