This coming Sunday November 5th, Montréal votes to fill the office of city mayor as well as other offices in 19 of the city’s boroughs. Incumbent mayor Denis Coderre is running again amidst fierce competition, notably from Project Montréal’s candidate Valérie Plante.
As mayor, Denis Coderre weathered his share of media controversies. Last year, he was implicated in a police surveillance scandal the likes of which many were shocked to hear could even take place in Canada. In October 2016, Patrick Lagacé, a journalist with La Presse known for uncovering Québec corruption, said that Montréal police (the SPVM) obtained at least 24 different warrants from a justice of the peace, allowing them to track Lagacé’s whereabouts using the GPS chip in his iPhone. The warrants also allowed the SPVM to know with whom Lagacé communicated via voice call or text message during the time covered by their warrants.
Within the days following this revelation, it was revealed that Lagacé was not the only journalist the SPVM had conducted surveillance over. Furthermore, provincial police were also implicated in surveillance efforts. The revelations of police surveillance over journalists shocked and upset the province as well as the wider Canadian population and during October and November of 2016, most Canadian news carriers brought the story to their readership. For a time, everyone tried to uncover how and why the SPVM conducted this surveillance. Included in the parties and issues implicated were: mayor Denis Coderre and an unpaid traffic ticket, police corruption in a city notorious for such issues, justices of the peace and whether or not they followed the law when issuing such warrants, and anti-cyberbullying and -terrorism laws and the real uses they were being put towards.
And yet, despite the kerfuffle that last year’s revelations caused, the flurry of opinion letters, calls for increased transparency and law reform, how many among us know what came of the issue of police surveillance over journalists in Montréal?
With Montréal’s municipal election days just around the corner and with the city’s history of public mistrust of the police force, one might think the issue would still be the talk of the town. But the reality is that many of us who felt outrage at what has been called an abuse of police power, do not actually know what came of these serious revelations.
Investigative inquiries, legal reform, and law in general work slowly. But some things are worth keeping an eye on. In November of 2016, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard announced the creation of a Commission to conduct a public inquiry into the surveillance. The following January, a Québec court “unsealed” the search warrants that had been ordered for Patrick Lagacé. In spring of 2017, the Commission began public hearings. Police, journalists, and news groups alike testified. Lagacé told the Commission that the sworn police affidavits used to obtain warrants on him were “completely invented” and that the justices of the peace were essentially “rubber stampers”. In September of 2017, the Commission stopped hearing submissions and recommendations from stakeholders. Judge Jacques Chamberland, who presided over the public inquiry, said that the findings of the Commission will be presented to the government no later than March 1st, 2018.
Among the recommendations made to the inquiry from journalists and news groups were: that higher-level judges should hear warrants against reporters, that police should be better shielded from political interference, and that federal action is needed to make it harder for police to get access to journalistic sources.
Motivated by the police surveillance revelations in Montréal, Senator Carignan tabled bill S-231 in November 2016. In early October 2017, Ottawa passed the bill which amended the Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act to enhance the protection of journalistic sources. It does so by changing the process through which police can require journalists to disclose any information or document that is likely to identify a confidential source. Now police must persuade a Superior Court judge (not a justice of the peace) that the information cannot be obtained through any other means. In addition, the judge must agree that the disclosure is in the public interest, that it will assist in the administration of justice and that it is more important than protecting the source’s identity. And in cases where journalists are required to hand over such information, every effort must be made to preserve the anonymity of the source.
While police corruption and unjustified surveillance of journalists and citizens is inevitably still a problem faced by Montréal and other Canadian cities today, may we take comfort in the relatively rapid mobility of our democratic institutions in this instance. The spying revelations occurred in November of last year; the same month both a public inquiry was ordered by the Québec government and a bill was tabled in Parliament attempting to better protect journalistic privilege. Last month that bill was passed, and in a few month’s time, we will hear the results of the public inquiry.
This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.