A government that spies on its citizens

Cindy Blackstock has spent more than five years trying to hold Ottawa accountable for a funding gap on the welfare of aboriginal children on reserves. Instead of dealing with that funding gap, Ottawa has spent nearly as long searching for dirt on Blackstock.

Cindy Blackstock has spent more than five years trying to hold Ottawa accountable for a funding gap on the welfare of aboriginal children on reserves.

Instead of dealing with that funding gap, Ottawa has spent nearly as long searching for dirt on Blackstock.

In total, it has spent more than $3 million trying to derail her bid to have the government’s funding policy ruled as discrimination against native children.

Fresh evidence of government spying on Blackstock and a court victory for the aboriginal children’s advocate show Ottawa is losing this fight, despite its chilling surveillance of a woman they seek to discredit.

It was less than a year ago that Blackstock went public, after learning through her own access-to-information request that the government had been spying on her.

It has been monitoring her Facebook account, sending officials to hear her speak and compiling a voluminous file on her.

In a decision released last week, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed to add allegations of government retaliation against Blackstock as part of a historic hearing on the larger matter set to begin next February.

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network will televise proceedings — representing another loss by Ottawa, which tried to block the cameras.

It was 2007 when Blackstock’s organization, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, filed the complaint against Ottawa, alleging discrimination was behind a policy that has Ottawa providing 22 per cent less than the provinces for aboriginal child welfare services.

The case is hugely important, not only because the tribunal will determine whether Blackstock is a victim of government retaliation, but because it could hold the government responsible for something that is ongoing.

Tribunals have usually ruled on matters or decisions that have already taken place.

In this case, the tribunal could order the government to end a discriminatory practice — and that would entail ending the funding gap.

In ruling in favour of Blackstock’s bid to amend the hearing, the tribunal pointed to previous admissions by government officials that Blackstock had been barred from meetings where her expertise had been initially sought because of her challenge to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

If she wins the retaliation case, Blackstock says, she will donate any penalty paid to her to a charity.

Blackstock now also has in hand more emails showing how the government reacted when her story went public on APTN, the Toronto Star and the CBC last November.

In essence, after being caught spying on her through email chains, the government then sparked another flurry of emails to show a sudden obsession with their “media lines.’’

It would be comical if this situation was not so serious.

The emails confirm that Aboriginal Affairs made a request to monitor her personal Facebook page for a period of six months, beginning around February 2010, but it did not renew the request — because it learned the Justice Department was already monitoring her Facebook account.

So Blackstock now knows two government departments were monitoring her Facebook page.

The government scrambled twice, once when her story landed in the Star last Nov. 15, then again when she appeared on CBC’s The Current, last Nov. 17.

They immediately decided their response should be that Aboriginal Affairs routinely monitors social media and considered her Facebook and Twitter accounts public in their search for any shift in her position or ulterior motive for her human rights case.

But one official cautioned, as they developed their talking points, that the practice should not be described as “routine.”

(Blackstock, in providing the emails to me, asked that I not identify the officials by name to protect their privacy).

A lawyer handling the case admitted in writing they were looking for “ulterior motives’’ in Blackstock’s determination to have the case heard and suggested the “media lines” should be no comment, because it was important to protect Blackstock’s privacy because she had not given permission for them to respond.

That was after she accessed documents showing her privacy was blatantly breached.

Blackstock is at a loss to explain the government’s obsession with her.

“The proposed Internet surveillance bill was met with all this outrage,’’ she says, “but meanwhile, they are just going ahead and doing it to me, including taking screen shots of my Facebook page.’’

By the end of this month, the Privacy Commissioner is expected to rule on the Blackstock case, at which time we will likely learn whether the surveillance has ended.

“They don’t have the facts to defend this,’’ Blackstock told me.

“I tell my friends I am a little embarrassed, they have been following me around all this time and they haven’t found anything spicy. It shows you what kind of life I am leading.’’

The embarrassment should lie with a government that refuses to deal with the substance of the human rights complaint but opens its guns on the complainant.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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