There were extraordinary scenes in Parliament this June as opposition filibusters forced the House of Commons to vote continuously through one night, all the next day, and into the next night to pass the Harper government’s monster omnibus so-called ‘budget’ bill C-38. By the end, a plethora of significant changes to a wide range of laws and regulations over a number of matters that had little or nothing to do with the 2012 budget had been rammed through, and a few weeks later rubberstamped by the Senate. Among these were the gutting of the National Energy Board’s independent power to review energy export projects; the scrapping of Canada’s world-renowned fish habitat regime; new controls over “foreign-funded” NGOs accused of “political activities’ (i.e., advocacy critical of government environmental policy); allowing American law enforcement officers to carry guns while operating on Canadian soil – and abolishing the office of the Inspector General of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
A Conservative party that came into office under the banner of installing ‘accountability’, whose very first piece of legislation in 2006 was the so-called Accountability Act, was in full-throttle mode of rolling roughshod over any and all opposition while removing all those annoying checks and balances that might impede the plans of the Prime Minister.
Foremost among these threatened plans is the Northern Gateway/Enbridge pipeline project to run Alberta oilsands bitumen through northern British Columbia to the port of Kitimat, whence it would be carried on supertankers plying the hazardous Pacific coastline to markets in China and Japan. Opposition to this project in BC is fierce, beginning with First Nations whose lands are endangered by the Enbridge ‘Keystone Kops’ (in the words of an American watchdog looking into the company’s disastrous oil spill in Michigan) and environmental groups deeply apprehensive not only about the dubious safety of the pipeline across remote, rugged mountainous terrain but even more about the near-certainty at some point of an horrendous Exxon Valdez-BP type catastrophe on the Pacific coastal ecosystem, now extending to a clear majority of almost two out of three British Columbians. Even the usually pro-Harper premier of BC, Christy Clark, has been forced by an aroused public to take a stand.
Many of the changes steamrollered into law under C-38 are designed to weaken or remove potential points of resistance to Northern Gateway. This is not surprising given that the Harper government has declared that the export of Alberta oilsands bitumen is not only in the national interest, but is at the top of the national agenda. Of course a majority government can set its priorities and do its best to achieve them, but not at the expense of treating opposition as disloyal and illegitimate. Yet this is exactly what the Harper government has been doing.
Resources minister Joe “McCarthy” Oliver is on public record as denouncing “environmentalists and other radicals” for opposing Northern Gateway with “foreign money”: “These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda”. The charitable tax status of NGOs that engage in ‘political advocacy’ (that is, criticism of Conservative policies) has been threatened, as well as a bar on any government grants. A witch-hunting Senate committee has been attacking NGOs that Tories dislike.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews recently issued a paper outlining Canada’s counter terrorism strategy which warned of “low level violence by domestic issue-based groups in Canada.” Based on grievances “real or perceived”, such groups include those promoting “animal rights, white supremacy, environmentalism and anti-capitalism”. Documents released under Access to Information show that CSIS and the RCMP have designated Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and aboriginal groups among “multi-issue extremists” posing a potential threat to Canada. We have learned that the RCMP has been spying on a group of British Columbia First Nations vocally opposed to Northern Gateway, closely tracking their potential for “acts of protest and civil disobedience” and monitoring their meetings with environmental groups also opposed to the pipeline. The Toronto Star reported that “the federal government created a vast surveillance network in early 2007 to monitor protests by First Nations, including those that would attract national attention or target ‘critical infrastructure’ like highways, railways and pipelines, according to RCMP documents.”
In June the Canadian Press reported that a new Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) has been established in northern Alberta to match the counter terrorist INSETs already in place in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, etc. since 9/11. It will be led by the RCMP and include CSIS, Canadian Border Services and Calgary and Edmonton police, and is directed to “help protect the energy industry from attacks by extremists”. The RCMP Assistant Commissioner said that the Alberta unit had not been formed to snoop on people or groups that oppose energy projects such as the oilsands or the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to the B.C. coast. There has to be violence attached to their activities in order for us to pay attention to them. That being said, in our role of preventing these threats from occurring, it is important that intelligence is collected against the activities of groups before they become violent.
When a government publicly tries to discredit environmentalists as foreign radicals because of their opposition to environmentally threatening mega-projects, and at the same time its security and policing agencies are targeting environmental and aboriginal groups as threats to Canada, not only these groups but all Canadians have reason for concern.
In defence of targeting environmental and aboriginal groups, CSIS and the RCMP claim that that they are only concerned with their potential for violence. On the face of it, this seems to offer plausible grounds for domestic spying. After all, Canadians are right to be concerned when violence is employed for political ends, endangering the safety of innocent persons. They expect their public security agencies to protect peace, order and good government. But there is a bigger problem here than meets the eye.
Is intrusive surveillance of legitimate political dissent acceptable so long as the state is only looking for the few bad apples in the barrel? There is a historical precedent that casts this argument in an ambiguous light.
Following the October 1970 FLQ crisis, the government of Pierre Trudeau ordered the security service, then a section of the RCMP, to ‘counter’ and crush the terrorist wing of the Quebec separatist movement. How that was to be done was left to the Mounties; it was results that counted. The FLQ was defeated, but the methods used to achieve that objective caused no end of trouble. RCMP ‘dirty tricks’ involved illegal police activities that were condemned by official inquiries. Ultimately the security service was removed from the RCMP with the creation of CSIS as a civilian security intelligence agency in 1984.
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