If you challenge authority, expect CSIS to spy on you

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

The first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose in Canada is prepared at The Michener Institute in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
Not all long-term care workers have received their vaccines including a Red Deer facility

There continues to be confusion in long-term care and supportive living facilities… Continue reading

Cattle graze winter pasture in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies near Longview, Alta. on Jan. 8, 2004. Concern over the provincial government’s decision to drop a coal policy that has protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies for decades is growing among area communities. At least six cities, towns and municipal districts in southwest Alberta have now expressed concern about the decision and the fact it was made with no consultation. The latest is Longview, where mayor Kathie Wight is drafting a letter to the government opposing the move. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
More southern Alberta communities voice concern over province’s plans to expand coal

Concern over the Alberta government’s decision to drop a coal policy that… Continue reading

Some residents say there is no longer an effective Nordegg fire department to respond to emergencies in the West Country. (Contributed photo).
Some Nordegg residents worry about lack of emergency response in the West Country

The possibility of wildfires or accidents is ‘scary’ says former fire leader

(Advocate file photo).
Six idling vehicles stolen in last 48 hours: Red Deer RCMP

Red Deer RCMP said Wednesday six idling vehicles in the city were… Continue reading

In this undated image made from a video taken by the Duke of Sussex and posted on @SaveChildrenUK by the Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, shows the Duchess of Sussex reading the book “Duck! Rabbit!” to their son Archie who celebrates his first birthday on Wednesday May 6, 2020. The Canadian Paediatric Society is reminding families that the process of raising a reader starts from birth. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Duke of Sussex/@SaveChildrenUK via AP MANDATORY CREDIT
Canadian Paediatric Society says raising a reader starts from birth

The Canadian Paediatric Society is reminding families that the process of raising… Continue reading

People wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus walk past a depiction of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in Philadelphia, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Bernie Sanders’ mittens, memes help raise $1.8M for charity

About those wooly mittens that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders wore to the… Continue reading

Bags of methamphetamine seized at Coutts, Alta., border crossing is shown in this December 2020 handout photo. The Canada Border Services Agency says it has made Canada’s largest-ever seizure of methamphetamine at an Alberta land border crossing from the United States. The agency says on Christmas Day, it flagged a produce truck at the Coutts border crossing for further inspection. Officers found more than 228 kilograms of meth with an estimated street value of $28.5 million. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Canada Border Services Agency
Alberta border agents made record meth bust after pulling over produce truck

COUTTS, Alta. — The Canada Border Services Agency says officers in southern… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Quebec’s director of national health says he’s still not sure when the province will begin administering COVID-19 booster shots — 42 days since officials started injecting people with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Calculated risk or gamble: Experts differ on merits of Quebec’s vaccine strategy

MONTREAL — Quebec’s director of national health said he’s still not sure… Continue reading

This electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, in yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in a lab. The Canadian Armed Forces is dealing with a dramatic increase in the number of troops who have been infected with COVID-19 over the past month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID-RML via AP
Canadian military dealing with surge in new COVID-19 infections since December

OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces is dealing with a dramatic increase… Continue reading

Advocates for the homeless hold a protest against the COVID-19 curfew Monday, January 11, 2021 in Montreal. The Quebec government says it will not challenge a temporary court order granted Tuesday that exempts the homeless from a provincewide curfew imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Quebec to exempt homeless from curfew after court finds measure endangered safety

MONTREAL — The Quebec government said Wednesday it will not challenge a… Continue reading

People march towards Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office in Toronto, during a rally led by current and former international students calling for changes to immigration rules during COVID-19, on Sept. 12, 2020. A new work permit program for international students in Canada is taking applications starting today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
New work permit program for international graduates in Canada taking applications

A new work-permit program aimed at encouraging international students to settle in… Continue reading

A fire-destroyed property registered to Gabriel Wortman at 200 Portapique Beach Road is seen in Portapique, N.S. on May 8, 2020. Three people who allegedly supplied ammunition to the gunman who murdered 22 people in the April 18-19 mass shooting in Nova Scotia are scheduled for court hearings today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Lawyer for accused in ammo transfer to N.S. shooter criticizes lack of disclosure

HALIFAX — A lawyer for one of three people who allegedly supplied… Continue reading

Most Read