Environmental activist Rod Marining knows the feel of steel handcuffs on his wrists.
As co-founder of Greenpeace International, he sailed aboard Greenpeace ships campaigning against French atmospheric nuclear testing in French Polynesia, Japanese whaling in the Pacific and was thrown in jail for demonstrating against mahogany lumber imports to Europe.
“I am considered a national security risk,” he said, noting that the RCMP keeps a file on him, for his eco-warrior activities on the high seas.
But these days, activists can get on the security radar for a whole lot less: according to a Guardian report on documents released under freedom of information laws, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) are increasingly blurring the line between real terrorists and average citizens who organize petitions, attend protests and express dissent.
What’s more, surveillance is not only aimed at major environmentalist groups like Greenpeace, but also civilians participating in protest activities.
Last month, members of a Quebec-based group of shale gas opponents, Regroupement Interrégional sur le gaz de schiste de la Vallée du St-Laurent (RIGSVSL), learned through astory in La Presse news that the RCMP was watching them, believing the anti-fracking activists might one day be “radicalized” by North American “extremist” groups.
Serge Fortier, the coordinator for RIGSVSL — a coalition representing more than 100 anti-shale gas citizen committees in Quebec — was stunned to hear of the report, though he had wondered whether his group’s phones or emails were being monitored.
Fortier told The Vancouver Observer that that his group has never done anything to merit any police suspicion. He said he didn’t even know the names of U.S. extremist groups that police feared they would associate with.
“For over two and a half years, we’ve never given reason for the RCMP or any security group to believe that we’re in any way dangerous,” he said in French over Skype.
“We’ve never made any threats — we’ve taken to the streets to protest, of course…but we’ve always alerted the police when we hold protests,” he said, noting that police have sometimes even been allowed to march in the middle of a rally to ensure that things remained peaceful.
He took issue with both the RCMP and media for inaccurately labeling RIGSVL as an environmentalist group, which he feels is done undermine and discredit his group’s concerns over fracking.
“The RCMP were surveying environmental groups, and we were lumped in with them, even though we’re just a citizen’s group,” he said with disbelief.
“They feared we had some connection with more radical groups in the US, but we don’t. We’re a peaceful group…We even have volunteer security members who can control individuals in a crowd, as there are anarchists and activists who might insert themselves into a group to cause chaos.”
Fortier asserts that RIGSVSL’s activities are limited to peaceful means of expressing dissent such as writing letters and organizing rallies.
As for Léo-Paul Landry, the anti-fracking activist in Montreal who was arrested in 2011 for making threats to gas companies, Fortier said he has never even had contact with him before.
From Al-Qaeda to anti-pipeline activists and Idle No More
New research from the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University say there has been a shift in how Canada’s security services monitors threats.
Kevin Walby, the University of Victoria co-author of “Making up ‘Terror Identities’: security intelligence, Canada’s Integrated Threat Assessment Centre and social movement suppression”, has been analyzing classified Canadian police and intelligent documents released through FOI since 2008, along with Jeffrey Monaghan of Queen’s University Centre for Surveillance Studies.
“In 2005-2006, we show that when it came to threat assessments, CSIS/RCMP was concerned primarily with financial security which eventually evolved into international terror concerns — Al-Qaeda, and other groups of this variety,” Walby said. At the time, international terrorism was the number one priority for security with the Vancouver 2010 winter Olympics on the horizon.
But around 2007, police became increasingly concerned about domestic terrorism. A top secret RCMP Threat Assessment memo dated May 22, 2007, states:
“…not only must we monitor international terrorist plots directed toward the Olympics, but as well, those originating within Canada.” By late 2008, terrorist and domestic extremist ‘Groups of Interest’ are the priority for security agencies.”
A secret intelligence assessment in November, 2008:
“Multi-issue extremists and aboriginal extremists may pursue common causes, and both groups have demonstrated the intent and capability to carry out attacks against critical infrastructure in Canada.”
And just who are the ‘multi-issue extremists’?
“This category is then used to lump all kinds of activities, dissenting voices, from anti-capitalists, to First Nation protestors, to Olympic protesters under this umbrella term,” Walby said.
“We did find it a bit disturbing to see all kinds of peaceful protests, like the Raging Grannies, being referred to as multi-issue extremists for participating in anti-Olympic demonstrations.”
As groups like Al Qaeda and Black Bloc fell off the radar, the category is “now being used to label Idle No More protesters, anti-pipeline protesters, and anti-fracking protesters in Quebec,” he said. Activities such as media stunts and the unfurling of banners were construed as “threats,” or a “non-violent attack” by the police.
The Vancouver Observer contacted CSIS with a number of specific questions about the classified documents seeking further explanation. CSIS Media relations spokesman Anam Alvi replied vaguely:
“I would like to direct you to our latest Public Report which can be found on our website. It addresses the issue of multi-issue extremism.”
The CSIS 2010-2011 Public Report references multi-issue extremism once.
Enquiries were made regarding Greenpeace, the Raging Grannies, Idle No More and others groups under the label ‘multi-issue extremism” but CSIS provided no further comment.
In Marining’s view, this change in focus from foreign to domestic threats is connected with the federal government’s emphasis on the oil and gas economy and increasing erosion of environmental regulation.
“We are now a petro-state,” said Marining, who now chairs the BC Environmental Network. The Harper government has repositioned the entire Canadian economy to be increasingly reliant on oil and gas exports, and has declared the exploration and development of the country’s natural resources as “in the national interest.”
He believes the balance that Canada had during the 1980s under Prime Minister Trudeau and the National Energy Policy has been upset by plans to make Canada a major oil exporter.
It is a major shift in both the economic and environmental landscape. And that shift has involved many to become involved in opposition to new pipelines, oil and gas fracturing and the Alberta oil sands projects.
Joe Foy of the Wilderness Committee said that he’s generally “very happy” with the rights and freedoms afforded to him in Canada, but that it is “dangerous and very, very wrong” if there is a shift toward labelling legitimate activism as extremism in Canada.
Fortier, for one, is worried about the Prime Minister’s “dictatorial” approach to dissent. The police surveillance, in his view, stems from an unwillingness within the federal government to acknowledge citizens who are calling on Canada to move toward a more sustainable energy economy.
After learning of the RCMP and media report of police tracking of anti-fracking activities, Fortier fired back with a communiqué, asserting his group’s right to democratic dissent.
“The RCMP and CSIS should instead pursue major economic crimes, and stop tarnishing the reputation of legitimate movements that are comprised of honest citizens like us…It’s an insult to our participative democracy.”