First Nations leaders are both alarmed and confused by their organizations’ names appearing in a record of hundreds of peaceful protests monitored by the federal government.
“It really calls to question the notion of democracy and freedom of speech,” said Gwaans (Beverley Clifton Percival), a member of the Git-xsan First Nation. “I’m curious as to how they generate such lists.”
According to the document, Git-xsan members held a rally in Hazelton, in northwestern B.C., on October 4, 2013. The event’s “sponsor” was the Gitxsan Treaty Society, a negotiating body for which Clifton Percival is the spokesperson. The agency reporting to Ottawa was the RCMP.
That record is one of almost 800 that appear in a document tabled in Parliament on September 18. It provides basic details for a range of demonstrations that a federal agency called the Government Operations Centre (GOC) tracked from 2006 to June 2014.
At least 20 of those events took place in Vancouver. An additional 30 occurred at various locations throughout the province. Some reports to GOC relied on the media; others were documented by the RCMP or Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
First Nations whose activities appear on the list include the Stz’uminus in the Gulf Islands and southeastern Vancouver Island, the Yekooche in the province’s central Interior, and the Tahltan in northern B.C.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, told the Georgia Straight he was concerned but not surprised by this disclosure.
“You learn to accept this as one of the ongoing conditions of dealing with the Harper government,” he said. At the same time, Phillip objected: “It is an absolute infringement on our democratic rights to be able to give free expression to our opinions. The fact that we’re being monitored so closely is deeply disturbing.”
In addition to First Nations’ protests, the GOC document includes details on national demonstrations such as those organized by the Occupy movement and Idle No More. Protests monitored in Vancouver include anti-Olympic rallies and a large number of environmental actions, such as protests against the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
GOC declined a request for an interview. According to the Public Safety Canada website, GOC “monitors events of national significance (24/7) and shares information to senior officials, provincial/territorial (P/T) governments and/or the private sector”.
Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said that emails and other documents released in response to freedom-of-information requests previously revealed that federal agencies were monitoring environmentalists’ activities. He noted that in February 2014, lawyers acting on behalf of the BCCLA filed complaints alleging that the RCMP and CSIS had illegally spied on environmental groups and activists who oppose oil-pipeline projects.
Paterson said that what the GOC list does is provide details and reveal the scope of Ottawa’s efforts to monitor groups that oppose its policies.
“It’s a real problem when the government engages in blanket surveillance of all peaceful protest in the country,” he argued. “When people feel as if they are being watched, when people feel as if they are being monitored by the government or by the police, they may be less likely to exercise their democratic right of assembly.”
The release of the GOC document came the same week that Carleton University criminology professor Jeff Monaghan obtained and publicized a March 2011 RCMP report titled “Environmental Criminal Extremism and Canada’s Energy Sector”.
That document describes “criminal occurrences attributed to environmentalists” as a threat “more likely” to occur within Canada than an attack by Al Qaeda or a similar terrorist organization.
“It is highly probable that environmental criminal extremists will attempt to mount direct actions targeting Canada’s energy sector,” it states.
The RCMP report also includes sections alluding to how federal agencies are keeping tabs on “extremists from environmental and animal rights groups”.
“CSIS continues to monitor individuals and organizations that might be involved in other forms of terrorism, such as, domestic terrorism including the threat or the use of violence by groups advocating for issues such as the environment,” the document reads.
The RCMP did not respond to a request for an interview.
Joe Foy is a national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, an organization whose name appears on the GOC list in relation to a 2009 demonstration held in Vancouver. He noted that public protests are designed to attract attention, but he questioned if this kind of government interest impinges on civil liberties.
“None of this is right,” Foy said. “In a society like ours, activists have a responsibility to stand peacefully for the values that Canadians share.”