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Emma Gilchrist: Canada’s government spies on its own people

Tuesday started out sunny for me, but hail fell out of the sky in the afternoon.

Tuesday started out sunny for me, but hail fell out of the sky in the afternoon. It was a Victoria day like any other until I found out the Canadian government has been vigorously spying on Canadian organizations that work for environmental protections and democratic rights.

 I read the news in the online Vancouver Observer. There, front and centre, was the name of the organization I worked for until recently: Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative.

 My colleagues and I had been wary of being spied on for the past couple years, but having it confirmed still took the wind out of me.

 I told my parents about the article over dinner. They’re retired school teachers who lived in northern Alberta for 35 years before moving to Victoria.

 I asked: “Did you know the Canadian government is spending your tax dollars to spy on your daughter?”

 Then I told them how one of the events detailed in emails from Richard Garber, the National Energy Board’s “group leader of security,” was at a workshop at a Kelowna church run by one of my colleagues. About 30 people, mostly retirees, attended to learn about storytelling, theories of change and creative sign-making. (Sounds threatening, right?)

 In the emails, obtained under the Access to Information Act, Garber marshals security and intelligence operations between government operations and private interests and notes that his security team has consulted with Canada’s spy agency, CSIS.

 To add insult to injury, another set of documents shows CSIS and the RCMP have been inviting oil executives to secret classified briefings at CSIS headquarters in Ottawa, in what the U.K.’s Guardian describes as “unprecedented surveillance and intelligence sharing with companies.”

These meetings covered “threats” to energy infrastructure and “challenges to energy projects from environmental groups.” Guess who is prominently displayed as a sponsor on the agenda for May’s meeting? Enbridge.

I asked my folks: “Isn’t that scary? CSIS is hosting classified briefings sponsored by Enbridge?”

No answer. My parents are not the type to get themselves in a flap, but I prodded them: “Dad, this is scary, right?”

“It’s scary,” he admitted.

It’s unclear how much information is being provided to corporations such as Enbridge and state-owned Sinopec, the oil company that has a $10-million stake in Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker proposal.

What kind of country spies on environmental organizations in the name of the oil industry? It seems more Nigerian than Canadian. I felt one part indignant, one part sad for my country.

 I’m not what you might think of as a typical “environmentalist”— I grew up in northern Alberta playing hockey and going to bush parties. Before my stint in the non-profit world, I worked at the Calgary Sun and Calgary Herald.

 I believe oil and gas deposits, including the oilsands, are a great asset — if developed in the public interest. A big “if,” but Canadians own these resources and the No. 1 priority when developing them should be that Canadians benefit.

For speaking out against increasing oil exports off B.C.’s coast, hundreds of people like me have been called radicals and painted as enemies of the state, as somehow un-Canadian. That last bit bothers me the most.

 I love my country. And in my eyes, there isn’t anything much more patriotic than fighting for the interests of Canadian citizens.

I’ve argued that after 25 years of oilsands development, Albertans should have something to show for it — not be facing budget crises and closing hospital beds. Canadians should develop resources at a responsible pace that doesn’t cause rampant inflation and unduly harm the environment, and should prioritize national energy security, instead of allowing half our country to depend on foreign oil.

 I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but it’s a stretch to portray any of those statements as unpatriotic or radical.

 It saddens me that Canada has been reduced to spying on its own citizens when they speak out against certain corporate interests, and then shares that intelligence with those corporations.

Wherever you stand on natural-resource development, I’d hope we could all agree Canada should be a country where we can debate the most important issues of our time — without fear of being attacked or spied on by our own government.


Emma Gilchrist of Victoria is deputy editor of DeSmog Canada, a news site dedicated to sensible public conversations about the environment, social justice and the economy.