Legal Expert: "Inherent Challenge" in Having Enbridge Lobbyist Serve as Spy Watchdog

Chuck Strahl, CSIS, SIRC, Enbridge, Northern Gateway, DeSmog Canada

Recent revelations that Canada’s top spy watchdog Chuck Strahl is also a paid lobbyist for Enbridge and Northern Gateway Pipelines have Canadians in a rightful tizzy. The implications are grim, especially for citizens already concerned with federal overreach in the surveillance of environmental groups opposing the Enbridge's Northern Gateway oil pipeline and tanker proposal for B.C.'s coast.

Strahl is the federally appointed chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), an independent and non-partisan oversight agency designed to keep an eye on all activities of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

In November the Vancouver Observer released internal documents showing the federal government, the RCMP and CSIS had been working closely with the energy industry to address the issue of pipeline opposition and other barriers to energy development. Cross-sector responses between government and industry included the monitoring of environmental groups.

Lorne Sossin, dean of the Osgoode Law School at York University and specialist in constitutional law, regulation of professions and public policy, told DeSmog while Strahl may not be using his role as CSIS watchdog to advance the interests of Enbridge, the overlap of roles poses some threat to his perceived ability to perform as an independent adjudicator.

“I have no reason to think Chuck Strahl would use his position as chair of SIRC to advance interests of his clients as a lobbyist (whether Enbridge or others),” Sossin said. “That said, the nature of lobbying is building close relationships with government in order to advance client interests, while the nature of a regulatory and oversight body such as SIRC is to act independently to hold government accountable.”

Sossin continued: “There seems to me to be an inherent challenge in having a lobbyist serve in such a capacity … The standard for impartiality at law is one of perception and I think a reasonable person could certainly see a conflict in this context. It may be that this concern is mitigated by the chair recusing himself in matters where his client's interests could be at stake but there may also be a perception of an inherent conflict in these roles.” 

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch called Strahl's lobbying “problematic” since “CSIS is investigating the people who oppose Enbridge.”

We need a full examination by ethics commissioner Mary Dawson into whether he used any information gained as a member of the Privy Council,” Conacher said.  

On Wednesday, Dawson dismissed questions around conflict of interest in an exchange with the Vancouver Observer.

In December Strahl’s private consulting company took Enbridge on as a client to lobby on behalf of the company’s subsidiary Northern Gateway Pipelines L.P.

Strahl has previously publicly stated that he will not lobby and will take care to avoid conflicts of interest arising from his move to the private sector.

Recently the Vancouver Observer reported Strahl’s support of Enbridge can be traced back to an open letter signed in 2011.

The letter, entitled “A Choice for British Columbia” states:

Canada has talked about a “Pacific Gateway” for years: a tantalizing dream to position British Columbia as the leader of a coordinated national effort to leverage our strategic position into jobs, investment and prosperity for many decades to come.

Turning that dream into reality will require large, responsibly managed investments. It’s time to build the ports and pipelines, create the transportation systems, develop the skills and assemble the financial muscle to lead our country in tackling the challenges of global economic change.

Timely completion of natural gas pipeline and liquefaction capacity, as well as pipelines such as Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipelines Project, is essential for our economic future. 

Strahl’s open support of the pipeline has many concerned CSIS powers used to advance Enbridge interests above those of British Columbians will remain unchecked.

Canadians were already concerned about the federal government using CSIS and the Canada Revenue Agency to target environmental groups and charities — now we learn the chair of CSIS’ civilian oversight committee is a paid pipeline lobbyist,” Nathan Cullen, NDP House Leader, said.

This just further undermines people’s confidence in the fairness of the pipeline approval process.”