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Alberta to appeal ruling ordering release of documents on coal mining in Rockies

EDMONTON — Alberta is appealing a judge’s ruling that ordered the release of internal documents on coal mining in the province’s Rocky Mountains, said the lawyer for ranchers seeking the information.

“I was told by (government) counsel,” said Richard Harrison, who represents a group of southern Alberta ranchers that filed a freedom of information request in 2020 to understand why the United Conservative government rescinded a policy that had for decades protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies. 

Earlier this month, King’s Bench Justice Kent Teskey refused to grant a judicial review of an order from the province’s information commissioner that ordered the government to produce without redactions more than 6,500 documents pertaining to the coal decision. 

Teskey ruled the request for review was a delay tactic to avoid providing information the public is entitled to see. He also warned the government that the courts would resist granting future requests for such reviews if they were seen as ways to frustrate the public’s right to know. 

Teskey also criticized what he called the government’s “casual” approach to how many documents exist. 

First, it whittled an initial estimate of 6,539 pages down to 2,100. Of that, only 1,353 documents have been released, more than half of which are completely blank while the rest are partially redacted. 

On Monday, Alberta Energy informed Harrison that no more documents would be forthcoming.

Alberta Energy was not immediately able to comment on or explain its decision. It has not yet filed court documents outlining its grounds for appeal. 

Legal researcher and information law expert Drew Yewchuk suggested an appeal of Teskey’s ruling will find tough sledding. He said the government, in effect, would be asking for the court’s help in defying freedom of information law.  

“If you want to come to the court and ask that fairness be done, you have to comply with the law in the first place,” he said. “If you didn’t comply with the law in the first place, don’t come asking the courts to help make sure the law is followed.”

Nevertheless, he said there are no consequences to the government for further delaying the information release. 

“What do they care?” he asked. 

Premier Danielle Smith has promised in the legislature that Teskey’s ruling would be followed.

“We will abide by the decision of the court,” Smith said Tuesday. “We will make whatever documents available that the court requires.”

New Democrat Opposition leader Rachel Notley said Thursday the decision to appeal breaks that promise.

“Danielle Smith was lying,” she said. 

Notley said keeping the information secret invites speculation about what they contain.

“I suspect there’s lots of inappropriate conversations between lobbyists and representatives of certain coal companies and political staff and ministers, trying to cut a deal,” she said. “I think we’re going to find evidence (companies) were conspiring to work around the rules and (government) giving them advice on how to do that.”

She called on the government to follow the information commissioner’s original ruling and release what the ranchers asked for.

Notley pointed out the decision to appeal comes as the province’s energy regulator plans a hearing into a coal exploration proposal in the Rockies — a proposal Energy Minister Brian Jean has directed the regulator to consider. 

“We have a right to this information,” Notley said. “This is a matter of great public interest.”

Laura Laing and John Smith, two of the ranchers behind the request, took a break from calving Thursday to express disbelief the government intends to extend their four-year fight.

“Danielle standing in the legislature saying we’re going to co-operate then Brian Jean saying something else — do they even know what the frick they’re doing?” asked Smith. “They’re wasting Albertans’ time and money.”

Laing, who said the decision left her “dumbfounded,” added they have no intention of giving up. 

“Maybe that’s the strategy, to exhaust individuals. But they’ve picked the wrong ones.

“They call themselves a transparent government? It’s laugh or go insane.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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