If you challenge authority, expect CSIS to spy on you

Spies spy. That is why governments employ them. That is why organizations such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service exist.

This may seem self-evident. But it is important context for the latest brouhaha involving CSIS — the release this week of thousands of pages of documents related to the service’s monitoring of environmental groups opposed to the now defunct Northern Gateway oil pipeline.

Most of those pages are so heavily censored as to be useless. No surprise there. That’s the other thing about spies: They are notoriously secretive.

In that sense, it was quite an accomplishment for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which published the redacted documents online Monday, to reveal anything.

Until now, the association and the seven environmental groups it represents have been forbidden by law from saying anything about the three-year, in-camera inquiry at the heart of this matter.

But now, thanks to an appeal to the Federal Court, some of the facts of this odd case are beginning to dribble out.

The story begins with the ultimately unsuccessful attempt by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper to get a pipeline built from the Alberta oilsands to British Columbia’s northern Pacific coast.

Environmental groups that opposed this Northern Gateway pipeline were a particular bete noir of the Harper government. It labelled them foreign agitators.

In the words of then-Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, they were radicals financed by “billionaire socialists from the United States.”

In short, these groups were prime targets for the security services. And in November 2013, an article in the Vancouver Observer based on freedom-of-information requests appeared to confirm what many had already come to suspect: Under the Harperites, CSIS was vigorously spying on anti-pipeline groups.

On the basis of that article, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association filed a formal complaint to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the body overseeing CSIS.

The association charged that CSIS had broken the law by targeting legitimate, peaceful groups and by sharing this information with private oil companies.

The subsequent inquiry by committee member Yves Fortier took three years. In the end, Fortier concluded that CSIS had indeed amassed information on peaceful, anti-pipeline groups.

But he said it had done so only by accident, when it was pursuing its legitimate mandate to monitor others that it regarded as bad actors.

Fortier also concluded that while CSIS did conduct private security briefings for the oil companies, there was no evidence that it had passed on to them any information about the environmental groups it happened to be monitoring.

In sum, Fortier concluded that everything was hunky-dory. It’s this conclusion that the civil liberties association is challenging at the Federal Court.

There are two lessons that can be drawn from this tale.

First, if you’re taking on the established order, expect CSIS to show up. Technically, the service is not supposed to target legitimate, peaceful groups.

But as Fortier ruled, it can and does collect ancillary information on such organizations when it is pursuing its central anti-terrorist mandate.

For an agency charged with protecting national security, too much information is always better than too little.

Second, what politicians say does matter. When Oliver ranted about foreign agitators infiltrating the Canadian environmental movement, CSIS heard him loud and clear.

Alberta’s United Conservative premier, Jason Kenney, is on the same rant today. His message is equally clear. Depending on who wins the October federal election, it could carry some weight in Ottawa.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

WATCH: Songwriters discuss what makes a great country tune, creative process

Alberta Country Music Awards Songwriters Showcase was held in Red Deer Saturday

RCMP investigating fatal fire in Wetaskiwin

Wetaskiwin RCMP and the Major Crimes unit are investigating after human remains… Continue reading

The Mustard Seed to launch new wellness centre in Red Deer

A new service is coming to Red Deer to help the city’s… Continue reading

Penhold firefighters handle ‘difficult’ blaze

Penhold firefighters battled a “difficult” blaze Friday afternoon. Fire crews were called… Continue reading

Clearwater County firefighter recruitment campaign deemed a success

A firefighter recruitment campaign is being considered a success by Clearwater County.… Continue reading

Fashion Fridays: The basics you need for your body type

Kim XO, helps to keep you looking good on Fashion Fridays on the Black Press Media Network

Your community calendar

Feb. 1 A Jump Rope Competition will be held at the Abbey… Continue reading

Weersink and Kings shutout top-ranked NAIT Ooks

Queens hockey also knock off Olds College Broncos

Calgary Hitmen roll over Rebels 5-2

Hitmen 5 Rebels 2 The Red Deer Rebels looked like a team… Continue reading

RDC Queens sweep weekend series with Lethbridge

The RDC Queens picked up a pair of crucial wins on the… Continue reading

Photos: Strong turnout for 38th annual Oilmen’s Bonspiel

The 38th annual Red Deer Oilmen’s Bonspiel is well underway at the… Continue reading

St. John’s, N.L., lifts state of emergency eight days after massive storm

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The City of St. John’s has lifted a… Continue reading

Former cabinet minister Peter MacKay announces Tory leadership bid

STELLARTON, N.S. — Former federal cabinet minister Peter MacKay says he will… Continue reading

Most Read