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.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki largely embraced a series of Civilian Review and Complaints Commission recommendations that could better protect the privacy of activists.
Lucki acknowledged the inadequacy of current data-handling practices in her response to the commission’s investigation into Mountie surveillance of opponents of the now-defunct Northern Gateway pipeline project.
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association lodged a complaint in February 2014, saying the RCMP improperly collected and shared information about people and groups who peacefully opposed the project and attended National Energy Board meetings.
The complaints commission concluded the RCMP acted reasonably for the most part.
The commission’s long-awaited final report on the matter, made public Tuesday, 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 confirms 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 is “deeply disappointed” the complaints commission found most of these activities to be reasonable, even though the commission repeatedly expressed reservations, especially where there was no real suspicion that people might be involved in criminal activity.
The commission wagged its finger, but ultimately gave the RCMP a free pass with activities that are likely offside with the charter, said Paul Champ, a lawyer for the association.
“RCMP spying on people who are exercising their right to dissent is an attack on freedom of expression,” Champ 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.”
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.”