On Oct. 31, news broke that Montreal's police force had been monitoring La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé's iPhone for months. A series of warrants had been granted to Montreal police, who were seeking to identify a member of the police force leaking information to the press. Among the warrants granted was a tracking warrant, which allowed investigators to track Lagacé's movements using GPS. Information about Lagacé's sources was also monitored.
Cops, courts and journalists
Canada is currently ranked 18th on Reporters Without Borders' 2016 World Press Freedom Index. But this incident, among others –– Sureté du Québec's multiple warrants to monitor six prominent journalists, for example –– has elicited debate over the state of freedom of the press in Canada.
"We've never seen anything like this," says Stéphane Giroux. Giroux has worked at CTV Montreal since the early '90s, reporting primarily on legal affairs. He was recently elected president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ), an association representing 2,000 journalists across the province. Advocating and defending freedom of the press is the FPJQ's central goal. The Lagacé case promises to be the focus of the FPJQ's mandate for the upcoming year.
"We've seen cases where courts have tried to get journalists to reveal their sources," says Giroux. "But this goes much deeper."
He refers to the case of Daniel Leblanc, a reporter for The Globe and Mail who exposed a federal sponsorship scandal in 2004. Leblanc refused to reveal his sources. The Supreme Court ultimately produced a test to determine whether confidentiality of sources was necessary to best serve the public. Leblanc never had to reveal his sources in what was a definitive victory for journalists.
"This is the kind of scandal you see in a totalitarian regime," says Giroux.
Giroux insists the Lagacé controversy is even more complex.
"This is the kind of scandal you see in a totalitarian regime. You don't see that in a democracy like Canada or Quebec," he says. "It's not supposed to work like that."
The Lagacé case also has implications for whistleblowers. With the confidentiality of sources compromised, Giroux worries whistleblowers will be less likely to reach out.
He says: "Without whistleblowers you would not have heard of the sponsorship scandal, you would not have heard of the investigation into corruption in Quebec which led to the Charbonneau commission . . . and that is why the secrecy of our sources is so important."
When technology moves faster than the law
New technology further complicates the situation. The changing terrain of journalism means government and law must also adapt.
Kevin Nimmock, a recent graduate from Carleton University's journalism program and a reporter for the Times & Transcript in Moncton, sees how technology can confound both journalistic and police ethical conduct.
"It's not dissimilar from technological examples like Standing Rock in the United States," he says. Nimmock is referring to the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline held at the Standing Rock Native American Reservation. "Police were using Facebook check-in locations to check [the information of] protesters and then arrest them at their homes."
Nimmock says he believes his stance on freedom of the press to be somewhat unorthodox for a journalist.
"There should be a restriction to certain things that we can publish," he suggests. He remembers the reportage of the Moncton shooting on June 4, 2014, when three members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were killed.
"There should be a restriction to certain things that we can publish," says Nimmock.
"I don't see the benefit of publishing pictures of widows crying after their husband or wife has been killed," he says.
However, Nimmock says this restriction should be based on individual reasoning and good judgement, not legal imperative.
"It's problematic that police are spying on journalists," he says. "It's more problematic that the courts are allowing the police to spy on journalists."
Justice of the peace Josée De Carufel issued most of the warrants against Lagacé to Montreal police. De Carufel's decision-making has been questioned by both journalists and members of the legal community.
"Clear evidence" of crime lacking
John Hinds, president and chief executive officer of Newspapers Canada, has a background in law. He is appalled at the failure of courts to protect journalists from an apparent "fishing expedition," believing Montreal police's reasoning for monitoring Lagacé to be insufficient.
"Why are judges doing this? There needs to be clear evidence the individual is involved in the crime," Hinds says.
"My real overwhelming feeling was incredible disappointment that this was happening in Canada in 2016," Hinds says. "More disappointing is the fact that they were getting warrants to do it."
Press, police and courts remain divided over the issue. Perhaps the World Press Freedom Index 2017 will present a new reality for Canada's press.
For another perspective, listen to master's sociology student Kevin Koudys discuss the state of police surveillance in a technological age here.