‘Protest papers’ lay out CSIS ties to oil sector — but redactions fuel mistrust

The documentation and the fierce debate around it further reinforced the battle lines between the country’s energy sector and the protest movement, on the eve of the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion — a controversial project that is expected to be the subject of heated protests during this construction season.

CSIS has maintained that it has not acted outside of its mandate and its actions were “reasonable and necessary.”

That claim — and the reassurances of analysts that accumulated information was likely a function of the spy agency’s mandate — has done little to assuage the frustrations of those who believe that CSIS is in bed with the country’s energy sector.

The association alleged CSIS monitored the activities of the environmental organizations ForestEthics — now known as Stand.earth, Sierra Club BC, Dogwood Initiative and Leadnow.ca.

The watchdog rejected the complaint, but as part of its appeal to the Federal Court, the BCCLA has won the right to release 19 volumes of testimony from its original hearing.

“[Redacted name] testified regarding the biannual classified briefings held by the NRcan and the fact that this forum is used by the service to share classified information with energy sector stakeholders, such as the NEB,” reads part of the report summing up the testimony of “CSIS witness 2.”

Another CSIS witness, whose identity was also redacted, testified CSIS provided a briefing room for Natural Resources Canada to brief private sector interests on security threats, with the department being pinned as the “lead agency” for such briefings.

The committee’s report said CSIS participated in meetings with Natural Resources Canada and the private sector, including the petroleum industry, at the spy service’s headquarters, but added these briefings involved national security matters. The committee found CSIS did not share information about the environmental groups in question with the National Energy Board or the petroleum industry. The BCCLA disputes that finding.

During one review committee hearing, a CSIS official said information volunteered by energy companies was put in a spy service database.

“It is not actionable. It just sits there,” the official said. “But should something happen, should violence erupt, then we will go back to this and be able to see that we had the information. … it is just information that was given to us, and we need to log it.

“Should something happen after and we hadn’t logged it, then we are at fault for not keeping the information.”

The watchdog concluded CSIS collected some information about peaceful anti-petroleum groups, but only incidentally in the process of investigating legitimate threats to projects such as oil pipelines.

A CSIS witness testified the spy service “is not in the business of investigating environmentalists because they are advocating for an environmental cause, period.”

Still, the review committee urged CSIS to ensure it was keeping only “strictly necessary” information, as stipulated in the law governing the spy service.

The $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline project, which would have carried oil from outside Edmonton to a terminal on B.C.’s north coast, was initially approved by the Conservative government in 2014.

It faced fierce opposition from environmental groups and some First Nations, who were concerned about the threat the project posed to the Great Bear Rainforest and sensitive coastal environments.

In 2016, federal approval for the project was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal, which ruled the government had failed to adequately consult First Nations. Its fate was sealed later that year, when it was rejected by the Liberal cabinet due to environmental concerns.

The CSIS Act governs the spy agency’s mandate and allows it to investigate threats to Canada. But that power does not extend to “lawful advocacy, protest, or dissent.”

The level of redaction varies in the more than 8,000 pages published Monday by the BCCLA. Except for some testimony and the names of CSIS witnesses, the majority of the CSIS watchdog report is unredacted.

However, major sections of other documents are almost entirely blacked out. One two-page document is censored except for a paragraph that reads: “The above information has been collected and reported to assist the Service in assessing the threat environment and the potential for serious violence stemming from (redacted).”

Similarly a five-page document is almost entirely redacted except for the date and a paragraph that reads: “OR Liason shared the above information with CGOC, OR, HQ, IAB, ITAC on 2013 03 05 (redacted)…The above information has been collected and reported to assist the Service in assessing the threat environment and the potential for threat-related violence stemming from (redacted) protest/demonstrations.”

The “best-case scenario is that our allegations are actually untrue, we don’t think they are though,” McDermott of the BCCLA said Monday. “The more that comes out … the more we feel that our initial impulse was right that this was illegal monitoring.”

“We won the right to disclose these documents today after a fight, and we’re going to continue to challenge the findings and the gag order in Federal Court.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Enbridge said the company “takes appropriate action to ensure the security of our facilities and our people and support the prosecution of those involved in illegal activity to the fullest extent of the law.”

“We will not discuss our security measures publicly as doing so would compromise the safety and security of our facilities and our people,” it said.

The federal government and CSIS have always maintained they are proactive about collecting information on issues that can be construed as being a future threat to national security.

And that does not mean massive surveillance, nor does it mean individuals are being actively monitored or under investigation, according to Srdjan Vucetic, University of Ottawa public and international affairs professor.

It is their mandate to protect critical infrastructure that may or may not be privately owned, he added. Vucetic cited cases in Canada in the last decade from each side of the political spectrum that would be cause for concern, such as “violent targeting of energy critical infrastructure” coming from the left and terrorist activities on the right.

And in a polarized political climate, Vucetic said one of the biggest questions of our age will be how to understand increasing reactions among civil society to rebel against capitalism.

“And there is no good answer,” he said. “Every liberal democracy is dealing with this debate.”

In 2014, there had been a “series” of attacks against Canadian critical infrastructure as well as an international crisis in Syria where officers were being deployed, said Stephanie Carvin, former national security analyst and assistant professor at Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

“The service was trying to address all this and under a lot of pressure from the government to do so,” she explained. “The idea that you would allocate a significant amount of resources to monitoring peaceful protesters makes no sense.”

Carver said the redacted documents do not suggest massive surveillance, but rather the spy agency was collecting information as “strictly necessary” as it relates to possible threats to national security.

Still, the agency isn’t “doing themselves any favours” by releasing highly-redacted documents, she added. And it’s not just the energy sector where information sharing is prevalent.

Carver said her biggest concern is co-opting national security concerns for political ends — especially in the energy sector.

“This is not helpful for our national security issues in Canada,” she said. “We’ve seen this get polarized in the U.S. and the negative impact it’s had. I worry about Canada moving in the same direction.”

The civil liberties association has described a chilling effect for advocacy groups from the spy agency’s information-gathering.

“I’m pretty sure we’re being monitored,” said Rosalyn Hart, who lives near the Burnaby Mountain tank farm, a facility used to store petroleum products that is also the terminus of an expanded Trans Mountain pipeline.

Hart has been a member of a Burnaby group opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion for the past couple of years. Protesters are filmed and photographed at rallies regularly, she said.

“There are always RCMP officers with cameras,” Hart said.

An RCMP spokesperson said that if video evidence is gathered at a protest, it would be used for investigative purposes or to document actions taken by officer or protesters. Any video would be subject to privacy and disclosure laws, he said.

Just this past Friday a group of protesters were walking on Burnaby Mountain to see what work was taking place and officers filmed them as they passed by the gates to the tank farm, Hart said.

“Our response is we just smile and wave at them. We’re not breaking the law, we’re walking on public paths.”

“We’re supposed to live in a country where we have the rights of freedom of assembly and this seems to be violating that right,” she said.

Hart urged those opposed to the pipeline to keep speaking out.

“If we cower under them then we’re giving in to a Fascist state,” she said.

“What’s more important, CSIS collecting some information on you or down the road our world just falling apart?”

With files from Jim Bronskill, the Canadian Press

Correction – July 8, 2019: A previous version of this story misspelled the surname of Stephanie Carvin, assistant professor at Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. The story has been updated.

Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia

Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank

Jeremy Nuttall is the lead investigative reporter for Star Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports

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