Canadian Universities Are Surveilling Striking Workers with Private Security

Over the past two decades, the use of private security agencies has become a common fixture of academic labour disputes.
The University of Ottawa hired private security to surveil striking workers earlier this fall.
The University of Ottawa hired private securuity to surveil striking THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle

Last month, after nearly two years working without a contract, and months of working to transition their school to an online model, about 1,300 tired support staff at the University of Ottawa braved the miserable local weather and went on strike.

Almost as soon as the picket lines were set up on public property around the campus, the university administration responded by hiring private security guards, dressed in blue uniforms and skulking around the edges of the picket line. The guards videotaped striking staff from inside an unmarked SUV parked across the street for at least three days.


The university staff were not militant Trotskyists, but IT workers, course coordinators, and lab technicians who were unwilling to agree to, among other things, a 20 percent cut to their prescription drug coverage. The strike itself was entirely peaceful—traffic flowed as usual, horns honked here and there, as union members doled out coffee and donuts and sang pro-union chants.

Private security was “posted at all the major picket sites at one point or another during the nine days” of the strike, said Alp Oran, health and safety officer with PSUO-SSUO, the union representing the strikers. After they inquired about the security, they were told it was normal procedure. “We have had more than a few angry letters, especially from veteran members, questioning the university’s behaviour.”

This kind of surveillance on the part of a university is not unusual or unique to the University of Ottawa. In the past decade, public universities in Canada repeatedly turn to private security forces to monitor and surveil picket lines: In 2018, administrators at York University hired private security firm Primary Response to monitor striking graduate students; in 2015, so did the University of Toronto; in 2014, the University of New Brunswick went as far as to fly security guards employed by the international security company AFIMAC (who call themselves “the most dominant player in the Canadian labour dispute marketplace”) in from Ontario to monitor a faculty strike, ultimately costing the university over $200,000.


 While universities often justify the use of external security around concerns of property damage or violence, those on the picket lines, as well as experts in civil liberties and policing, often view them as intimidation tactics designed to make striking workers feel watched, policed, and coerced.

 “It’s all over the place, and it’s been going on for about 15 years, maybe 20 years,” Kevin Walby, a professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Winnipeg, told VICE World News. “At the University of Manitoba and a couple other universities in the 2010s, private security were used to lack staff out in labour disputes and they were following around some of the union members.”

University of Ottawa officials contend that security and surveillance by a private security firm is standard practice during labour action. 

“Labour disruption can cause some tensions on all sides and things can get heated quickly. The purpose (of videotaping) is to be able to identify any unlawful act by individuals or groups, regardless of their affiliation, and have quality evidence to the police,” Patrick Charette, a spokesperson for the university, told VICE World News in an email. “It often acts as a deterrent and protects the rights of picketers and those who must cross picket lines.” 

But the university also refused to provide even basic details about this “standard practice”—who was hired, why, and what the university intends to do with hours of surveillance footage. (It is also worth noting that uOttawa already contracts security work out to G4S security, but hired a second private security agency, which it would not name, to monitor the picket line.)


Vanessa Lehan, who was a picket captain during the 2018 York strike, said that as the security presence increased, so too did the tension. First it was campus cops, then plainclothes security, then uniformed security. “York never explained why they hired this company or what information the company was collecting. Many folks definitely felt that their presence on the picket line was being recorded and that therefore participating in the strike might endanger their employment,” Lehan told VICE World News. “The ‘heavy hitter’ security were additionally intimidating because they were much more reticent about giving information about what they were doing and why.”

They students were given many of the same justifications as to why security was there at all: to ensure the students’ safety, and to make sure nothing went wrong—and that if it did, guards would be there to document it. Ironically, Lehan says, when an issue did come up, the security was ineffectual. When someone spray-painted Pepe the Frog on a fire barrel with a racialized member’s name underneath, suddenly there was a dearth of evidence. “In spite of York’s own security and their hired security, they claimed not to have footage of any of the incidents of vandalism,” Lehan said. “We were told after each incident that the camera failed to record anything because it had, for some unknown reason, been moved.”

When asked about the use of private security, York spokesperson Janice Wall said the university “engaged private security staff to supplement its security staff to support campus safety and to respond to any safety related needs on a non-physical basis.” Regarding the video recordings, she added that “video footage is normally overwritten after two months unless it is required for an investigation. Otherwise, footage is not retained.”


When private security is contracted (as opposed to paid duty public police, or the university’s in-house security), accountability lands in a muddy grey area. If public police wanted to monitor and conduct surveillance on a picket line, Walby notes, “they generally have to do it under the cover of a warrant.” Not so with private security, whose right to show up with a video camera and record every action of a strike is the same as that of any other member of the public; the only difference, really, is on whose behalf the surveillance is being done.

“That’s a bad combination,” Walby said. “You’ve got private security who aren’t subject to very strict laws around privacy and you’ve got these university administrators who basically act like they are mafia bosses. Who knows what they’re ordering private security to do, or what they do with the records that are collected.”

That the use of private security contractors by academic institutions has become commonplace in the first place raises questions for civil liberties experts—about its necessity and impact on the right of workers to strike, and of its general dissonance with the civic values of academia.  

“The idea that you would, just as a routine matter, be engaged in surveilling picket lines, without any kind of indication that things may turn violent—I do think you’d need a justification there to say this is why this kind of surveillance is necessary,” said Cara Zwibel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.


"It’s just a bit creepy,” said Zwibel. “There’s also issues around accountability when things go wrong—who is responsible, and how do you go about seeking recourse for harm that might have been done by these companies?”

 The use of private security on campus is also questioned by police abolitionists focused on educational spaces, who see it as part of a wider spectrum of policing on campus. 

“They are named differently—‘campus security,’ or ‘security services.’ There’s these multitude of names that they (use) to paint themselves differently,” said Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, co-chair of the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yada Education Network, a grassroots student organization based out of Toronto. Many of the issues raised by the broader police abolition movement—the police’s role in the surveillance state, their unequal approach to racialized people—extend to the way educational institutions manage their student populations through security.

 “We have to remember that we’re talking about education spaces. Educational spaces are meant for folks to learn, further their growth and their development,” she said. “We have seen the use of security and surveillance used as a state apparatus, as a tool to further install fear, to further shut down any dissemination of information, and to shut down people’s right to speak.”

The use of private security firms on campus is expected to increase. The 2012 Drummond Report in Ontario, which looked at ways to cut public spending, advocated that public institutions “could include increasing use of private security” in cost-cutting measures. Smaller universities often already depend largely on contract security, which is often far cheaper than sworn police officers or the maintenance of an in-house service, don’t require benefits to be paid, and can be easily cut or adjusted to fit the budget. There is little reason to assume that what has become “standard practice” in the eyes of university administrators over the past couple decades won’t continue to be a regular feature of labour disputes on Canadian campuses.

 “In the context of austerity, especially in provinces with conservative premiers, university labour is seen as a target for cutbacks,” Walby said. “Rolling out different kinds of security operations to try to ensure those cutbacks are made is just part of the game plan.”

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