Jack Knox: Security borders on absurd in pipeline debate

Jack Knox mugshot generic

We shouldn’t be surprised that the RCMP and CSIS kept tabs on environmentalists and at least two Victoria politicians during this year’s Northern Gateway hearings. Given the tensions around the proposal, some security planning was needed.

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Nor should we be surprised that our police and spy agencies meet regularly with energy companies. In the post-9/11 world, sharing intelligence to keep al-Qaeda at bay makes sense.

Somewhere, though, the line blurred. Emails released this week show a cosy relationship in which CSIS, a section of the RCMP, our pro-pipeline federal government, the National Energy Board and energy companies are inside the club, while those who oppose Enbridge’s proposal are treated like woolly headed radicals working against the national interest.

Which leads to the obvious question: If that’s what Ottawa thinks of British Columbians who worry about oil tankers doing an Exxon Valdez in the tricky inside waters of our coast, how seriously will it listen to them?

The emails came to light through an access to information filing initially reported in the online Vancouver Observer. They showed communications between the RCMP, CSIS, the National Energy Board and its security chief before and during the regulatory hearings into Enbridge’s proposal to pipe Alberta bitumen to a tanker terminal at Kitimat.

The messages talk of using social media and other sources to monitor everything from the Idle No More movement to the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative to the annual all-native basketball tourney in Prince Rupert. One of the emails, a security summary prior to January’s hearings in Kelowna, refers to a gathering at which Elizabeth May — the Saanich-Gulf Islands MP and Green Party leader — and Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming were to speak.

Those revelations follow a series of stories in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which reported that the Canadian government has an extensive spying program aimed at domestic environmental organizations. Since 2005, twice-a-year meetings involving energy companies, police, CSIS and other federal agencies have been convened to discuss threats to the energy sector, including challenges from green groups. The Guardian produced the agenda for one such meeting in May: sponsored by Natural Resources Canada, it was held at CSIS headquarters in Ottawa, with breakfast, lunch and coffee provided by Enbridge and a networking mixer paid for by Bruce Power and Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners.

It’s that last image that bothers Fleming, who says it’s one thing to take reasonable security measures, another to advertise “private soirees where they boast that intelligence will be shared over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.”

“That to me is completely wrong.”

Fleming, the B.C. NDP’s point man on the Northern Gateway file, followed the hearings around the province last winter: Prince Rupert, Prince George, Victoria, Vancouver, Kelowna. “I saw the broadest possible cross-section of British Columbians that I could imagine.” No mad bombers, though.

Indeed, the emails make it clear that at no time was a specific threat to the Northern Gateway hearings detected.

Nevertheless, security arrangements bordered on the absurd when the regulatory road show came to the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe for eight days in January. Hotel doors were guarded by a contingent of Victoria police officers working on overtime (the bill was ultimately paid by Enbridge, as the applicant was responsible for all costs related to the pipeline review). Members of the public could only watch online or on a big screen at the Ramada three kilometres away. Even the people scheduled to testify (they had to wait at least 15 months for the privilege) were herded into a holding room down the hall from the hearing room. Never mind that they looked less like wild-eyed anarchists than a United Church prayer circle, a bunch of grey-haired retirees in fleece vests and Gore-Tex.

That betrays a troubling mindset by a federal government that starts with the assumption that anyone who disagrees with the Northern Gateway plan is by definition a kook, a fringe character hiding behind a balaclava or one of those moustachioed Occupy Everything masks. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver infamously ranted about “environmental and other radical groups” blocking pipeline proposals. The feds poured $8 million into a witch hunt targeting environmental charities that it blamed for bogging down the approval process. In Ottawa, green is the new black.

“I wonder if the intelligence service was also mobilized by the irresponsible and over-the-top rhetoric by Stephen Harper and some of his ministers who demonized anyone who questioned whether Enbridge was bad for our economic future,” Fleming says.

Note that no one in CSIS is offering to keep tabs on the oil companies and hold a briefing for the enviro groups.

Oh well, Fleming says, at least Brazil can take comfort in the idea that Canada spies on its own citizens, too.

The panel reviewing the Northern Gateway proposal is to make its recommendation by the end of the year.

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