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Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney loses attempt to have lawsuit thrown out

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces a new path forward regarding the stewardship of Manitou Asiniy, in Edmonton, on Friday September 30, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces a new path forward regarding the stewardship of Manitou Asiniy, in Edmonton, on Friday September 30, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
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EDMONTON -

Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney has lost his bid to have a court throw out a defamation case five environmental groups brought against him.

In a judgment released Wednesday, Court of King's Bench Justice Avril Inglis wrote that it was perfectly clear to whom Kenney was referring when he commented on the findings of the so-called anti-Alberta activities inquiry in 2021.

“There are no uncertainties in the facts or the law in this matter,” she wrote.

The lawsuit stemmed from an inquiry called by the United Conservative government Kenney then led into the activities of environmental groups in Alberta. Media commentators, conservative politicians and Kenney himself accused them of conspiring to use vast quantities of foreign cash to landlock Alberta's oilsands using false information about their environmental impact.

The inquiry, led by Calgary forensic accountant Steve Allan, found no such conspiracy.

On Oct. 21, 2021, he delivered a report saying the groups were merely exercising their freedom of speech. The total amount of foreign money spent on anti-oilsands campaigns amounted to about $3.5 million a year - about the same as the cost of Allan's inquiry.

Inglis's judgment says Kenney, nevertheless, went on social media later that day to proclaim: “Foreign-funded misinformation campaigns to landlock Alberta's resources caused untold hardship for thousands of energy workers and their families. Today, we released a report that shines a light on these co-ordinated efforts to harm our province.”

Those posts contained links to Alberta government websites that contained statements such as: “The report confirms the existence of well-funded foreign interests that have been waging a decade-long campaign of misinformation with the goal of landlocking Alberta's oil and gas.”

That document listed 36 parties investigated by the inquiry, including all the complainants.

Kenney's lawyer had argued the social media posts didn't actually name the groups in the defamation suit. The names were separated from the posts on the government website by two embedded links - enough electronic distance that a reasonable person wouldn't necessarily know whom Kenney was referring to.

Inglis disagreed.

“The protections of defamation law cannot be avoided simply by using embedded links instead of paragraph returns,” she wrote.

“It would defeat defamation law if a party were simply allowed to break their defamatory statement and the identity of the defamed into separate but closely linked statement and offer the defence the defendants have here.”

Neither Kenney nor his lawyers were immediately available for comment Thursday.

When the suit was filed, Paul Champ, lawyer for the environmental groups, said it was important to hold politicians to account.

“There's a line that (Kenney) crossed,” he said. “If you don't hold him accountable on something like this, there's really no limits.”

Tim Gray of Environmental Defence, one of the groups in the lawsuit, said Kenney will now have to defend his remarks.

“He took the findings of the inquiry and decided they didn't meet his needs and just reinterpreted them and made stuff up,” Gray said.

The case has yet to be heard in court and the allegations made by the environmental groups have not been tested.

Gray said the case will now enter discovery, in which both sides seek evidence to support their case, often through formal queries and document requests. He said his team will be looking for communication between Allan and the premier's office, as well as any discussion of how Kenney would respond to the report.

“We're looking to see what kind of communication there was when they were making the decision to make these (allegedly) defamatory statements,” Gray said.

“We were just saying the expansion of the oil and gas industry is bad for the climate. And it turns out that it is.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2023.