OTTAWA — The RCMP has agreed to revamp its policies on the collection and use of information about protesters after a watchdog expressed fresh concerns, a notable shift from the police force’s position only months ago.
In a letter to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, made public Tuesday, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki largely embraced a series of recommendations from the watchdog that could better protect activists’ privacy.
Lucki acknowledged the inadequacy of current data-handling practices in her response to the commission’s investigation of Mountie surveillance of opponents of the now-defunct Northern Gateway pipeline project.
The RCMP pledges were greeted with skepticism from Paul Champ, a lawyer for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which lodged the complaint that prompted the commission to begin investigating six years ago.
“I have no doubt that the RCMP commissioner is going to want to modify their policies in order in order to make them more publicly defensible,” Champ said in an interview.
“But it doesn’t change the underlying facts that they’re collecting this information about Canadians simply for exercising their democratic rights where there’s absolutely no indication of criminal activity.”
The civil liberties association’s February 2014 complaint said the RCMP improperly collected and shared information about people and groups who peacefully opposed the pipeline project and attended National Energy Board meetings.
In a long-awaited final report released Tuesday, the complaints commission concluded the RCMP acted reasonably for the most part. Accompanying the report was a 2017 interim commission document and the recent letter from Lucki outlining her response.
The commission said it was acceptable for the Mounties to monitor demonstrations, record video of protesters, scour social media and other open sources for information about activists, and collect licence-plate numbers for intelligence-gathering purposes.
However, the commission also found RCMP policies lacked clear guidance when it comes to collection, use and retention of such information.
It recommended the police force:
— Consider implementing a specific policy regarding video-recording protests and demonstrations;
— Develop policies that make it clear personal information related to demonstrations should be destroyed “as soon as practicable” once it is determined that there is no criminal element or that the information is otherwise no longer necessary;
— Provide clear policy guidance on collection of personal information from open sources such as social media sites, the uses that can be made of it and what steps should be taken to ensure its reliability;
— Treat such information from social media sources as a separate category of records — data that should be kept no longer than strictly necessary.
“Canadians have the right to expect that the police will not retain their personal information simply for engaging in peaceful protest,” the complaints commission’s final report said.
“From an operational standpoint, the commission acknowledges the need for the police to be able to exercise good judgment and operate with reasonable flexibility. Nevertheless, the net should not be cast wide, and the indiscriminate or widespread collection and retention of personal information of individuals exercising charter-protected rights cannot be the goal.”
The complaints commission said it hoped that Lucki would take “substantive action” based on her five-page November response to the investigation’s interim findings, in which she expressed support for several recommendations. The commission noted Lucki had rejected similar recommendations in her June response to a probe of the RCMP’s handling of anti-fracking demonstrations in New Brunswick.
In her recent response to the B.C. probe, which the commission characterized as a “striking reversal in position and tone,” Lucki cited new information, including an internal RCMP audit that found room for improvement in the force’s practices concerning open-source information.
The civil liberties association said Tuesday the complaints commission report confirmed its long-standing allegations of RCMP spying on Indigenous and climate activists.
It pointed to the RCMP’s collection and retention of people’s online comments and opinions as well as the compilation of notes on organizers.
The Mounties also tracked and kept records on people who took part in demonstrations, and even attended an organizing workshop in plain clothes at the Kelowna United Church, the group noted.
The association was “deeply disappointed” the complaints commission found most of these activities to be reasonable.
The commission wagged its finger but ultimately gave the RCMP a free pass for activities that are likely offside with the charter, Champ said in a statement.
“RCMP spying on people who are exercising their right to dissent is an attack on freedom of expression,” he said. “It creates a climate of fear that chills free expression and stifles public participation. This report is telling us to accept a police state.”
Added Kai Nagata of Dogwood, a B.C. group that fights for environmental and Indigenous causes: “We cannot accept the idea that anyone who criticizes the government or the oil industry becomes a target for surveillance.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government would take “a careful look” at the report’s conclusions and recommendations, adding “there is much to do” on how the RCMP deals with certain groups.
The civil liberties association and the complaints commission reiterated their concerns that it took Lucki well over three years to respond to the commission’s 2017 interim report, delaying release of the final document.
Commission chairwoman Michelaine Lahaie called the delay “incomprehensible.”
“To be effective, a public complaint system must be timely. Delays reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of the commission’s recommendations and perpetuate the underlying problems,” she said in the final report.
“Moreover, years of routine delays diminish or destroy public confidence in the RCMP and in its civilian oversight. The outrageous delays in this and the many other cases still awaiting the commissioner’s response cannot continue.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 15, 2020.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press