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RCMP files say "violent aboriginal extremists" are undermining pipeline plans

This is what Carleton University researchers learned from police documents on government surveillance of Indigenous activists.
Canadian Press

While dominant media and political pundits continue to describe the conflict over Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline as a “constitutional crisis,” some commentators have acknowledged that the real constitutional crisis involves the lack of Indigenous consent, with Indigenous activists declaring that they will prevent the pipeline from being built. Yet, the Trudeau government’s response to that constitutional crisis has been to criminalize opponents of the pipeline. Similar to how the energy policies of the Liberal government remain almost identical to the days when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives boasted of creating an “energy superpower,” current policing practices also involve widespread surveillance and criminalization of Indigenous activists.


Our new book, Policing Indigenous Movements, details the new normal in terms of the routine and extensive surveillance of Indigenous movements. We have detailed four case studies examining the criminalization of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, the mobilizations against the Northern Gateway Pipelines, the Idle No More movement, and the anti-shale gas movement in New Brunswick surrounding the Elsipogtog First Nation.

Researching these prominent movements has revealed the extent to which Indigenous activists are policed using the powers and resources of the national security apparatus, demonstrating the extensive reach of the “war on terror” into the traditional domain of colonial governance. We use primary sources of information to detail these surveillance and policing practices: the records of policing agencies, Indian Affairs, and bureaucracies of the national security apparatus obtained through the Access to Information Act. It is through accounts of these conflicts that we narrate how policing agencies function as an extension of extractive capitalism.

Research on policing culture has long detailed how police agencies are closed institutions with powerful socialization processes. In one of the most influential books on policing – The Politics of the Police – Robert Reiner outlined “police conservatism” as one of the core characteristics of police culture. Police also harbour suspicion and antagonism towards movements demanding change or challenge the status quo. This antagonism is clearly visible within national security agencies tasked with protecting “critical infrastructure.”



While the terms and concepts lack consistency or clarity, the language of the RCMP is clear: opponents to the “development of Canada’s vast petroleum resources” are some combination of extremist, violent, criminal, anti-Canadian, and/or militants who “promote… [an] anti-petroleum ideology.” The summary also provides a not-so-subtle denial of climate change science by suggesting that it is only the “extremists” who “believe” that governments and petroleum companies contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Later in the report, the RCMP warns of “violent aboriginal extremists” who “will continue to engage in criminal activity” and “pose a realistic criminal threat to Canada’s petroleum industry.” Specifically naming the Mi’kmaq defending unceded territories from shale gas exploration near Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, the underlying motives for Indigenous resistance — the destruction of their lands and subjugation of treaty rights — are ignored. The report goes on to warn, “These violent protests are likely an indicator of what the petroleum industry, and the law enforcement community, must be prepared to confront as the development of Canada’s petroleum resources continues and expands” (emphasis added).

Linking Indigenous movements to “a coalition of like-minded violent extremists,” the RCMP paints a clear picture of antagonism. Moreover, through various government partnerships and collaborations – particularly around “critical infrastructure protection” – policing and security agencies have worked with energy companies to surveil and suppress Indigenous opponents.



The “war on terror” has enabled the organizational development of “fusion centre” models of surveillance and information-sharing. Take the following excerpt from a CSIS speech given to energy company representatives at a 2016 biannual Energy and Utilities Sector Stakeholders Classified Briefing:

“The Service's longstanding partnership – along with the RCMP, NRCan, Public Safety and ITAC – with the energy sector provides a secure channel to share information and we will continue to work closely with you. We see the flow of information between the Service and the private sector as a two-way street. And it goes without saying that any information that you provide will remain confidential.”

Through these partnerships with energy corporations, the security apparatus fosters a “two-way” flow of information, which is particularly concerning for protest movements. Information on activists gathered from energy corporations or security firms can then be transmitted through further networks of government agencies like Indian Affairs and another notable fusion centre within Public Safety Canada called the Government Operations Centre (GOC). The GOC actively engages in surveillance and information sharing regarding social movements.

A prominent example of the GOC's targeting of social movements is illustrated by the policing of Idle No More in 2012-2013. Given the scope of Indigenous mobilizations – upwards of 1,000 actions across the country – the response involved potentially unprecedented resources dedicated toward a campaign of mass surveillance. The government of Canada compiled information on every event associated with the movement, from university teach-ins, to flash mobs and round dances in local shopping malls, to blockades of major highways and border crossings. Data was aggregated into large spreadsheets, ranked on risk scales, and specific personal information on leading activists was stored in police databanks for future investigations.


In addition, various high-level meetings were held by “subject matter experts” and other elite security bureaucrats to coordinate the policing response to Idle No More. A set of handwritten notes from one group, the Assistant Deputy Ministers’ National Security Operations Committee (ADM NSOPS), reveals the implications of surveillance targeting Idle No More.

A corresponding meeting agenda lists Idle No More as the first item of discussion under the agenda heading “Domestic Extremism and Government Model for Decision Making.” The handwritten meeting notes from officials with the CSIS-run Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC) detail discussions on creating a more permanent “central fusion centre for Native problems.” The sparse notes offer a rare window into the world of elite security bureaucrats, as well as the organizational flow of intelligence information – and politics.

The notes show how the DM [Deputy Ministers’] Intelligence Committee would be collaborating with the National Security Advisor (NSA) (who is taking a “pulse of the community”), feeding information to the PM [then Stephen Harper], and distributing to partner agencies through Government Operations Centre Director General Craig Oldham. As a result of the massive surveillance campaign and the use of digital technologies, it’s possible that Idle No More was the most thoroughly surveilled social movement in Canadian history. The Idle No More “ideology” as described by the government – that is the demand for Indigenous sovereignty and nation-to-nation relations – still factors in heavily on policing agencies’ risk assessments of present-day Indigenous protests.


The magnitude of the Idle No More movement and anti-shale gas protests in New Brunswick through 2013 left an imprint on the psyche of the settler state. High-level officials tasked with protecting Canada’s national security organized in the aftermath and ascertained that Aboriginal issues were the leading motivator of unrest in the country. Meanwhile, the RCMP’s Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Team and National Intelligence Coordination Centre compiled reports to profile and criminalize Indigenous activists that challenged Canada’s energy superpower ambitions. Police labelled activists as “violent Aboriginal extremists” and “environmental criminal extremists” to criminalize those who opposed the tar sands and development of Canada’s energy infrastructure – whether it be pipelines, shale gas, or mining.


The vast surveillance efforts levied against Idle No More showed that many movements and sites of resistance overlapped, including against several pipeline proposals in British Columbia. As we detail in our book, the Government Operations Centre refers to the Unist’ot’en Camp, an anti-pipeline protest site in northern B.C., as “the ideological and physical focal point of Aboriginal resistance to resource extraction projects.” The Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation was under intense surveillance and scrutiny for peacefully evicting industry representatives and RCMP from their territories.


All resource development projects in British Columbia, that met with Indigenous opposition, were tracked extensively by the RCMP “E” Division’s monthly intelligence reports from as early as 2010 up to late 2015, and most likely beyond. In monitoring opposition to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project the RCMP observed in 2013 that the “Tsleil-Waututh Nation remains the primary opposition” noting that they were “the first Nation to sign the [International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects] opposing Kinder Morgan.”

Indigenous treaties standing in the way of Canada’s energy superpower ambitions came under intense scrutiny, including the Save the Fraser Declaration and the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion. Less than a week after the Canadian government approved the pipeline expansion, CSIS produced a special brief to the National Security Advisor on December 5, 2016 warning that “approximately 50 North American First Nations signed the ‘Treaty Alliance against Tar Sands’ and committed to collectively stop all five current tar sands pipeline and tanker project proposals.”

Canadian policing agencies have a long history of antagonist and suppressive practices that target leftist movements. With parallels to the PROFUNC practices targeting leftists of the Cold War era, policing agencies have constructed Indigenous movements as “security” threats in the “war on terror.” Although these movements are engaged in upholding Indigenous law and defending treaty and land rights, policing agencies re-frame these assertions of authority and autonomy under the banner of security, terrorism, and extremism. Doing so has profound implications. Not only does it direct policing and criminal justice powers against these movements, leading to the criminalization of dissent, but the police also cultivate an image of criminality against the defenders of Indigenous law that functions to delegitimize and discredit their claims.

Far from ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ players, police antagonism towards Indigenous movements has a clear bias towards maintaining the injustices of colonial power – but also advancing the interests of energy industries such as Kinder Morgan. The routine labelling of Indigenous communities as “extremists” is not merely the work of politicians, but reveals the extensive policing apparatus working against Indigenous communities who assert land rights and refuse further concessions to colonial resource extraction.

Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan work at Carleton University, Ottawa. Policing Indigenous Movements: Dissent and the Security State is available from Fernwood Publishing in May, 2018.