The Never Ending Inquiry: How the Allan Inquiry went from stump speech crowd pleaser to dumpster fire political liability

In the homestretch of the 2019 Alberta election Jason Kenney fired a vicious attack at groups on the left who had been a thorn in his side during the race. The UCP put out a press release—following up on a Vivian Krause article in the National Post—that tied together Progress Alberta, Leadnow, the Rockefellers, and various other political enemies of Alberta’s conservative movement in a complicated conspiracy alleged to be hurting Alberta’s economy while “benefiting U.S. interests to the tune of billions,” in the words of Krause.  

The headline of the UCP press release laid out exactly what they were going to do if they won the election: “Kenney announces UCP government will pursue legal action against US-funded campaign targeting Alberta energy.” Progress Alberta, our small non-profit which produces The Progress Report, was explicitly named in the release. 

“It is now clear that Rachel Notley and the NDP surrendered to the foreign-funded special interests campaigning to landlock Alberta energy, because those same groups support the NDP. As Vivian Krause has documented, NDP front groups like Progress Alberta have received money to campaign against Alberta energy jobs,” Kenney said. 

The so-called ‘fight back strategy’, which ultimately became the public inquiry and the war room, was a reliable and popular part of Kenney’s campaign stump speech by this point. Kenney needed an enemy, an other, to blame for Alberta’s economic woes; so he invoked “foreign-funded special interests,” and it nearly always got a positive reaction  

The public inquiry was the crown jewel in Kenney’s fight back strategy. It was to be the final piece of conclusive proof that the enemy—those evil foreign-funded environmental organizations—were the catspaws of nefarious foreign puppet masters who sought to hurt Alberta. 

And I have to be honest, when the public inquiry was officially launched just a few short months after that press release it caused us great anxiety. We had been explicitly threatened with legal action by a vindictive and powerful politician who now had the means to irreparably harm our reputations and maybe even shut down Progress Alberta. 

At the press conference to launch the inquiry Kenney introduced the forensic accountant that he was going to turn on us: Steve Allan. He was off to the side, silent the whole time and only on screen for a few seconds but the Public Inquiries Act gives Allan the power of a provincial judge with the ability to hold public hearings and to even compel evidence and testimony. Our organization was the full-time employer of several people, and many more picked up freelance work from us. Was Steve Allan going to destroy us financially? Were we all going to be officially declared enemies of our own communities? What was Allan going to do?

Screenshot from the press conference when the public inquiry was launched. Steve Allan is on the far right. 

Two years later I’m almost embarrassed to have been worried about him. Kenney’s crown jewel lies smashed and broken, and hilariously, they broke it themselves. The public inquiry is a laughingstock, a failure, a year overdue and now on its fifth deadline. And whatever hope Jason Kenney might have had to abuse the powers of the state to ruin the lives of irritants like us was gone. They blew it.

Back in 2019, Kenney cruised to a massive electoral win on the back of this foreign-funded environmentalist narrative, but in 2021 the once-ubiquitous talking points have become liabilities. Nobody outside of the most committed conservative partisans are falling for it anymore. It turns out it’s a lot easier to get your supporters fired up in a stump speech than it is to competently run a public inquiry based on an easily disprovable conspiracy theory.

Running silent 

The Allan inquiry got started in early July 2019. It was handed $2.5 million dollars and the final report was due July 31, 2020. And at first everything was going according to plan, Allan handed in his interim report on January 31, 2020, the only time he’s made a deadline so far in his tenure as commissioner. 

But early signs indicated trouble ahead, a freedom of information request to get the report that was otherwise totally denied revealed that this interim report was only 12 pages long. More strangely the commission was six months in and it hadn’t started the process of contacting the organizations at the heart of the inquiry. It was running silent. 

Simon Dyer, who was the acting executive director of the Pembina Institute at the time, received an informal email from Allan in 2019 where he offered to meet with Dyer. Allan then retracted his offer claiming that he was too busy to meet. 

These environmental organizations, the enemy that Kenney had constantly invoked on the campaign trail as the source for all of Alberta’s economic problems, they had not been contacted. Tides, Greenpeace, the Pembina Institute—even us: we never heard anything from the Allan Inquiry. Certain groups, notably us and Greenpeace, still have not received a single piece of correspondence from the Allan Inquiry. 

If Allan’s final report mentions any of these organizations in any kind of negative fashion the Public Inquiries Act, administrative law and the rules of procedural fairness require that the Allan Inquiry involve them in the process. When there is finding of misconduct against someone or something the person or organization in question must be made aware of this finding and the evidence used to come to that conclusion. Not only that but the named groups must be given an opportunity to give their own evidence and even the opportunity to call and examine their own witnesses. 

Back in January of 2020 we even threatened to sue the inquiry and have it shut down if it ever moved forward with public hearings and actually acted like a public inquiry. But that was us expecting more competence from the inquiry than it’s ever showed. Public hearings were never held at all—Allan’s project has never once resembled a functioning public inquiry. 

The evidence that the inquiry has collected is not public, who it has actually spoken with and interviewed is not public. Its primary method with communication with the public is by updating its Frequently Asked Questions page. Barry Robinson, a lawyer with Ecojustice, called it, “the most private public inquiry I have ever seen,’’ in January of 2020. 

And then the pandemic hit and the Allan inquiry blew its first deadline on July 31, 2020. So they got an extension, to October 31, 2020, and Allan got another million dollars—bringing the total budget for the inquiry to $3.5 million. 

The inquiry has been wracked with scandal pretty much from the beginning and Allan and the people working under him didn’t seem to have the foggiest clue about how to run the thing. They still didn’t have a procedure or a process for groups and organizations to participate in the inquiry and there was a scattershot approach to correspondence. 

Letters went out seemingly at random to environmental organizations. Sometimes these letters went to catch-all email inboxes that were rarely checked or seen by low-level workers who didn’t know what  they were looking at. There was no requirement for these environmental organizations to participate and given that this thing was a toxic political circus from the very beginning few did. 

It wasn’t until September 15, 2020, a full six weeks after the first deadline for the final report had passed that the inquiry released an engagement process “for conducting the Inquiry’s engagement with specific parties about the information gathered to date.”

This lackadaisical approach to engaging with the ostensible targets of the inquiry has continued to the present day. It is now 23 months after the inquiry started its work, and Allan has still not reached out to Greenpeace Canada or us in any way despite Premier Kenney going after both of us by name multiple times. 

“We’ve sent them three letters from our lawyer asking for clarification on due process and how we can communicate with them and they have never replied beyond the standard ‘we have received your email’ response. Which is surprising because when this whole thing was launched Greenpeace was one of the groups that was mentioned by the Premier,” said Keith Stewart, a campaigner and staffer with Greenpeace Canada.

“We wrote them in October 2019 shortly after it was launched. And then again in January 2021 after the consultation documents came out, which named us 72 times—and they had never spoken to us. We pointed out that there were errors in those documents and that we would like to correct that and we would definitely like to speak with them before they publish anything else. Again, no reply.” 

“And then we wrote to them last month to say that we still haven’t heard from you so we’re anticipating that we’re not in your report. Again, no reply,” said Stewart.  

And so Allan blew through his second deadline of October 31, 2020. And blew his next deadline of January 31, 2021. And now he’s blown through his latest deadline of May 31, 2021. His new deadline is now July 30, 2021, late by an entire year—assuming this deadline isn’t blown too.

Premier Kenney claims he’s not impatient. He says that during his time in public service he can’t ever recall a public inquiry that has come in on time (an odd anecdote given that most of them absolutely do.) The government has put forward a number of laughable excuses to cover for Allan. 

The UCP claimed the reason the inquiry has been so tardy is because Allan was busy dealing with a lawsuit initiated by Ecojustice, but just thinking about that excuse for a few seconds rules that out.

The Allan inquiry’s written response to the lawsuit was handed in to the judge on January 29, 2021. The in-person hearing was on February 12, 2021. While the judges decision came out on May 14 there had been nothing for the inquiry to do on that lawsuit since the hearing in February. And Allan isn’t a lawyer, the legal case doesn’t involve Allen in any meaningful way. Kenney made it sound like he was too busy to finish his final report because he was personally crafting the legal arguments that were submitted to the judge. Allan is an accountant.  

Bad press generating machine

The sheer volume of negative press that the inquiry has managed to attract is actually quite impressive. There really are just too many to try and spin it into a narrative so here is a bulleted list of most of them in roughly chronological order. 

The diversity of screw-ups is really something, from people hating the idea of the province setting up a snitch line, and then on to your usual conservative self-dealing—Allan financially supported and campaigned for the cabinet minister that appointed him to his $291,000 a year position. Allan also ended up handing lucrative sole-source legal and accounting contracts to family and former business partners. Even otherwise boring charities were coming out of the woodwork to blast the inquiry. 

And then it gets into the truly strange—the government changed the terms of reference so that the inquiry no longer considered whether the environmental organizations were lying or not. Considering this was a key part of Kenney’s stump speech it was incredible to see the inquiry back off this foundational issue. But we also learned that commissioner Allan skipped off to Palm Springs in the middle of an ostensible lockdown during a global pandemic to ‘concentrate on his work’ (as one does in Palm Springs.) And finally the cherry on top—commissioning and paying for reports that were full of “textbook climate denialism,” according to one University of Calgary law professor and conspiracy theories about George Soros, John Podesta and the “Transnational Progressive Movement.

An omnishambles

Allan seemed singularly incapable of running a public inquiry and in retrospect, despite our anxiety about being targeted, it’s easy to see why he was unable to cause us much harm. Typically judges or ex-judges are hired to run public inquiries and it’s for obvious reasons. These are quasi-judicial proceedings and judges are perceived as impartial. Allan is an accountant and a UCP donor who personally campaigned for and donated to the cabinet minister that appointed him to his position. 

Allan also hired David Mann, a bankruptcy lawyer with Dentons and someone Allan was familiar with and had worked with before in his job as a forensic accountant, as lead counsel for the inquiry. 

“If you’re running administrative inquiries, however poorly conceived, you want to hire people with a strong administrative and public inquiry background, otherwise you’re just paying them money to get up to speed,” said Nigel Bankes, a law professor at the University of Calgary in a prior Progress Report piece

“Hiring a bankruptcy lawyer to advise on public inquiry issues is likely not a wise expenditure of public money.”

A public inquiry was simply the wrong tool to use in order to prosecute a witch hunt against imagined enemies.  Public inquiries are usually held to determine how something went wrong, typically within the apparatus of government, and offer solutions so that the same mistake doesn’t happen again. The legislation that governs how public inquiries work is also pretty clear that they should be  “connected with the good government of Alberta, or the conduct of the public business of Alberta,” and that an inquiry should be looking into matters “within the jurisdiction of the legislature.”

The most recent public inquiry held in Alberta was focused on getting to the bottom of whether there was line-jumping in the healthcare system by politically connected insiders. There was a public inquiry into a 1998 incident where an RCMP constable shot two Indigenous people, one of them nine years old, to death on the Tsuut’ina reserve. And I can’t talk about the history of public inquiries in Alberta without talking about the famous ‘bull semen to Brazil’ inquiry where a deputy minister was fired and one of Peter Lougheed’s top lieutenants was called out by name

If you really wanted something to go after your imagined enemies Kenney could have set up a legislative committee or appointed a special prosecutor. But unfortunately for Kenney a public inquiry is duty bound to follow the rules of process and procedure laid out in the Public Inquiries Act. 

Hilariously it seems as if the idea for the inquiry came from Vivian Krause, the original popularizer of the notion that it was somehow illegal or wrong for Canadian environmental organizations to receive donations from American charities concerned about climate change. Krause has no background or expertise in administrative law or public inquiries. 

Image via the Alberta Order of Excellence

The latest dumpster fire

The latest round of bad press for the inquiry involves more self-inflicted damage. Krause, unprompted on Twitter, appeared to walk back her original claims that Canadian environmental groups were doing the work of opposing pipelines and oilsands projects so that American interests would benefit

If the inquiry isn’t determining whether the enemy lied about our oilsands and it isn’t determining whether the enemy was acting to harm Alberta for the benefit of foreign interests, then what exactly is it doing? 

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the overarching lobbying and advocacy group for the oil and gas industry in Alberta, is foreign-funded and has a yearly budget in the tens of millions of dollars, not to mention all the gross astro-turf groups the oil and gas industry fund. The oil and gas industry in Alberta also runs on foreign money and investment and Kenney himself goes to the US and other countries on a semi-regular basis to beg for foreign direct investment

“Allan has been sent out to try and find evidence of this global progressive movement conspiracy targeting Alberta. And what they find is environmental groups are doing what environmental groups do everywhere. Alberta has the third largest reserves of oil in the world, that’s going to get some attention from the global environmental movement,” said Stewart of Greenpeace. 

According to Stewart the amount of charitable resources that have been deployed in order to fight against coal globally has been orders of magnitude larger than what has been spent on the oil sands. And that’s because in most countries coal is the biggest source of carbon pollution.

“You can build these incredibly contorted arguments as to what this was all about when really it’s pretty simple —oil and gas extraction is the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada so it gets a lot of attention,” said Stewart.

The idea that there was something illegal or untoward about American charities donating to Canadian environmental organizations was also thoroughly dismantled by Sandy Garossino in 2019. She was able to review a large data set of donations made by international foundations and was able to debunk Kenney’s claims. 

“Once these data points are placed in their proper context, i.e., in relation to more complete data and other evidence of surrounding circumstances, the fuller picture emerges. At that point the theory just collapses. Not to put too fine a point on it, but every core tenet of Kenney's conspiracy theory is flatly and demonstrably false,” wrote Garossino. 

Regrets, I’ve had a few

It’s no wonder that according to a former conservative MLA and cabinet minister that Allan is regretting signing onto be the head of this sham inquiry.

All Allan had to do was keep up the kayfabe of ethical oil versus foreign-funded radicals and scrape together a stupid little report that would have been treated seriously by Postmedia and the “Oilsands Proud” social media echo chamber as conclusive proof that the bad guys really were out to get us. He could have cashed his absurdly high paycheque and indulged in his real passions, like fighting against light rail transit projects or pushing the city of Calgary to subsidize a hockey arena for the billionaire owners of the Calgary Flames

Blowing your deadline four times really is just incredibly impressive when you think about it. Imagine going to your professor and handing an assignment in a year late but in this scenario you’re being paid $291,000 a year to do the assignment. At some point you just have to respect the hustle. 

And I’m no longer scared. The amount of harm Allan and this inquiry could have heaped on us, from hellish audits to being publically smeared—the harm that Jason Kenney promised his voters he’d do to us—could have been immense. I could be sitting right now before a kangaroo court for made-up crimes against the almighty bitumen. But after all of Jason Kenney’s threats, Steve Allan never even sent me an email.