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‘Staggering’ Data Dump Shows CSIS Spying on Northern Gateway Pipeline Protesters

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association says a “staggering”, 19-volume trove of previously restricted documents it published last week shows the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) illegally spied on activists and environmentalists opposing the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline.

The federal Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which oversees CSIS’ work, held a closed hearing in 2015, following a complaint lodged in February 2014 on behalf of several organizations, BCCLA recalls in a release issued last week. That complaint held that CSIS was monitoring Dogwood Initiative, ForestEthics (now Stand.earth), Sierra Club BC, Leadnow, and the Indigenous #idlenomore movement “in violation of the law, and sharing this information with the National Energy Board (NEB) and petroleum industry companies,” the release states. 

“The BCCLA further alleged that this spying activity was deterring individuals from associating with environmental groups and expressing their opinions,” contrary to the Charter or Rights and Freedoms. Now, it says, the newly-released documents “appear to validate the original complaint.”

“People can look at these documents and decide for themselves,” said BCCLA staff lawyer Meghan McDermott. “If CSIS claims it wasn’t tracking conservation groups in B.C., why did they collect thousands of pages of files relating to groups who engaged in peaceful advocacy and protest? Why are the witnesses in the hearing—staff and volunteers from different non-profit groups—still under a legal gag order, forever forbidden from repeating what they said in the hearing? It is a shocking violation of their freedom of expression.”

“What we’ve now received is a huge volume of secret evidence that we didn’t get to see at all before,” BCCLA lawyer Paul Champ told CBC. “[It] raises concerns that this isn’t about national security, but it’s about protecting the economic interests of Canada’s energy sector and, in our view, that’s completely beyond CSIS’ mandate.”

In the 2015 hearing, SIRC “acknowledged that CSIS was investigating ‘targets’ who were opposed to pipelines, and also that ‘ancillary information’ on other non-targets may have been gathered ‘incidentally’,” the BCCLA release adds. “SIRC accepted that some groups were ‘chilled’ by the belief that they were spied upon, but concluded that their feelings were not justified. While SIRC ultimately ruled that there was no wrongdoing on CSIS’ part, BCCLA argues that the report itself clearly shows that illegal spying and information has taken place.”

“In that report, SIRC rejected the BCCLA’s complaints about unlawful spying by ruling that information sharing with CSIS can be a one-way street,” the Globe and Mail reports. “SIRC essentially ruled that while corporations and government energy agencies meet with CSIS to express concerns, the intelligence agency doesn’t necessarily pass along any information in return, or act on the information it may get.”

“We put it in our system. It is not actionable. It just sits there. But should something happen, should violence erupt, then we will go back to this and be able to see that we had this information,” one unidentified CSIS witness told the hearing.

But “why should speaking up for clean drinking water and air free from wildfire smoke make us enemies of the state?” Sierra Club BC Campaigns Director Caitlyn Vernon asked last week. “Carbon pollution from the oil industry is causing extreme weather, hitting our communities with flooding, wildfires, and drought. Illegal spying on concerned residents trying to protect themselves from the impacts of fossil fuels is an attack on our freedoms and our future.”

But the CSIS testimony was apparently enough for SIRC member Yves Fortier. “Having reviewed carefully the totality of the evidence submitted to me,” he wrote, “I find that at no time did the Service [CSIS] share information with members of the petroleum industry concerning the ‘targeted groups’ referred to by the complainant.”

The affected groups say the newly-released documents are so fragmentary that it’s hard to say for sure, leaving it to the public to draw their own conclusions. “As [the documents] are so heavily redacted, we are left with more questions than answers,” said Dogwood Initiative Campaigns Director Alexandra Woodsworth.

While a Federal Court ruling authorized last week’s data release, the gag order on the organizations and its staff and volunteers remains in place while BCCLA pursues a court challenge.

“This gag order prevented us from revealing what was exposed during the hearing,” BCCLA writes. “This is largely unprecedented and is contrary to the principles of accountability and transparency that oversight bodies are meant to serve.”

In a statement last Monday, CSIS spokesperson John Townsend said the agency investigates “threats” to Canada’s security, and that the definition of “threats” under the CSIS Act specifically excludes lawful protest and dissent. But despite the heavy redactions, the SIRC report shows CSIS “investigating specific targets who were opposed to pipelines, including those named in our complaint,” the association says. “Along with the sheer size of the documents, this suggests that Canada’s spy agencies view environmental movements as an inherent threat that should be monitored.”

“Our government already spends billions in public money every year propping up the oil industry,” Woodsworth added. “Canadians are right to be concerned about our tax dollars going to pay for illegal spying on behalf of private pipeline companies. It’s another form of corporate welfare.”

“This is another example of how the power of big oil subverts Canadian democracy,” said Stand.earth Energy and Climate Campaigner Sven Biggs. “Our elected leaders need to restore confidence that public institutions, especially law enforcement, are working on the public’s behalf instead of doing the bidding of fossil fuel corporations.”