Cindy Blackstock knew all along her government was spying on her and Tuesday the country’s privacy commissioner agreed.
Now the well-known advocate for aboriginal children wants to know how many other Canadians may have official Ottawa poking around in their personal affairs — and not even know it.
On a day when most of Ottawa was justly riveted on the Tom Mulcair-Stephen Harper Senate spending showdown, a chilling report by Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart was buried in the news cycle, but it was confirmation of a story Blackstock has been telling since 2011 and an indictment of the way in which the Conservative government is dealing with aboriginal injustice.
Blackstock had become, in essence, an enemy of the state.
In 2007, her organization, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, filed a human rights 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.
As the case lumbered through the judicial system, Blackstock first found herself shunned by official Ottawa, then, she alleges, the government began to stalk her in retaliation for her court action, monitoring her personal Facebook page, appearing at her public appearances and repeatedly accessing her Indian status report without reason.
Stoddart rejected the status report complaint and found that no personal information was being accessed by officials monitoring Blackstock’s speeches.
But there was no question in Stoddart’s report that two government departments, Justice and Aboriginal Affairs, accessed Blackstock’s personal Facebook page, even making a formal request with their IT departments to circumvent security and get on the page.
“The question here is whether Canadians are comfortable with the government of Canada going on to your Facebook page in search of information,” Blackstock says. “This is not a 17-year-old hacker, this is the government of Canada and it wasn’t a rogue department, because it crossed two departments.”
The government conceded it began monitoring Blackstock’s Facebook page in February 2010, after the Aboriginal Affairs Department gained approval in a Feb. 18, 2010, “website access request form.”
It justified bypassing network security by saying that officials thought Blackstock was providing details of her human rights action against the government on the page so “it should be monitored to ensure that sensitive information is not being released to the public.”
The government dug into Blackstock’s personal Facebook page along with two other public, organizational Facebook pages and monitored her other social media accounts, including her Twitter account, YouTube, BlogSpot and Google alerts on her.
Stoddart found that the government accessed information on Blackstock’s friends — including their opinions and personal plans — as well as the personal views, skills, interests and residency of Blackstock.
“That information, alone in combination with other information, reveals … who she is as a person, and not just information related to or attached to her professional responsibilities with the Caring Society,” Stoddart wrote.
In fact, Blackstock says, the information in government screen shots included her Mother’s Days greetings, her travel plans, an exchange about her cookie-baking skills, chats with friends from as far away as Australia and a posting from a 12-year-old.
The government said it would be irresponsible not to keep tabs on someone with whom they were entangled in a legal case, but Stoddart says they went too far.
Blackstock alleged that Justice and Aboriginal Affairs officials “purposefully and surreptitiously monitored a significant number” of her speaking engagements, then widely circulated reports on those speaking engagements.
Stoddart found, however, that this was not “personal information” being gleaned by government officials, even though she agreed there were emails between government officials in which staff was notified of events or conferences where Blackstock would be speaking. She said sharing that information related to ongoing litigation, not a bid to wrongly share personal information.
Unbowed, Blackstock is forging ahead with the human rights case, even as Ottawa now faces allegations it withheld some 50,000 documents that are relevant to the complaint and is now asking for time to retrieve them.
Blackstock waited in vain for an apology on Tuesday and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said he will comply with orders to destroy the personal information.
In the House of Commons, he offered this ironic pledge on the day his department was confirmed to have been snooping on an adversary: “We take Canadians’ right to privacy very seriously.”
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.