Cindy Blackstock. via.
Anyone concerned with internet privacy has probably heard about the efforts in the United States to install realtime internet monitoring that would essentially allow the FBI to wiretap our internet. Then there’s the unsettling news that broke earlier this month, which revealed that the Department of Justice was spying on the Associated Press. But what about Canada? This week, it was revealed that the Canadian government went “too far” in spying on a First Nations activist who was crusading for the rights of children.
It appears that the government was compiling a very detailed dossier on the activist, Cindy Blackstock, who was allegedly being monitored through her social media profiles and at her speaking engagements. Cindy figured all of this out after requesting any and all information the government was keeping on her. We spoke to Cindy about what it’s like to be the target of government surveillance in Canada, and you can learn all about her cause—the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada—at their website. Basically, they believe that the funding for child welfare on Native reserves is sorely lacking.
VICE: What initially made you think the government was watching you?
Cindy: I was attending a meeting with the chiefs of Ontario in 2009 in December. The government officials at the meeting said that they wouldn't meet if I was in the room. They said, because I had concerns about their child welfare funding, they were not going to meet with anyone if I was there. So I just excused myself because as much as I thought that was crazy, I also thought it was more important the meeting went ahead for kids. I sat outside and the government actually had a security guard there guarding me.
So that raises the question: what is it about me? I am not a violent person, I don't make threats, I don't raise my voice, I try to conduct myself in the most professional manner, I don't have a criminal record or anything. Why did that happen? Why did they A) refuse the meeting to go ahead if I was in the room and B) call security to guard me? So that's when I filed the privacy request. I wanted to see what this was all about. It took me a year and a half to get the documents. I got the first batch of documents and in there were hundreds of pages. They were systematically following me to all my public events and recording notes about my various presentations and sending them around through the government. Sometimes in very unflattering ways. As far away as Australia for example.
In the desert in Australia I was doing a talk and they have notes in their records. On top of that I saw references to my Facebook page from these government employees and there was also loose references that it was to do with the child welfare complaint. So I got on CBC’s The Current November 17th 2011 to talk about these documents. Then about a month later I filed another access to information request and I got another series of documents, and in those documents it clearly says that the Department of Justice and Aboriginal Affairs were monitoring my Facebook page for some number of months.
So you would not have even known you were being spied on unless you looked into it.
That's exactly right, had I not gotten those documents I would have never known and it may well be continuing up until today. In fact, I haven't gotten any reassurance from the government that they've stopped. I just heard the public statements that they said they were going to stop. I actually sent a letter off to both the Ministers of Justice and Aboriginal Affairs this morning asking that they apologize and [change their policies so that] other Canadians are protected.
They are probably looking a bit closer now that this has gone public.
One would hope so. You really hope that they would realize that they've been caught out breaking the law. It's a violation of the privacy act.
What exactly was illegal about it?
The government can only collect information about you for a proper process. For example, when you go and apply for a passport, they can only use that information for the purposes of reviewing whether you are eligible for a passport and maintaining that passport. They can't use it for other purposes. The other thing, is they cannot go and proactively collect private information about you that's not related to a public program so when they started collecting things like my [personal Facebook posts], there is no government program that that stuff relates to. It's against the law for the government to actually do that unless they have some kind of warrant. You need to keep in mind that these are not trained people. These bureaucrats are government officials from Aboriginal Affairs and Justice. A lot of citizens have said to me, “Well you must be happy that it wasn’t CSIS” and I said, “Well honestly I think I’d rather have CSIS doing it because at least those people have training and accountability.”
Did you ever find out who exactly these people were?
I know some of them. I haven't released their names publicly because I know what it's like to have my privacy violated and quite frankly there is so many of them that it shows that it’s really high up in the system.
Where does the Aboriginal issue come in that they would show so much interest in you being so vocal?
I think for a couple reasons. One is that what they are doing is wrong to these kids and quite frankly they don't want anybody to find out. So when the evidence is so strong that they are providing unequal opportunities for First Nations kids to grow up with their families, we have the auditor’s general reports, their own documents, they don't have a leg to stand on. So my own view is that they then decided to discredit me. Discredit the report by discrediting me. That's why they decided to go onto my Facebook page hoping to find that I posted something that would throw my case into disrepute. I live a pretty boring life and unfortunately for them they didn't find anything. It's ridiculous that this actually happened. Some folks said, “Well Facebook is a public forum.” Yes it is, if your privacy settings are not set at maximum, which I always try to make sure mine, are. Sometimes Facebook readjusts their settings and information goes public. I always acknowledge that. Do we really, as people, want the government of Canada, without our knowledge, on our personal Facebook pages collecting information about our friends, our family and ourselves?
Has this had a negative affect on your professional career or personal life at home?
It was stressful to find out that they were doing this. I'm not a paranoid person by nature but I think any reasonable person coming across all of these documents knowing that the government is on your Facebook page and is following you to events and all the rest of it. They were even taking notes of events I wasn't at. They would say X, Y, or Z event is occurring and she's not there. You know that would really shake your sense of safety. Not only for myself but also for my family. I wonder what else are they up to?