Inside Canada’s Five-Year-Long Anti-Terror Investigation of a Group of Quebec Communists
Quebec investigators have searched, bugged, and infiltrated a group of Quebec communists: and they have nothing to show for it.
On November 30, 2004, a bomb buried under two bags of sand went off, shaking the foundations of a hydroelectric tower near the Quebec-US border. Two years later, a car bomb decimated an oil executive's car outside of his home, northwest of Montreal. Four years after that, an explosion ripped through the inside of a Canadian Forces recruitment centre in Trois-Rivières.
"Face à l'emprise impérialiste."
"Contre l'emprise impérialiste."
"Contre la guerre impérialiste."
That's how the Initiative de Résistance Internationaliste (IRI) signed off its claims of responsibility for each attack.
Those three bombings, which caused extensive damage but no injuries, sparked a ten-year anti-terror investigation by a Quebec anti-terror squad, dubbed Project C-SONORE. VICE has obtained documents from the investigation, including search warrants, and recordings of the officers assigned to it.
They've yet to lay a single charge in connection with the bombings.
Since the recruitment centre bombing, investigators have significantly narrowed their focus to 11 activists that they believe are responsible. They are a rag-tag group of communists, anarchists, and anti-capitalist activists. For the past five years, investigators have intercepted their phone calls, bugged their offices, searched their homes, and, according to one of the suspects, they even set him up in a sting operation.
One lawyer who has reviewed the case says it verges on "red scare" McCarthyism. C-SONORE has even led many of the activists to draw up their own instruction manual for dealing with the anti-terror investigators.
In the midst of heated debate over whether the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) should have expanded powers to investigate terror threats, C-SONORE reveals the tactics—some possibly unconstitutional, many seemingly ineffective—in the anti-terror investigators' toolbox.
The activist at the centre of it all says he is there thanks to the work of one man, a fellow revolutionary who belonged to now-disbanded wings of the Parti Communiste Révolutionnaire: A traitor who passed along intelligence to the anti-terror squad.
Eric is at the top of the list of suspects. Oli is conspicuously missing from it.
Eric met Oli in 2004.
The two, then students in Quebec's pre-university system, fancied themselves radical anti-capitalists. Eric says Oli styled himself more an anarchist and ingrained himself with some of the more radical militants. "The type of people, all alone, 20 feet in front of everyone else [at a protest], with their black flags, going to confront the police," Eric told VICE.
The two belonged to the Sherbrooke wing of the Parti Communiste Révolutionnaire (PCR). Eric describes the organization, at least its wing in Sherbrooke, less as the nuclei of a Bolshevik plot to overthrow capitalism, and more as a beer hall where students could show up and trade leftist doctrine, or just shoot the shit.
Other wings of the PCR had gained notoriety for being a little more radical, and maybe even violent. They've been targeted by investigators before, especially during the months-long Quebec student strike in 2012. Their aggressive tactics are similar to those of the infamous Black Bloc, who've drawn intense focus from police in Toronto and Montreal.
And while the Sherbrooke wing of the radical Marxist-Leninist organization travelled to mass protests like those that took place in Toronto during the G20, the day-to-day life of the group mostly involved Eric, Oli, and 30 others assembling at La Rive Gauche, a shady bar in Sherbrooke, to talk shop.
"Oli," was Eric's nickname for him. VICE is not publishing the full names of any of those named by the investigators, as the investigation is ongoing.
The two had a strange relationship: initially just acquaintances, they later became friends, before internal strife in the group led to a falling out. While the two eventually made up, mutual friends who spoke with VICE says Oli always held a grudge against Eric.
Oli was a mainstay of the leftist movement in Quebec's Eastern Townships, attaching himself to a wide array of groups—militant student organization ASSÉ, notorious anti-capitalist collective CLAC, and the PCR, among them. He was a fixture at demonstrations, especially ones that risked turning violent. He also chaired many of the union and student meetings that took place in the city. His income is somewhat of a mystery—he would mention nebulous jobs for unions in other provinces.
Yet, despite his insistence to go where the action was, Eric describes him as timid, and hardly the kind to be in the thick of it when it came to the bare-knuckle type of protest that often pits Quebec activists against baton-wielding Quebec police. But, Eric says, Oli had his theory "on the tips of his fingers." He was a debater, able to jump into any role he needed to. "He could be left, or right," says Eric. "He was a machine."
But one group interested Oli the most: the Initiative de Résistance Internationaliste.
"He asked an enormous amount of questions about the IRI," Eric says. Oli was particularly preoccupied by the the IRI's bombing of the hydro-electric tower in 2004.
The decade-long bombing campaign has remained a mystery in Quebec. It's arguably the most high-profile unsolved act of terrorism in modern Canadian history. But Eric says Oli's interest seemed odd.
So, in 2013, Eric told Oli that he was involved with the 2004 bombing. Eric says he made it up, just to see what Oli would do. At this point, he was getting suspicious of his comrade in the PCR.
Not long after, Oli approached Eric with a pitch. Oli said the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) was looking for a reliable guy. Someone with "experience."
The activist movement in Sherbrooke, at this point, was cash-strapped thanks to some of their government grants that were suddenly cut. Oli promised only they would know the origins of the money.
Oli hooked Eric up with his FTQ contact. Eric, a blue-collar guy with a big frame who is usually in his work gear, quickly got a sense of his contact.
"The guy, he didn't do things clean," Eric says.
The FTQ is Quebec's largest labour union and has been known for being aggressive, but never outwardly violent.
Nevertheless, Eric did a job for the supposed FTQ agent. He was tasked with collecting a $10,000 protection fee from a trucking company who supposedly purchased safe passage through a First Nations blockade from the FTQ. Eric and the agent hijacked an 18-wheeler and threatened to strip it for parts if they didn't pay up in an hour. They did pay. Eric counted the $20 bills.
At the same time, his contact offered him another job. He would be paid $15,000 if he helped build a bomb to bring down a crane on a construction site in Northern Quebec. His contact showed him a Hydro-Québec report about the 2004 bombing in Coaticook, saying that bombing was the "recipe" for what they're looking for. His contact handed him a burner phone and $1,000.
This is where Eric's story begins spiralling.
Eric met his contact six times. In one meeting, the contact gave Eric a detonator and took him to a construction site to test it out. The code to set off the detonator was A305. The target for the operation was a construction crane in Sept-Îles. According to Eric, his contact raised the possibility of inflicting casualties—something Eric refused. His contact also asked him to obtain the explosives, which Eric also declined. Eric was growing suspicious.
At the same time, a mutual friend of Eric and Oli broke some news: he believed Oli was working with the RCMP. Eric confronted Oli who, at the time, was supposedly working for another union out west. The next call Eric received was from the supposed FTQ contact, complaining that the RCMP was snooping around.
Eric hung up and destroyed the phone. He dumped the parts in different trash cans. He was done.
"It's not new that we had doubts about him," Eric says of Oli. Within the PCR, however, members were forbidden from levying accusations against each other without proof.
Eric suspects that Oli was working with the government. That he was a mole. He suspects that the FTQ guy was not an FTQ guy at all, but an undercover officer looking to put him in a compromising position.
VICE reached out to the FTQ and their construction wing. Neither offered confirmation one way or the other whether Eric's contact was, in fact, an employee or organizer with the union.
The story does resemble the sort of "Mr. Big" sting operations that the RCMP often use—and which was recently subject to scrutiny by the Supreme Court. The operation usually consists of an undercover agent convincing a suspect to go along with increasingly severe fictional crimes, until there is enough evidence to leverage a confession for another crime, and to flip them on their co-conspirators. During the investigation into the Toronto 18 terrorist plot, CSIS mole Mubin Shaikh supplied the wanna-be terrorists with handguns and helped organize an ad hoc training camp outside of Toronto.
The ITO lays out the case built by the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET). The teams are generally comprised of RCMP and CSIS agents and take the lead on anti-terrorism investigations. Inside the document are search warrants, signed off by a Quebec Superior Court judge, authorizing the search of a home in Saint-Bruno where investigators hoped to seize evidence in connection with the IRI bombings. The team believes they have, or will eventually have, evidence to lay four charges against some or all of the men: criminal arson, detonating an explosive device with the intent of causing death or damage, participating in a terrorist group, and carrying out a terrorist act.
In a search of one of the suspect's homes, they found, among other things, Ziploc bags full of wires, cassette tapes, a map, a cell phone, and a video tape labelled "gr 104 Space Academy."
While four of the items seized are blacked out, in order to preserve the integrity of the investigation, the other 20 items seized seem fairly innocuous.
Despite the fact that police have told him that he is not currently a suspect, Eric appears to be the centre of the investigation. In the ITO, police list the ten others as "co-conspirators" of Eric. Even so, he isn't terribly worried, though he suspects he may eventually be charged. He says he knows nothing about the IRI, the shadowy group that led one of law enforcement's most embarrassing unsolved cases. He tells VICE that phone records will prove that he was nowhere near the bombings when they happened.
However, it has now been more than a decade since the original bombing, and two years since the search warrants contained in the ITO were executed, and no charges have been laid. The investigation appears to be a standstill. Years of surveillance has netted no results.
The investigation has become white elephant for the force, taking up a significant amount of resources with very little to show for it.
"For the IRI, they have sweet fuck-all," Eric says.
Parts of the ITO, however, do offer some circumstantial evidence that may later lead to an arrest. In 2013, police intercepted a conversation involving one suspect where he admitted to obtaining explosives with two others. It's unclear what happened to those explosives.
Eric has seen the document outlining he and his cohorts supposed guilt. He thinks investigators are way off base—he doesn't even think the IRI is an actual group. He suspects the title is nom de guerre for different individuals who carried out the attacks independent of each other. Indeed, the exact motivation for the attack appears to change each time.
The first communique taking responsibility for the attack on the hydro-electric tower, timed for just days before then-President George W. Bush's visit to Canada, claimed the attack was to protest the "energy hegemony" of the United States. The next, targeting the executive from the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute railed against the Canadian "petroleum oligarchy." In the third release, the claim of responsibility for bombing the army recruitment centre dropped the "Initiative" from their name, and styled themselves simply Résistance Internationaliste, and focused primarily on militarization, instead of energy.
Eric offers a more simplistic explanation of why the INSET investigation is misplaced: he and most of the others were 17 and 18 at the time of the first bombing. "I'm having a hard time believing these people had the contacts and the possibility to obtain explosives at their age, straight out of CÉGEP," says Eric.
But investigators are convinced that the IRI is tied to this loose-knit group of communists. Officers have interrogated Eric repeatedly, on his front porch, inside a Tim Hortons, and in a police station. Eric supplied VICE with recordings of several interviews with police. They've asked about his time as an army reservist in the early 2000s, his associates in the PCR, and his ability to handle weapons and explosives. (Eric does, in fact, have some artillery training from the Canadian Forces.)
Eric, despite being listed as the mastermind of this bombing campaign in the ITO, was approached by INSET in early 2015 to gauge his interest in becoming an informant. He supplied VICE with recordings of that conversation.
"Put yourself in Oli's position, today. Eventually, would you accept it? Say, today, we ask you to to return to the PCR, and I just want to know if they-" parts of the conversation then become intelligible. "It's just your job to tell me," the female INSET officer concludes.
VICE has not been able to independently verify that Oli was, in fact, working with investigators. Eric has not seen him in over a year, since he left Sherbrooke and, supposedly, changed his name.
The ITO shows INSET did, indeed, have a confidential informant. Vast sections of the document were redacted to protect "informer privilege."
Eric has also been the subject of numerous interception warrants. One notice, provided to VICE, informed Eric that "the present is to advise you that your private communications were intercepted and your activities observed, pursuant to at least one of the judicial authorizations issued."
The warrant was valid from January 2012 until November 2013.
His friends and family have received similar notices, he told VICE. Some report seeing cop cars frequently parked outside their home.
Others on the list of suspects have also been actively targeted by police. The ITO reveals that INSET bugged the offices of the student union at Lionel-Groulx college, North of Montreal, in order to target one of the employees of the student organization. The document goes on to detail how that employee started to suspect that investigators were listening in.
The ITO reads that one suspect "and an unknown man was observed searching [the office] trying to find the microphones. The unknown man said he will find the microphone. [The suspect] and the unknown man moved furniture."
Last year, La Presse reported about the investigation into the college, and the surveillance placed on the student union office, which culminated in a raid on the school.
For all of this, the ITO outlines very little evidence that Eric or any of his supposed co-conspirators had anything to do with the IRI. Sections of the ITO, however, remain redacted. Media outlets are fighting to have more of the document disclosed.
The unredacted parts, however, suggest that police engaged in active profiling of the anti-capitalist activists. The documents also suggest that police didn't always have a warrant in searching the suspects' homes.
"During a surreptitious entry into the home of [one of the suspects], many documents were found posted on the walls including: a photo of police at a non-identified event, posted on the walls of the bathroom; an article entitled 'L'internationale,' dated June 1871, text with a leftist connotation posted on the walls of the bedroom; and a poster concerning October 1970 and the War Measures Act in Quebec," reads the ITO.
Another section mentions that police found "a box containing Communist material." The ITO mentions that material was also found during a "surreptitious entry" of another suspect's home. Police also found a red flag, a PCR newspaper, and other Communist literature.
The work of INSET's confidential informant would likely explain the "surreptitious" entries into the suspects' homes. In some cases, CSIS does has the power to enter and search areas without executing a search warrant.
VICE showed the ITO to Ottawa criminal defence lawyer David Gault and he was taken aback.
"Facially, the ITO falls far short of establishing [reasonable probable grounds]," Gault says, referring to the threshold police need to obtain a search warrant. "Indeed, as redacted, it reads a bit like a red scare-inspired satire, one that would be mildly entertaining if so many people's privacy rights weren't being violated."
Gault goes so far as to say that, unless there is some concrete evidence that is hidden behind the black redaction lines, anything obtained through this warrant may have been done so unlawfully and could be thrown out.
Indeed, much of INSET's focus spread much broader than just trying to prove who orchestrated the IRI bombings. Recordings of interviews between Eric and investigators from 2011, provided to VICE, include hours of questioning that had more to do with the structure, ideology, and membership of the group than they have to do with the bombings themselves. Questions focused on the protest tactics of the group and to what philosophy they most ascribed.
At certain parts of the ITO, investigators appear to conflate the idea of "class war" with actual warfare.
One suspect, reads the document, "admitted to an unknown person while discussing the student protests in Montreal that, in the past, he contributed to a war when he was part of Marxist groups."
Details of the investigation come at a time when CSIS is playing defence over its powers to surveil dissident groups. New legislation, C-51, would give them broad new powers to infiltrate and "disrupt" apparent threats to Canada and its economy. The Harper government has contended that CSIS is not overstepping its bounds, and that its surveillance powers are not being used to track protesters and dissident groups. Yet evidence has mounted to the contrary.
No charges have been laid yet in connection with the investigation. VICE reached out to the RCMP for comment about the investigation, but they declined to comment because it is an ongoing investigation.
VICE also contacted Oli for comment, but he has yet to respond.