Geraldine Thomas-Flurer, who campaigns for environmental protection on behalf of indigenous First Nations in Canada, wasn’t surprised when, in 2012, she found out that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been keeping tabs on her. The Toronto Star that year obtained documents showing that federal police had monitored private meetings held between her coalition and local environmental groups.
Now she just laughs when asked whether she’s comforted by assurances from government officials that new surveillance and policing powers outlined under a proposed Canadian Anti-Terror Law wouldn’t be aimed at peaceful protesters.
The passage of the terrorism bill would represent a new “open season on First Nations who are speaking out,” she says.
Across Canada, police surveillance and intervention have long been a reality for groups working to stop development of fossil fuel extraction, including pipeline construction and fracking. The sense that somebody’s watching is part of the price Thomas-Flurer, of the Saik’uz nation, has paid for coordinating the Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of six First Nations in British Columbia that have banned the passage of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline through their territory.
The coalition is part of a movement that has slowed the development of the pipeline, which would carry more than 500,000 barrels per day of crude from landlocked Alberta’s oil sands to a port on Canada’s west coast, so much so that a recent CBC News article questioned whether the project was “being quietly shelved.”
The new law, called C-51, would give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP broad powers to thwart what bill proponents see as an evolving terrorist threat. Lawyers and activists say the bill’s vague language would give Canada’s police forces wide discretion to decide who they target and how.
The proposed legislation was prompted by last year’s attack by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a ceremonial soldier who had been guarding the Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and then barged into Canada’s packed parliament building, before being shot and killed by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers. It was the second Canadian “lone wolf” attack in a week, both carried out by radicalized followers of Islam, unclaimed by any extremist group.
“I have been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention, and arrest,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared one day after the shooting, “I assure members that work, which is already under way, will be expedited.”
Five months later, C-51 is moving through parliament, and is expected to pass this summer. Given politicians’ focus on radicalization, new policing powers would likely hit hardest in communities of Muslims. “They’re the bogeyman of today,” said Ziyaad Mia, a spokesperson for the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association. “But I think they’re a canary in the coal mine.”
The Anti-Terrorism Act would create a new criminal offense that could land an offender up to five years in prison for promoting “terrorism offences in general,” a term that has befuddled Kent Roach and Craig Forcese, professors of law at the University of Toronto and University of Ottawa, respectively. “No person (including ourselves) can fairly say they know how this new crime will be interpreted and applied,” they wrote in a C-51 backgrounder.
Other parts of the act would expand the power of police to make preventative arrests if they believe “on reasonable grounds that the detention of the person in custody is likely to prevent a terrorist activity.” The bill would also lengthen the time a person can be detained without charges from three days to seven, in cases where a police officer believes that a “terrorist act may be carried out,” and it would codify a no-fly list.
“We actually don’t know what [C-51 is] going to entail in terms of regular surveillance and intelligence. It’s very murky,” says Jeff Monaghan, a sociologist at Queen’s University, who has studied Canada’s counterterrorism apparatus. “We’re going to find out about what disruption [of national security threats] really means in the next 10 years.”
Monaghan has tracked the way Canada’s counterterrorism efforts have crept into the work of environmental activists since 9/11. Government threat assessment reports he collected via Access to Information requests show a shift between 2005 and 2010 toward focusing resources on “extremist” groups, including ones that organize around environmental issues and indigenous rights.
One government assessment from 2008 declared that attacks carried out by domestic “extremist” activist groups “are seven times more likely to occur than terrorist attacks.”
Monaghan says C-51 would intensify that mission creep. Although called the Anti-Terrorism Act, C-51 would widen the state’s policing and surveillance powers even beyond “terrorism in general.”
The bill seeks to expand the reach of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which currently is allowed only to gather information but not to act on it, a separation created as a remedy to 1970s-era abuses perpetrated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police against Québécois nationalists. Under the proposed law, CSIS can “take measures, within or outside Canada,” to reduce “a threat to the security of Canada.”
As part of the bill, the “Security of Canada Information Sharing Act” would allow Canadian government agencies, with minimal oversight, to exchange collected information about “activities that undermine the security of Canada,” including actions that threaten the country’s “territorial integrity” or interfere with its “critical infrastructure.” That lands the work of the Yinka Dene Alliance squarely within the boundaries of C-51’s sphere of intensified surveillance.
This isn’t the first time Canadian intelligence has targeted domestic groups.
A 44-page Royal Canadian Mounted Police document, “Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Assessment,” obtained by Montreal’s La Presse last February demonstrated how Canada’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies see anti-extraction activists and indigenous dissidents as serious threats.
The assessment mentions Greenpeace several times, is titled “Criminal Threats to the Canadian Petroleum Industry,” and describes a “well-financed, anti-Canadian petroleum movement, that consists of peaceful activists, militants and violent extremists, who are opposed to society’s reliance on fossil fuels.”
“I was actually shocked,” said Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaign director Keith Stewart, who has read report after report over the years showing government efforts to thwart the organization’s use of blockades and other acts of civil disobedience against energy industries. “I’m accustomed to reading these things usually in much more couched language that’s drier, more bureaucratic.”
Still, C-51’s architects and supporters maintain that the bill does not sacrifice dissent. “Let’s speak practically,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay said at a press conference last week. “If they’re not burning police cars or blowing up critical infrastructure, this is not going to be criminalized.”
This assurance isn’t comforting to Thomas-Flurer. Although the group’s tactics are non-violent, she won’t argue if you call her and her allies a threat to Canada’s oil industry infrastructure. When asked when construction on the Northern Gateway pipeline could potentially start, she replies, “Never.”
Women in her community “will die for a cause if they have to,” she says. “If it means standing in front of a bulldozer and getting killed, they’ll do it — I’ll do it.”
Photo of a protester detained by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers during a demonstration against the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion on Burnaby Mountain outside Vancouver, British Columbia, November 20, 2014. (Ben Nelms/Reuters/Landov)