This past weekend, I read a stack of heavily-redacted documents that are pissing off privacy advocates here in British Columbia—and to be honest I was a little disappointed. The docs reveal the RCMP and CSIS are mildly capable Facebook creepers who share earnest security reports about environmentalists giving away (gasp) hot chocolate.
The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is pissed because it says the government illegally collected information about lawful protesters, and shared that info with oil companies. Last week they filed two formal complaints arguing the RCMP and CSIS violated aboriginal and environmental groups’ rights to freely associate and assemble during public hearings for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
With many paragraphs and pages blacked out, the remaining passages mostly describe “open source” intel pulled from social media feeds, but also reference other undisclosed sources. Groups like Idle No More, Leadnow, ForestEthics and Dogwood Initiative were all “monitored” over several months in Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, and Prince Rupert.
“On the last day of the hearings, they plan to distribute hot chocolate to the group before embarking on a door-to-door campaign,” reads one email from police in Victoria, describing an event organized by Dogwood Initiative. “It appears to be informative and peaceful.”
Another threat assessment describes a storytelling workshop in a Kelowna church basement. Organizers say the brief required more than an internet connection: “We know from the documents they had some way of gathering what happened in that meeting,” says Will Horter, Dogwood’s executive director. “Either it was bugged, there was a paid informant or undercover staff attended. There’s no other way to have the details available, and all three of those scenarios are ridiculous, anti-democratic and, we believe, illegal.”
The BCCLA alleges the “systematic intelligence gathering” also violates the CSIS Act. “The law that gives authority to CSIS makes clear that the agency cannot investigate, monitor, collect information or spy on ‘lawful advocacy, protest or dissent,’” reads the CSIS complaint. “The documents released make clear that, in the opinion of the government, the organizations being spied upon did not constitute such a threat.”
The documents were originally released through Access to Information (ATI) law and published by the Vancouver Observer back in November. Since then, the lead watchdog that oversees CSIS spies registered as an Enbridge lobbyist. Chuck Strahl was forced to step down as chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) following the ensuing conflict of interest scandal.
Strahl’s name doesn’t appear in the email chain, but a few anonymous industry buddies do. An email providing “situational awareness” to “stakeholders” casually copies a dozen redacted @transcanada.com, @cnrl.com, @kindermorgan.com and @enbridge.com emails. A separate ATI by the Guardian also found Enbridge sponsored a lunch meeting between spies and resource companies. Because, jobs?
Lawyers for the advocacy group filed their complaint directly to SIRC, whose remaining members still have ties to the oil patch. The letter calls for an independent investigation into security monitoring practices. CSIS has responded with a generic denial: “CSIS investigates—and advises government on—threats to national security, and that does not include peaceful protest and dissent.”
The RCMP had a similar non-response response. “The RCMP will not comment on this matter,” reads an emailed statement. “We take all public complaints seriously, and will fully cooperate with the [Commission for Public Complaints] if necessary.”
The RCMP is tasked with maintaining public safety at the hearings, and is at the very least not subject to the CSIS Act. However, the sweeping self-described mandate to “monitor all aspects of the anti-petroleum industry movement” is unlawfully meant to “chill” dissent, according to Horter.
“I’m certain it has a chilling affect on some people, which feeds a growing trend toward cynicism,” Horter says. “But for other people it outrages them so much, it actually fuels a climate of protest and opposition.”
It occurred to me, while chatting with Horter, that Enbridge probably has enough money kicking around to pay for its own private intel—especially given that these reports have revealed our government is spying on events as innocuous as the "all-native basketball tournament" in Prince Rupert; an event that’s sponsored by the TransCanada energy corporation.
“It shows how absurd this thing is—how much taxpayer money is being wasted,” he replies. “It’s a complete abuse of power.”