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La Presse journalist Patrick Lagace (right) speaks about his experiences during a news conference on police surveillance and greater protection for journalists in Ottawa, Wednesday November 16, 2016.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Two of Canada's top journalists have testified they were shaken to discover what they allege are half-truths and lies used by some police forces in Quebec to obtain search warrants from credulous courts to track journalist telephones.

Marie-Maude Denis, an investigative reporter with Radio-Canada who was pivotal in uncovering the construction and political financing scandal in Quebec that triggered a public inquiry and dozens of arrests, and Patrick Lagacé, a columnist for La Presse, an occasional contributor to The Globe and Mail and one of Quebec's most prominent TV personalities, testified Thursday at the province's public inquiry into police surveillance of journalists.

Both told how they were shocked last fall to learn they were among at least eight reporters, most of them key players in uncovering Quebec corruption, who were tracked by police looking for shortcuts as Quebec's provincial police and the Montreal police tried to stop information leaks, often based on misinformation.

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Ms. Denis was angry during her testimony as she described her discovery in recent weeks that provincial police Lieutenant Patrick Duclos swore in an affidavit in 2014 that he believed she was having an affair with the then-head of an anti-corruption squad, Inspector Denis Morin, to justify a warrant to obtain her private telephone information.

"It's a total calumny," Ms. Denis testified in Montreal in front of the head of the commission of inquiry, Justice Jacques Chamberland of the Quebec Court of Appeal. "There is not a hint of a sliver of truth in that allegation.

"It's always been that when women succeed in journalism, there are little rumours and allusions to bedroom stories.

To find that kind of rumour in a court document endorsed by a justice of the peace blows me away. I am outraged."

Insp. Morin also denied having an affair with Ms. Denis in earlier testimony. Lt. Duclos explained himself at the inquiry last week but his testimony is covered by a publication ban.

Insp. Morin and Ms. Denis described how they had occasional professional contacts over the years and how the allegation of an affair has hurt their personal lives.

Ms. Denis said she had earlier seen redacted versions of the affidavits with Insp. Morin's name blacked out where, she assumed, the document was referring to romantic nights out with her husband, fellow journalist Éric Thibault. She was shocked when her lawyer revealed the name redacted. "I thought it was a joke," she said.

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The inquiry has heard that Ms. Denis is one of two female reporters who were the subject of sexual innuendo in official, sworn court documents filed in court by police.

Ms. Denis described the broader chilling effect of the telephone surveillance and the allegations used to obtain them.

"It's terrible for journalists, it's terrible for the message it sends to our sources, it's terrible for women trying to honestly do their work, and it's terrible for honest police officers being sullied by these tactics," she said.

"But the message is very clear for police officers, current, retired or starting out: 'Never talk to a reporter, especially not a female reporter, because you will end up under criminal investigation and you might find yourself in front of a public inquiry having to deny you are having an affair with a reporter.'"

Last fall, Mr. Lagacé was the first to reveal he had been under police surveillance, several years after he had made an innocuous inquiry about a traffic ticket Mayor Denis Coderre had received years earlier. Mr. Lagacé wanted to know if the mayor had paid his ticket.

The mayor called the police chief who handed the matter to underlings who eventually gave it to internal affairs who obtained warrants to put Mr. Lagacé under surveillance. Combined with a second area of investigation concerning Mr. Lagacé's police sources, he was under surveillance 24 times.

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The sworn police affidavits used to get warrants on him contained nonsense, he alleged, including that he was giving away scoops to rival media outlets.

"I was blown away by the ease with which police wrote down half-truths and falsehoods," Mr. Lagacé said, who has called justices of the peace "rubber stampers" who approve 98.6 per cent of the warrants sought by Montreal police. "There are suspicions in these documents that are completely invented. It's worrisome for citizens, not just journalists. I am frightened as a citizen."

Mr. Lagacé presented a series of recommendations to the inquiry, including that warrants against reporters should go to higher-level judges who might have a better understanding of evidence. He also said heads of police forces should be better insulated from political masters to avoid interference. He also endorsed the move in Ottawa to make it harder for police to get access to journalistic sources.

Under a bill a introduced by Senator Claude Carignan and endorsed in principle by the Liberal government, police would have more hurdles before probing journalistic sources. Superior-court judges would have to approve search warrants on journalists instead of justices of the peace. Items seized in any search would be sealed and journalists and their organizations would have an opportunity to fight to keep it private.

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