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When Tori Cress would talk on the phone with her friend and fellow Idle No More organizer Lynda Kitchikeesic back in the early 2010s, the two of them made sure any eavesdroppers who might be on the line didn’t feel left out.
“We’d say things like, ‘Blow me, CSIS,’” she recalled with a laugh recently.
The thought that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) may be bugging her calls did not seem far-fetched to Cress, who is from Beausoleil First Nation, on the south shore of Georgian Bay. She saw RCMP and CSIS members regularly at marches and events. She accepted surveillance was part of her everyday life.
“I don’t think anybody I knew was under any illusion that they weren’t being monitored,” she said.
In 2013, a Vancouver Observer investigation found evidence CSIS and the RCMP had monitored Idle No More and environmental groups — including Leadnow, Sierra Club, Dogwood Initiative and ForestEthics (now called Stand.earth) — that opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline, a project that was quashed in 2016.
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) launched a complaint against CSIS in 2014 based on this investigation. On July 6, they released more than 8,000 pages of documents from hearings about whether the agency illegally spied on Indigenous Peoples and environmental groups.
These documents, called the Protest Papers, include testimony from CSIS employees responding to the BCCLA’s complaint, which the association lodged with the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), CSIS’s watchdog. The committee dismissed the BCCLA’s complaint in 2017.
Six years after the allegations first came to light, and faced with a pile of redacted documents that raise more questions than answers about CSIS surveillance, Cress said she’s still not surprised. She said that, for people in her community, “it’s a given” they are under CSIS surveillance.
“For the majority of Indigenous people, our interactions with the police state have not been positive,” she said. “And we know it, we feel it, because we live it. So... it’s no different.”
Zach Ruiter is a former environmentalist who was personally named in the Protest Papers and in emails obtained through the investigation by Vancouver Observer. They also said the surveillance alluded to in these documents is “nothing new” for activists.
Indigenous Peoples and activists say that, regardless of how much of what’s in the Protest Papers is ultimately made available to the public, they’ve long accepted government spying as a day-to-day reality — and they don’t expect it to change/
And though the BCCLA’s complaint focuses on the Harper years, both Cress and Ruiter said CSIS is likely monitoring people who are against the oil industry to the same degree today, and since the case was dismissed by SIRC, there’s no reason to believe CSIS has changed practices.
John Townsend, head of media relations for CSIS, said in an email to National Observer that “CSIS investigates activities that fall within the definition of threats to the security of Canada,” which doesn’t include lawful protest.
He said CSIS is “not able to provide further comment at this time” since the BCCLA is fighting the redactions and their complaint’s dismissal in Federal Court. Paul Champ, a lawyer for the BCCLA, said the appeal will take at least a year.
Indigenous Peoples and activists told National Observer that, regardless of how much of what’s in the Protest Papers is ultimately made available to the public, they’ve long accepted government spying as a day-to-day reality — and they don’t expect it to change.
Big Oil works with police to ‘get us out of the way’
In its 2013 investigation, Vancouver Observer — the National Observer sister publication — also found that CSIS and energy-sector stakeholders hold biannual, confidential briefings about security threats to energy-sector infrastructure. The Protest Papers include schedules and presentation notes from some of those briefings.
“The big thing that we can draw from these documents is the very close and long-standing relationship between CSIS and oil companies,” Champ told National Observer. “The CSIS Act is very clear that CSIS should only be sharing intelligence or information with government departments or agencies or law enforcement. We think that any kind of relationship with the private sector like this is improper and inappropriate.”
Cress said the revelation of links between CSIS and energy corporations didn’t surprise her, either.
“Those big companies need to know what’s happening with (Indigenous Peoples), and they work with police to get injunctions enforced and get us off our land and get us out of the way,” she said.
The surveilling of Indigenous Peoples is not new, or unique to anti-oil protests and the Idle No More movement. In January, the National Post found the Saskatchewan government led a 16-month undercover operation to catch an Indigenous man illegally selling $90 worth of fish.
“The over-investment in the surveillance of a single First Nations man is obvious here,” Bonita Beatty wrote in a piece for Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank.
Beatty is a PhD in political science who teaches Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan. She said in the article that the case was in keeping with a decades-long legacy.
“As a northerner, I can remember stories passed down in my community about the conservation officers in the 1940s and 1950s, flying to the traplines in their planes in an attempt to catch people trapping without provincial licences. If and when they did, the officers confiscated Indigenous peoples’ furs, traps, guns and whatever else they could find,” she wrote.
In October 2013, many were left shocked by the intensity of an RCMP raid on a Mi’kmaq camp, set up to protest fracking in New Brunswick and led by the Elsipogtog First Nation. APTN reported in January 2014 that Ottawa was preparing for countrywide protests following the raid, and communicating with the RCMP, CSIS, the Department of National Defence, Foreign Affairs and the Privy Council Office. The Protest Papers show that CSIS met with New Brunswick safety officials in February 2014 amid ongoing protests.
Shiri Pasternak, a researcher at Yellowhead Institute, said surveillance around land-based conflicts like those surrounding Northern Gateway in B.C. or fracking in New Brunswick are so intense because they cause “uncertainty” for the state’s claim over land.
She says such protest movements, particularly those that prompted the RCMP’s raid of Wet’suwet’en territory in B.C. last winter, are “raising questions around jurisdiction and sovereignty,” but that law enforcement treats them in a “criminal” way.
Given that the Protest Papers have been thoroughly redacted, their full contribution to the written record of such conflicts is unknowable.
In 2017, SIRC determined CSIS had operated within the law, saying that any monitoring of Indigenous Peoples and environmental groups was not based on their lawful dissent, but collected incidentally during legitimate investigations. The committee issued a gag order on witnesses at the hearings.
Ruiter said the hearings were “theatrical” and didn’t truly hold people accountable.
“The security apparatus of Canada is basically a function of corporate security for private interests in the petroleum industry,” Ruiter said, adding that SIRC approaches its hearings with “a foregone conclusion” in mind.
Ruiter believes the relationship between security intelligence and the oil industry remains the same, since there’s no evidence the biannual classified briefings have stopped. And, they said, the government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline and continued subsidies for the oil industry are further evidence that the state is “protecting” and “privileging” oil and gas.
Official says CSIS interested in peace turning to violence
Townsend said that CSIS’ definition of threats to national security “specifically excludes lawful protest and dissent.” But in testimony recorded in the Protest Papers, a CSIS official seems to show the line between lawful and unlawful protest can be blurry.
“When we say ‘extremism,’ specifically, we are interested in issues that go from, rather than peaceful demonstrations, to acts of serious violence,” the official said, talking about the Northern Gateway pipeline. She was chief of the unit responsible for the service’s domestic extremism investigations between November 2013 and January 2015.
Her answer to a question about how she became familiar with Idle No More and the Council of Canadians is redacted. Champ said this implies she may have heard about them through intelligence-gathering. He said this is because open-source information, such as has previously appeared in published news reports, is not typically redacted, only information that is said to be integral to CSIS investigations.
The papers allude to a potential connection between extremism and lawful protest more than once, but the reasoning is consistently redacted, leaving the people who were surveilled without definitive answers as to when, to what extent and — most important — why the government tracked their conversations and movements.
Cress said that at one protest, “there was CSIS everywhere... and I was like, I’m being bio-scanned.”
"Foreign-funded activists are working to re-elect the NDP, defeat the UCP and destabilize Alberta’s economy. Yet you are not hearing Word One about it from Rachel Notley or her media allies.” https://t.co/nIMvmArD54— Jason Kenney (@jkenney) April 15, 2019
What is the cost to taxpayers for helicopter surveillance of Indigenous people who speak against Kenney, the IRC and the TMX pipeline? Asking for a friend. https://t.co/wofUGlnKRL— Terrill Tailfeathers (@Terrilltf) July 6, 2019
What are reasonable grounds to investigate?
According to the CSIS Act, CSIS is not supposed to retain information about people who are not targets of an investigation. Lawful dissent, according to the act, is not a reason to monitor a citizen as a threat. But CSIS did retain information about citizens engaged in non-violent protest, such as a 2010 strategic report listing potential opponents to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. In testimony to SIRC, the documents show, one employee explained why CSIS may retain information from third parties that isn't directly related to one of its own investigations.
“If there is a certain relevance to national security, writ large, it may be reported without going under any specific targeting authority,” he said. “But it will sit there before we are authorized to further pursue an investigative level or direction on an individual. It would just sit there.”
Alexandra Woodsworth, campaigns manager for Dogwood Initiative, said, “That’s not much comfort to me if my name is on that list... or my activities have made their way into the hands of private companies, whether it was done incidentally to their main investigation of targets or not.” Since the energy-sector briefings remain classified, Woodsworth is concerned specific information about individuals and organizations may be shared.
Some, like Martin Rudner, a retired professor from Carleton University’s Centre for Security, Intelligence and Defence Studies, defend CSIS’s methods.
Rudner said he attended the biannual briefings between CSIS and energy-sector stakeholders for seven years. (He’s listed in the Protest Papers as an attendee and a participant in some panels.) He argued CSIS can’t compromise its methods for detecting threats, and a confidential relationship between the private sector and security intelligence is inevitable.
“Because they’re critical national infrastructure, that gives a framework for our relationship between the Canadian security and intelligence community on one hand and the private sector on the other to share information about threats,” he said.
Rudner said environmentalists did “come up” at the briefings he attended, though his focus is primarily on international terrorist threats.
“More to the point was, where in Canada and why in Canada certain groups were targeting the energy sector,” he said. “The discourse wasn’t analytical in the sense of sources and methods, because those are secrets.”
Rudner said he would not be surprised if CSIS was monitoring environmental groups for foreign funding. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has publicly speculated that Canada’s anti-oil activists could be receiving funding from groups seeking to help U.S. and Middle East energy interests at the expense of Canada’s. He has announced a public inquiry into the issue.
Ruiter and Cress laughed off the idea that activist groups were funded by American oil interests. They said they struggled to get funding from anyone.
“It’s hard to do grassroots work without any funding. The funding is in the U.S.,” Cress said. “We’ll work with environmental groups, so we can get out and do that land-defence work.”
“Environmental activists are on a shoestring,” Ruiter said. “The more they actually go against the oil industry, as opposed to working with them and taking direct funding from them, the more they’re marginalized.”
Cress said rumours about foreign funding are part of a wider “narrative” perpetuated by oil companies as to why they need security, and “why those big companies need to know what’s happening with us,” she said.
“It’s a war of narrative, really.”
Many have written about how stories of environmental groups being monitored by CSIS can cause a “chilling effect” that deters people from participating in environmental movements.
Ruiter has moved away from environmental activism, but said they were “very aware” they were being profiled during their time in the community.
“The intelligence community is overstepping their reach... and they do intimidate activists, and they do intimidate people from taking action,” Ruiter said.
Cress said she has struggled with a sense of being watched. (She used to check outside her home for footprints and snowmobile treads.) But at the same time, she said, seeing RCMP and CSIS agents in the flesh at Idle No More events — and knowing all the while that her information was on social media for all to see — gave her a feeling of resignation that she describes as something close to nonchalance, if not acceptance.
“They’re still studying Indians,” she said. “They need to know how we think, how we organize, how we get together, how we get large crowds.”
Cress said she does hope some change will happen in her lifetime, and that her kids won’t have to mobilize and organize the way she has and won’t be under threat of being monitored the way she’s sure she was. But she still does bring them to rallies.
“I don’t want them to have to be raising awareness when they’re older,” she said. “But if they do, at least they’ll know how to do it in a good way.”