Premier Jason Kenney’s Alberta government is the 2019 recipient Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy in the provincial category for the veil of secrecy over its secretive, so-called energy war room.
The Canadian Association of Journalists, Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, News Media Canada and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression decide a winner each year to expose governments, government departments and agencies that have gone the extra mile into denying the public its legal right of access to government information.
The creation of the war room - or Canadian Energy Centre (CEC) - was a $30 million, 2019 election promise by Premier Jason Kenney dedicated to fighting the perceived enemies of Alberta’s energy sector such as environmentalists.
But, said the media groups, the public cannot know what goes on inside the CEC or hold those operations to account, because Kenney’s government exempted it from requests under Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP).
“That means the public will only find out what the Kenney government wants them to find out about the war room,” the groups said.
“George Orwell’s 1984 was written as a warning,” the award news release said. “But, increasingly, it seems Premier Jason Kenney’s government in Alberta is using it as a handbook.”
Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s press secretary Kava Bal said the CEC “abides by the Fiscal Planning and Transparency Act, works through a strict budgeting process with detailed business plans and reporting and is subject to a code of conduct policy, whistleblower policy and review by the auditor general.
“For over 10 years, there has been a coordinated campaign by foreign-funded special interests to discredit and attack Alberta’s energy industry,” Bal said.
“The CEC’s internal operations are not subject to FOIP – this would provide strategic advantage to the same special interests the CEC works to counter,” Bal said.
Calgary’s Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman was one of the award judges.
He called the secrecy around the CEC “an anathema to democracy.”
He said having a taxpayer-funded organization working on behalf of the oil and gas industry“indefensible.”
“To have an organization whose mission is to propagandize on behalf of that industry is not the kind of decision making we would expect in an evidence-based democracy,” Holman said.
Holman didn’t have kind words for the former journalists who staff the CEC - including CEO Tom Olsen, a former Calgary Herald reporter and editor.
These individuals should know better,” Holman said.“These individuals are betraying everything they previously stood for as members of the fourth estate.”
In creating the CEC, Kenney said, “I have a message to those foreign-funded special interests that have been leading a campaign of economic sabotage against this great province. To the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, to the Tides Foundation, to Leadnow, to the David Suzuki Foundation, and to all of the others, your days of pushing around Albertans with impunity just ended.”
The centre also planned to tout the benefits of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to all Canadians, particularly British Columbians.
The war room, however, left the battlefield at the end of March, surrendering to the COVID-19 pandemic, when its $30-million budget slashed by 90% to reflect pandemic needs. Savage said then most of the centre’s budget was earmarked for paid advertising campaigns that cannot proceed during the pandemic.
The CEC became a figure of mockery when it was discovered its logo was already in use elsewhere and when it's the centre’s Twitter account saw some questionable comments about the New York Times. The tweets said the Times is "not the most dependable source,” has a "dodgy" track record, has been "called out for anti-Semitism countless times," and is "routinely accused of bias.”
Alberta’s NDP has called the CEC “parade of errors” and called for its closure.