Photo via WikiMedia Commons.
In a push that sees Canada move one step closer to a state where being constantly watched, catalogued, and data mined is the norm, the Conservative government recently decided to expand its public surveillance policy to include all protests and demonstrations. The Government Operations Centre sent an email to all federal departments that requested information on even the most mundane social movements. The email then leaked to Postmedia news and opposition parties are now crying afoul, calling the plan a clear blow to democratic freedom.
NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison believes the government’s play is a smack in the face of basic democratic rights and freedoms. Though he doesn’t feel we’ve quite moved into a Big Brother state in Canada, he says this issue is proof that the country is undoubtedly heading in that troubling direction under the strong arm of the Harper Conservatives.
“It’s a fundamental disrespect for basic rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, to say that they should monitor all the time in case somebody in the future breaks the law. It’s shocking,” he told VICE. “They’ve appeared to take the position now that the government should spy on everyone who protests because there is some possibility in the future that any of us might become violent. That’s a big concern, when the government’s expressing that kind of attitude.”
In addition to gathering presumptive data for unknown purposes, the GOC will also be making use of bureaucrats and public servants to monitor legitimate protests, big or small, peaceful or vigilant, all on the taxpayer dime. From Garrison’s perspective, the most disturbing part of this push is that it is indicative of yet another bullet point on a troubling agenda that has been written over the last eight years.
“I think that’s one of its important and unfortunate impacts is that it makes Canadians very cynical and, in a certain way, almost accepting that the Conservatives are going to do things like this,” he says. “I don’t think pieces by themselves are as disturbing as the pattern. We see it with online data, we see it with the provisions they are trying to put into Bill C-13… to this order that all government departments spy on protestors. We see it in so many areas, and it’s that pattern that’s of most concern to me.”
Liberal MP Wayne Easter, also the party’s public safety critic, has called this a play one would see in a dictatorship. Easter believes his use of hyperbole, if one can even call it that, is not alarmist in the slightest. He is convinced that the government’s move to collect this brand of information is one step closer to creating a closed and fearful society:
“Sometimes you have to over-express to emphasize the danger that’s here, so that’s why the word was used,” he says, explaining his use of the term "dictatorship" to describe the government du jour. “I emphasized the point because this is in fact what you see in some dictatorships around the world and if you look at our history where a government’s spied on its citizens, neighbours spied on each other, people were in fear of each other.”
Blacklisted in the 70s on a count of a radical movement as former president of the National Farmers Union, Easter knows first-hand what it means to be on a government checklist. Shutting down political opposition, using technology to monitor the population, and instilling fear into groups that oppose the powers that be, he says, are draconian tactics being utilized by an insecure government on Parliament Hill willing to go to any length to retain its rule.
“This is all about control. If you look at the way the Harper government has treated charity organizations, for instance, they’ve gone on a concentrated attack on charities and even the status of women… that is, in a great many ways, creating a loss of expression by those who should speak out in Canadian society. Canada should be an open society where demonstrations are a healthy part of your society. And where is that information? That information is collected and gathered and then, what is done with it?”
The question is rife with controversy. Created in 2004 by Public Safety Canada, the Government Operations Centre was initially set up to deal with ongoing or eventual emergencies of national concern and develop plans to deal with human crises like pandemics. In addition, the centre was also used to monitor issues overseas like that of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011. But it seems tentacles have continued to be added to its mandate, and critics say the centre has morphed into something of a spy agency that monitors even tame citizens who may not pose a threat to the governing party.
And, while some of the information being tracked could be of national interest and help authorities to shut down dangerous groups, most of the data collected and stored by the GOC is hogwash. Documents obtained by APTN through an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request showed the centre had monitored a prayer ceremony in Edmonton and a “taco fundraiser” that was planned for Barrie’s Native Friendship Centre.
Still, the GOC has of late poked it's neck out into more nefarious affairs. Since the Idle No More movement, the centre has served, as reported by Postmedia news, as an “intelligence clearing house” used to compile data on First Nations protestors. In fact, the GOC prepared a spreadsheet that detailed 32 planned protests as part of a coordinated effort to move against aboriginal demonstrations last year.
The ATIP revelation highlighted the potency of the power the GOC now possesses. As a response to anti-fracking rallies in New Brunswick late last year, the centre had its hand on the dial of a play to push back on protestors, as it held conference calls with DND, CSIS and the RCMP, among other federal departments. What has come clear since that ploy and this most recent play is that the GOC’s role is to serve as an administrative, organizing, surveillance group, under a less somber guise.
As seen when Vancouver police raided the home of anti-pipeline activists in Vancouver, confiscating digital devices under the guise of graffiti charges, the ramifications of the government maintaining a database of this type could be far-reaching. A registry of past and planned demonstrations that can ultimately be used to spy on protestors is being viewed by opposition parties, the mainstream media and Canadian citizens alike as a serious challenge to a free-speaking democracy.