Big Brother is watching — but why? And should we care?

Revelations of federal government surveillance of protests and public lectures may hint at the Harper government’s sense of “vulnerability”, says MUN grad student

Last month federal government documents released at the request of a Liberal MP from Nova Scotia revealed that over the past eight years Ottawa has tracked hundreds of protests and other public gatherings across the country, including several in Newfoundland and Labrador.

On Sept. 18 the Toronto Star reported that the Government Operations Centre (GOC)—a federal agency of Public Safety Canada whose mandate is to provide an “all-hazards integrated federal emergency response to events (potential or actual hazards, natural or human-induced, either accidental or intentional) of national interest,” according to its website—had gathered reports from several federal agencies on protests in Canada and abroad. “Some were collected by Foreign Affairs on international protests,” Star reporter Alex Boutilier wrote, “but the majority focused on domestic events — especially First Nations protests and environmental activism.”

The list included five events in Newfoundland and Labrador, including a protest over “shrimp allocations” on May 4 of this year, an Oct. 2012 protest against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, a rally “to honour Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land and water” in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Oct. 4, 2013, and a public lecture on fracking in Stephenville on Sept. 20, 2013.

Scott Brison, the Liberal MP for Kings—Hants in Nova Scotia who requested the order paper in Parliament, says the Harper administration’s surveillance of dissent amounts to “an almost Nixonian attitude [toward] groups and individuals involved with opinions different from the government.

“This government refuses to work with Aboriginal and First Nations and members of the environmental community, and they spend more time spying on people instead of working with them,” he told The Independent on Thursday. “And if they actually worked with these groups they could build consensus, which would enable projects to move forward more easily. Instead they isolate, alienate and demonize and stigmatize a lot of these groups as opposed to actually working with them.”

According to the documents, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) provided the information on the May 2014 shrimp fisherman’s protest to the GOC, and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development reported to Ottawa on the Oct. 2012 Muskrat Falls protest. Meanwhile, the RCMP shared information with the GOC on the Oct. 2013 Idle No More rally in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the Sept. 2013 “People’s Forum on Fracking” public lecture in Stephenville.

“Not abnormal” for RCMP to report protests and events in the province

Christine Saunders and her daughters, who were one and five years old at the time, attended the Idle No More rally in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The mother of five says she was surprised to learn the RCMP had made a point of monitoring the family-friendly gathering, which brought together people of all ages, including children and elders, who shared music and roasted partridge over a fire, while taking turns holding signs that read “No Dam”, “Fully Functioning Search and Rescue Centre in Labrador” and “Save Our Earth. Stop the Destruction”.

Christine Saunders and her daughters Taylor, 5, and Raylee, 1, at an Idle No More rally in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Oct. 4, 2013. Photo by Denise Cole.
Christine Saunders and her daughters Taylor, 5, and Raylee, 1, at an Idle No More rally in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Oct. 4, 2013. Photo by Denise Cole.

“We want a fully functioning Search and Rescue Centre for Labrador…and no dam at Muskrat Falls,” Saunders told The Independent on Thursday, when asked why she attended the rally.

“It was a quiet protest and it was very friendly. Different people brought different things to share, and we had a boil-up.
 … I’m sure the police could have monitored something more important. I could understand if there was a complaint made, if we were doing something we shouldn’t have been…but there was no need really for the police to monitor our little group.”

The RCMP detachment in Happy Valley-Goose Bay never returned calls from The Independent, but Staff Sgt. Calvin Roberts of the Bay St. George detachment said he knew nothing of the report or the fact that the public lecture on fracking in Stephenville had been reported to the GOC.

“It could have been a list compiled by RCMP headquarters in St. John’s. I’m not sure where it came from to be honest with you,” he said. “Or it could have been compiled by Ottawa itself.”

RCMP Staff Sgt. Boyd Merrill at provincial headquarters in St. John’s also said he wasn’t aware of the report or the monitoring of the events listed on it. He did say, however, that acting as the provincial and federal police force in Newfoundland and Labrador, “it’s certainly not abnormal for the RCMP…to keep federal agencies abreast of protests and events that are occurring within the province. As a matter of fact it’s our mandate for the protection of the protestors and for the protection of the public in general to keep our national partners aware of what is taking place, whether we attend or not.”

Feds seek help compiling “comprehensive list of all known demonstrations”

Last June the Ottawa Citizen obtained a leaked email from the GOC to “all federal departments” requesting help in conducting widespread surveillance of “all known demonstrations” across the country.

“The Government Operations Centre is seeking your assistance in compiling a comprehensive listing of all known demonstrations which will occur either in your geographical area or that may touch on your mandate,” the Citizen quoted the email as saying. “We will compile this information and make this information available to our partners unless of course, this information is not to be shared and not available on open sources. In the case of the latter, this information will only be used by the GOC for our Situational Awareness.”

“We implore the government to hear and respond to the concerns being expressed…”  — Brent Patterson, Council of Canadians

Rather than this ‘big brother’ surveillance and criminalization of social justice activism, we implore the government to hear and respond to the concerns being expressed – See more at: http://localhost:9000/?p=39438&preview=true#sthash.HXxpTMmb.dpuf

Responding to the news, Brent Patterson, political director of the Council of Canadians—Canada’s biggest national social action organization—wrote in a blog post that the Council “denounces the Harper government’s order to monitor all political demonstrations across the country. Rather than this ‘big brother’ surveillance and criminalization of social justice activism, we implore the government to hear and respond to the concerns being expressed, including the protection of water against fracking, Indigenous rights, and the threat posed by the government’s reckless pursuit of oil and gas extraction that defies scientific evidence about its impact on climate change.”

In a written statement to the Star last month, Public Safety spokesperson Josée Picard said the Government Operations Centre requires an “awareness of a wide range of issues that could affect the safety and security of Canadians,” and that “[t]he GOC does not conduct surveillance operations, does not conduct intelligence gathering and does not obtain or hold any private or personal information pertaining to Canadian citizens.”

“It’s just information-sharing”

Sgt. Merrill said it’s routine for the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador to report non-violent and non-threatening events to the federal government as a way to keep federal departments abreast of events that could influence policy decisions.

The People's Forum on Fracking, a public lecture attended by 400 people in Stephenville last fall and organized by the Port au Port/Bay St. George Fracking Awareness Group to offer information on the controversial method of oil and gas extraction, was among the NL events on the GOC list. Photo by Aiden Mahoney.
The People’s Forum on Fracking, a public lecture attended by 400 people in Stephenville last fall and organized by the Port au Port/Bay St. George Fracking Awareness Group to offer information on the controversial method of oil and gas extraction, was among the NL events on the GOC list. Photo by Aiden Mahoney.

“There doesn’t have to be a threat to anyone to have a reporting line,” he explained Thursday. “We often report on fisheries-related incidents because the federal minister of fisheries wants to be updated on any concerns regarding the fishery. There are things to do with protests in the form of native concerns and Indigenous concerns that the minister [of Aboriginal Affairs] wants to be aware of their concerns and their issues. It isn’t an adversarial type of reporting, it’s an information-sharing so that any interest groups, whether they be with fisheries, or native persons, or controversial oil exploration — it’s just information-sharing. There’s no action taken in 99 per cent of these scenarios — it’s just sharing what’s going on in the country with the people that are responsible for making policy.

“There’s no story here in relation to why things are reported,” Merrill continued. “The story is that it’s a good thing that those are reported, so that the people who make public policy, in government, are aware of what’s going on in the world. And police officers, being on the front line, are able to make those observations and make those reports to them in a responsible way.”

Information used to prepare for possible nation-wide Indigenous resistance

Last January APTN National News obtained internal government records that show the GOC, immediately following the RCMP raid on a Mi’kmaq-led anti-fracking camp near Elsipogtog, N.B. last October, held two conference calls with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Department of National Defense, the RCMP, Foreign Affairs, and the Privy Council Office, “along with several other federal departments,” Jorge Barrera reported.

The GOC’s notice requesting the conference calls reveals the agency was concerned about further resistance by Indigenous groups and their supporters following the heavily armed RCMP tactical squad raid in New Brunswick.

“On the morning of 17 Oct 2013, the RCMP served an injunction on protestors at an anti-shale gas protest blocking a rural highway near Rexton, NB. Due to violence which occurred later in the afternoon of 17 Oct, the RMCP arrested at least 40 people for various offences,” the notice read. “Following these, various supports of the protest called for peaceful actions of solidarity on 18 Oct and 19 Oct in support of the protesters at Rexton using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. The GOC requires your assistance and invites you to participate in a teleconference call to enhance coordination and information sharing.”

Government surveillance “good news” for social movements and resistance

Graham Oliver, a retired teacher and a community organizer with the Port au Port/Bay St. George Fracking Awareness Group, which coordinated the People’s Forum on Fracking in Stephenville on Sept. 20, 2013, said the group was “not surprised” the event “was kept under the watchful eye of the RCMP…as the RCMP are keeping an eye on all environmental groups.

“It is unfortunate that informational sessions such as the People’s Forum are so closely scrutinized and often looked upon as ‘protest events’, rather than grassroots gatherings to inform the people,” he told The Independent in an email statement.

Paula Graham, a PhD student in Memorial University’s Department of Sociology whose research focuses on creative activism and social movements, says the GOC documents are “good news” for social movements and others engaged in resistance across Canada.

“The fact that this list exists, you could look at it as the government actually recognizing the power of physical collective groups of people taking action,” she told The Independent in a recent interview. “That’s one way you could interpret it.”

Paula Graham .
Paula Graham.

A “deeper issue” with this scale of government surveillance, she said, “is that if the government is putting us in a position such that if we resist we have to fear for ourselves, that’s — well, tyranny is one word you could use. It’s definitely a deterrent for moderate activists — people who maybe want to participate in a protest but who don’t want any negative implications. But I think on the other hand, for people who are deeply concerned about the relationship between authorities and the public, that will probably only strengthen their resistance.”

As part of a bigger trend, Graham said, the Canadian government under Stephen Harper “has made it more difficult to access information and more difficult for scientists to talk in public — more difficult for all these things that are good for democracy.

“So we can think about it as, well they’re keeping tabs on these little protests that seem almost trivial, and we can take that as an indication of a display of power — like: ‘We see you. Even though you’re just a few people gathered somewhere, we see you, so don’t think we’re not watching.’

“I’m not comfortable with the surveillance,” she continued, “but I do think a more important question is what does it reveal about how the government thinks of itself — and it must think of itself as vulnerable if it’s taking such extreme measures for such peaceful actions.

“If the government or the authorities are so concerned about 20 people in Labrador gathering to save a river…I think it reveals a great sense of vulnerability, not power, actually. But I think that’s a pretty big cognitive leap for people to take — I don’t think that would be the mass public interpretation. But it’s something to think about, because again it’s like the government saying ‘Twenty people gathered around a campfire worries us,’ and that’s a good thing if you’re the type of person who likes to go to protests and gather around a campfire — or if that’s your mode of expressing your political views, to know that the government is taking note of that is actually positive feedback for you.”

“If the government or the authorities are so concerned about 20 people in Labrador gathering to save a river…I think it reveals a great sense of vulnerability, not power…” — Paula Graham, MUN grad student

Graham said it’s also useful to think of the relationship between government and people as consisting in a back and forth dialogue that involves necessary forms of communication when government abuses its power, or enforces policies that are out of line with the values of the people the government represents.

“We often think about resistance or activism or protests as people reacting to something the government’s done. But rarely do we think about it in terms of public discourse as the government reacting to what the people are doing, and it’s really easy to forget about that perspective,” she explained.

“A lot of the groups on this list were about Indigenous issues and First Nations collective actions. Indigenous groups around Canada over the past couple years have been getting really organized, really mobilized, really visible. So what if we flip that interpretation, of the government actually responding to people mobilizing instead of people mobilizing in response to government. Obviously it’s back and forth, it goes both ways, but we often forget about that other way, and so I think these documents — that list is exactly the government responding to the people, which is what the people want.

“If people learning about environmental issues is threatening to the government, that should give us hope, because then all we have to do is learn stuff and be physically present with each other…and it means we’re doing the right thing.”

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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