OTTAWA – The federal government has lost in a bid to go behind closed doors in a prominent court case about allegations of spying on anti-pipeline activists.
In a ruling Wednesday, Federal Court Justice Robert Barnes sided with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association in embracing the open-court principle and turning down the government’s confidentiality request.
If the decision stands, it means the public will have a fuller view of events when the court looks at the central issue in the case: whether Canada’s spy agency overstepped the law in monitoring environmental activists.
The decision could also set a precedent that determines whether future court challenges of Canadian Security Intelligence Service activities are held openly or in secret.
The case began four years ago when the civil liberties association complained to the CSIS watchdog after media reports suggested the spy service and other government agencies considered opposition to the petroleum industry a threat to national security.
The association’s complaint to the Security Intelligence Review Committee also cited reports that CSIS shared information with the National Energy Board about so-called “radicalized environmentalist” groups seeking to participate in the board’s hearings on Enbridge’s now-defunct Northern Gateway pipeline project.
The association alleged CSIS passed information to oil companies and held secret conferences with these petroleum-industry players at its headquarters.
Last year, the intelligence review committee rejected the civil liberties association’s complaint following a hearing.
That prompted the rights group to ask the Federal Court to review the decision and order the committee to take another look.
Meanwhile, the committee — citing confidentiality provisions in the law governing CSIS — placed a sweeping seal of secrecy on evidence it heard in the original probe, including the transcript of the hearing and all documents created or obtained by the committee during its investigation.
Government lawyers argued that even an edited version — stripped of national security information and other privileged details — should be sealed and excluded from the public Federal Court record. In addition, they wanted any court proceedings that mentioned such details to be held behind closed doors.
In his ruling, Barnes said the federal attorney general was seeking “protection for the sake of protection” and the need to preserve public view of the courts outweighed the government’s concerns.
Paul Champ, the lawyer for the civil-liberties association, called the ruling a “great win” that favours freedom of expression and democratic accountability.
The court judgment means the intelligence review committee’s findings can be filed in court, and the association will finally be able to “explain why we disagree and maintain that CSIS was illegally spying on environmentalists,” Champ added.
However, the federal government has 30 days to file an appeal of the court ruling. If the government does launch a challenge, it would delay public filing of the review committee documents.