Who’s a terrorist?
It’s a question that’s likely to arise in public forums being organized by a new activist group called the Red Sparks Union.
Although terrorism for many is framed by images of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City, its definition in Canada, as well as in the U.S., has evolved to include practically everything from environmental and animal-rights activism to aboriginal advocacy.
This mutation has been tracked by Kevin Walby, a former UVic assistant sociology professor and an expert on the subjects of policing, security, and surveillance.
“It puts us on a path where dissent is, essentially, a kind of crime,” Walby told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
Currently an assistant professor in the University of Winnipeg’s department of criminal justice, Walby noted that in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Canadian security establishment coined the term multi-issue extremism.
As a new classification of domestic terrorism, it lumps together “all kinds of groups whose tactics had nothing to do with anything that could be construed as extremist”, he said.
After the Olympics, new forms of activism—such as the Native movement Idle No More and rising opposition to the oil and gas industry—were painted with the same brush, Walby added.
“When the category that a security-intelligence agency uses to organize their surveillance of different groups really conflates antiviolence, nonviolence, legitimate association, [and] legitimate use of public space with extremism, then it erodes our ability to exercise those rights, which are, essentially, Charter-protected rights,” the academic said.
Walby coauthored a paper titled Making Up “Terror Identities”: Security Intelligence, Canada’s Integrated Threat Assessment Centre [ITAC] and Social Movement Suppression, which analyzed the emergence of the term multi-issue extremism. ITAC is a multi-agency body based at the Ottawa headquarters of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
Published in the international journal Policing and Society, the study noted that “multi-issue extremism” first surfaced in a 2007 CSIS report and has since been used by ITAC.
According to the authors, “intelligence agencies have blurred the categories of terrorism, extremism, and activism into an aggregate threat matrix.”
They note that the term extremism has become a “catch-all for a host of groups associated with civil disobedience and direct action”.
Vancouver activist Aiyanas Ormond is a member of the Red Sparks Union, organizer of two forums called Criminalizing Peoples’ Liberation Movements: Scrap the So-called Terrorist List. The first one is on Thursday (November 14) at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Surrey campus (12666 72nd Avenue) starting at 7 p.m. The second is on Friday (November 15) at the SFU Downtown Vancouver campus (515 West Hastings Street) starting at 7 p.m.
Ormond explained that the organization formed last summer to build solidarity with various international and local movements.
“It’s a group of people who got together who feel like our organizing and political discourse in Vancouver and ability to contribute to fighting for a better world is hampered by the fact that we have all these criminalized movements,” Ormond told the Straight in a phone interview.
Last year, Public Safety Canada laid out the government’s approach to confronting threats in its paper titled Building Resilience Against Terrorism: Canada’s Counter-terrorism Strategy.
Using a slight variation of “multi-issue extremism”, it declares: “The threat to Canada from terrorism has three main components: violent Sunni Islamist extremism—both at home and abroad, other international terrorist groups, and domestic, issue-based extremism.”
Referring to the last category, the paper notes: “Such extremism tends to be based on grievances—real or perceived—revolving around the promotion of various causes such as animal rights, white supremacy, environmentalism, and anti-capitalism.”
In what appears to be a reference to aboriginal issues, the document states: “Other historical sources of Canadian domestic extremism pose less of a threat.”
Another Public Safety Canada document titled 2013 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada indicates that authorities continue to “investigate a range of potential domestic terrorist threats”.
“The Government of Canada remains vigilant against any homegrown violent extremists or potential lone terrorists in Canada,” the report states.
Walby isn’t part of the panel of speakers at the November 14 and 15 forums, but local academic Jeff Shantz will be there to talk about Canada’s antiterrorism laws.
Shantz is a criminology professor at Kwantlen and has participated in direct action as a former member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. He responded at length when asked about any actions that result in the death or injury of innocent civilians.
“We have our own criticism of acts of brutality against citizens or against regular folks,” Shantz told the Straight by phone. “We don’t support that. We surely don’t want the government to make the call. We don’t want the Canadian state being the one to decide what sorts of actions are acceptable or not. Because, inevitably, that’s going to happen on the basis of geopolitics. It’s not going to happen on the basis of real concern.
“We don’t want to get into the notion of worthy and unworthy victims. We know how they play that out: that some people being killed is okay if the state or approved sponsors are doing it. It’s a hypocritical position.”