Victoria groups allegedly targeted by Canada’s spy agency

Canada’s spy service routinely welcomed reports from the energy industry about perceived threats, and kept such information in its files in case it might prove useful later, newly disclosed documents reveal.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service is supposed to retain only information that is “strictly necessary” to do its job, and the spy agency is now facing questions about whether it collected and hung on to material about groups or people who posed no real threat.

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Details of the CSIS practices are emerging in a case mounted by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association in the Federal Court of Canada.

In a February 2014 complaint to the CSIS watchdog the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association alleged the spy service overstepped its legal authority by monitoring environmentalists opposed to Enbridge’s now-abandoned Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.

Victoria-based environmental organizations Dogwood B.C. and Sierra Club B.C. are among the groups the agency is alleged to have collected information on illegally. The groups say that the recently released Protest Papers, a collection of more than 8,000 pages disclosed by CSIS, show where the federal government’s priorities lie.

“The government is putting the interests of oil and gas ahead of regular communities,” said Caitlyn Vernon, Sierra Club B.C.’s campaigns director. In 2015, Vernon testified at secret hearings held by the spy agency’s watchdog, and is still under a gag order that prevents her from speaking about what happened during the hearings.

Alexandra Woodsworth, Dogwood B.C.’s campaigns manager, said that in January 2013, a workshop organized by Dogwood and Leadnow, a non-profit advocacy group with a focus on environmental policy, was held in a church basement in Kelowna. The goal was to prepare people to testify to the National Energy Board against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

Organizers discovered about a year a later that an undercover CSIS agent had been at the meeting, Woodsworth said.

Logan McIntosh, co-executive director of Leadnow, was at the meeting, which she said was full of “grandmas and students.” She and other organizers helped those in attendance make signs and prepare their testimonies. McIntosh said there is no legitmate reason for the spy agency to monitor the groups.

“To me, that is a misuse of our spy agency that is intended to be protecting Canadians against dangerous forces,” she said.

The civil liberties association also accused CSIS of sharing information about the opponents with the National Energy Board and petroleum industry companies, effectively deterring people from voicing their opinions and associating with environmental groups.

The review committee dismissed the civil liberties association’s complaint in 2017, prompting the association to ask the Federal Court to revisit the outcome. In the process, more than 8,000 pages of once-secret material — including heavily redacted memos and transcripts of closed-door hearings — have become public, providing a glimpse into the review committee’s deliberations.

The civil liberties association published 19 volumes of the records Monday at bccla.org/ secret-spy-hearings/.

“We encourage people to look at these documents and to decide for themselves what our spy agency has been up to,” the association’s Meghan McDermott told a news conference in Vancouver.

During one review committee hearing, a CSIS official whose identity is confidential said information volunteered by energy companies was put in a spy service database. “It is not actionable. It just sits there,” the CSIS official said. “But should something happen, should violence erupt, then we will go back to this and be able to see that we had the information … it is just information that was given to us, and we need to log it.”

The review committee heard from several witnesses and examined hundreds of documents in weighing the civil liberties association’s complaint.

The watchdog concluded CSIS collected some information about peaceful anti-petroleum groups, but only incidentally in the process of investigating legitimate threats to projects such as oil pipelines. But the committee’s report said CSIS’s activities did not stray into surveillance of organizations engaged in lawful advocacy, protest or dissent.

A CSIS witness testified the spy service “is not in the business of investigating environmentalists because they are advocating for an environmental cause, period.” Still, the review committee urged CSIS to ensure it was keeping only “strictly necessary” information, as stipulated in the law governing the spy service.

— with a file from Roxanne Egan-Elliott, Times Colonist

Many of the newly disclosed records are almost completely blacked out, making it impossible to know what CSIS was saying about organizations.

“As they are so heavily redacted, we are really left with more questions than answers,” Woodsworth said.

Added McDermott: “If CSIS claims it wasn’t tracking conservation groups in B.C., then why did they collect thousands of pages of files on groups who engaged in peaceful advocacy and protest?”

The committee’s report said CSIS participated in meetings with Natural Resources Canada and the private sector, including the petroleum industry, at the spy service’s headquarters, but added these briefings involved national security matters.

The committee found CSIS did not share information about the environmental groups in question with the National Energy Board or the petroleum industry.

The civil liberties association wants the Federal Court to take a second look, given that CSIS created more than 500 operational reports relevant to the committee’s inquiry.

“The main impression one draws from the [committee] report is ‘nothing to see here, look away,’ when in fact there is a lot to see here,” said Paul Champ, a lawyer for the association.

The notion that information on some groups or individuals was gathered incidentally is “cold comfort to people whose names might end up in the databanks of Canada’s intelligence service simply because they expressed a political opinion on Facebook, signed a petition, or attended a protest,” Champ said.

CSIS spokesman John Townsend emphasized the review committee’s dismissal of the association’s complaint, but declined to comment further Monday given the ongoing court proceedings.

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