Discover more from The Line
Q&A: Why were the Lethbridge police snapping pictures of a former environment minister?
The weird case of Shannon Phillips.
Alberta's former environment minister has been in the news this week in connection to a story that utterly baffled your Line editors. As it turns out, NDP MLA Shannon Phillips had been subject to bizarre snooping and surveillance efforts by the Lethbridge Police Service in the middle of a local controversy about allowing motorized vehicles on sensitive environmental lands in southern Alberta. At least two officers have been disciplined in connection with the incident, which has prompted even more investigations into police officers inappropriately accessing the former minister's personal files. Phillips spoke to The Line's Jen Gerson.
Q: What kinds of stuff were you working on when you discovered that you were being surveilled?
A: This was in 2017. Two of my acquaintances were in town for a scholarship dinner, and so I decided to go and chat with them. At 10 o'clock, I went to go sit down and eat breakfast with my friends and we talked about Buffalo Treaty stuff, letting Bison back into Waterton National Park.
I remember two officers sitting behind me in the table in uniform. I smiled at them.
Then later, I saw a link from one of the more hatey sites on Facebook for Pro (ATV or quad-bike) people. There were grainy photos of me taken from only one table behind us with a write up of crazy pants libel, just garbage lies about what we were talking about and so forth.
The first thing I did was to phone our chief of police to let them know what was happening. He said I needed to file a complaint.
...I got back the complaint in March of 2018 and the report itself was not good. It had a number of flaws, even to a layperson. The two characters found to have done this got very light taps on the wrist. But this was March of 2018. I had another year before an election campaign and I did not have time to make a fuss. I didn't have any bandwidth for recourse.
Q: Several years went by, and then you started to hear that there may have been more to this case.
A: And then as part of that, I FOIPed myself, and that’s hundreds of pages; there were a number of incidents where one particular record was accessed by law enforcement for no legitimate purpose whatsoever.
That is the substance of the allegation that has now been forwarded to the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT.)
Q: But why were they surveilling you in the first place? Why were they doing this to you?
A: There isn't a simple answer to that, but there were certain permissions structures that were created around the deliberate whipping up of a shit storm for some of the files for which I was responsible. It's easier to vilify women. If it were a man on some of these controversial files, it would have been different.
I think I've said this before, with the way that online hate is whipped up in particular on Facebook, especially at that time, it both dehumanized me and fundamentally undermined respect for that office.
Q: What issues in particular upset the police? I presume they must have also been avid ATV enthusiasts.
A: We had made a platform commitment to some form of protection for the area known as Castle Parks. These had been poorly administered public lands for some time, and as a result there had been a proliferation of unauthorized trails, with no planning.
It was a problem from a sensitive habitat perspective, certainly. But we also had pipeline companies whose infrastructure was being dug up; ranchers who had a hard time keeping cattle in because of disruptions to fencing.
Q: But this area had become very popular, particularly for off-road vehicles like ATVs, whose riders would camp in these areas.
A: The previous government had kicked the can down the road about how to deal with that. We generally imposed restrictions on summer activity, but not winter snowmobiles — those were left alone because the disruption snowmobiles caused was almost nil compared to ATV lawlessness. We put some resources toward signage, phased out ATV activity in the most sensitive areas, and invested in serious infrastructure.
But as is often the case with the environment file, nobody is ever really happy. It's a different kind of file than solving problems with health and education. With environment, there are always trade offs that switch things that people hold very dear.
There was a real backlash fueled by associations and lobbyists, and it was very vile and personal. It was dangerous.
It goes to the permissions structure created around that one area and you know, it's just so silly. You and I are having this conversation four years later over some trails in a park.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org