Hebert: Spying exposes weak-kneed judges

Connect the dots between Quebec’s police corps and the half-dozen or more investigative journalists who were put under surveillance over the past decade and you will find a gaggle of judges potentially derelict in their gatekeeping duties.

In each of the spying episodes that have come to light over the past week, the police had to persuade a judge to sanction the surveillance and, in some cases, to do so more than once.

The evidence submitted to the courts by the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) and the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) to secure surveillance mandates is under seal, but not for long. Those affidavits will eventually be out in the open as a result of an upcoming public inquiry or the legal procedures undertaken by the media.

It may be that an unspecified number of provincial and municipal police officers testifying under oath pulled the wool over the eyes of a yet-to-be-determined number of gullible justices of the peace. But based on the information released this week, securing a court’s approval to spy on a journalist in Quebec amounts to little more than a formality.

In theory, the names of the journalists who were the targets of the police surveillance should have given pause to any judge mindful of his or her responsibility to protect the freedom of the press. The list reads like a who’s who of Quebec’s investigative reporters.

At the time the SQ went to court to access Alain Gravel’s phone records, he was the host of Radio-Canada’s Enquête program. The show’s revelations gave impetus to the creation of a provincial commission of inquiry into corruption and collusion in the construction industry.

Isabelle Richer, who succeeded Gravel as one of Enquête’s co-hosts, cut her teeth covering the justice beat. For years, she was a constant presence at Montreal’s Palais de Justice. She would be a familiar figure to anyone who toils in the province’s courts.

Gravel, Richer and their Radio-Canada colleague Marie-Maude Denis were spied on by the SQ for five years. Denis’s husband, who is also a journalist, seems to have had his phone put under surveillance for the simple reason that he is her partner.

Between 2008 and 2013, the numbers of all their incoming and outgoing calls were logged by the police. That is the period they spent investigating collusion between the construction industry and various orders of government.

Their stories would not have come to light without the co-operation of sources operating under the presumption that their identities were protected.

With 222,000 followers, Patrick Lagacé, the La Presse columnist who was revealed to have been under surveillance by the Montreal police this week, may be the only Canadian journalist to have a Twitter following approaching that of the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge. (Chances are Lagacé boasts more police followers than the anchor of The National.)

In Lagacé’s case, the SPVM’s spying expedition was the object of more than 20 surveillance mandates.

There have been years when Denis Lessard, La Presse’s veteran correspondent at the national assembly, has come up with far more scoops than the sum of his press gallery colleagues.

It is a fact of elected life in Quebec that members of the national assembly wake up at night wondering when —and not whether — Lessard will get his hands on information they would rather keep private. He, too, was the subject of SQ surveillance.

Quebec is a tightly knit society with less than six degrees of separation between members of its chattering class. And yet it seems the police spying operations raised no red flags within the justice system. The request or requests to access their phones and track their movements seem to have been treated as a matter of routine.

Retired Superior Court judge John Gomery led the federal inquiry into the sponsorship scandal between 2004 and 2006 and then went on to head Quebec’s press council until 2014.

From Gomery’s perspective, this week’s debacle does not result from an overly weak legal protection of journalist sources as much as from weak-kneed judges who are failing to enforce the existing law.

The notion that Quebec police forces would go on a spying spree on the province’s top investigative journalists is troubling; the fact that it was all done legally is the opposite of reassuring.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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