Volume 49, Issue 2: March/April 2015

First Nations in the Crosshairs

As Canada moves to protect resource exploitation, agencies accelerate spying on Indigenous activists.

Graphic from VHS jacket for the film Blockade: Algonquins Defend the Forest (1991). Written and directed by Boyce Richardson, the film recounts the struggle of Barrier Lake Algonquins to defend their land against clear-cut logging.

The Harper government’s agenda of aggressively expanding and accelerating resource extraction projects has identified Indigenous Peoples as the primary obstacle to this vision. As a result, since 2006, the Canadian state has intensified surveillance of Indigenous people, groups, and peaceful political action. This surveillance is carried out by a web of police, intelligence agencies, government bureaucracies, regulators and private corporations. While Indigenous self-determination struggles are not the only targets of the national security apparatus, Indigenous activists and activism are more likely than others to increasingly be subject to this surveillance and criminalization.

In recent years, Canada’s national security has largely been reorganized around securing critical infrastructure from natural and “human-induced” threats. “Securing critical infrastructure” is now used to justify policing and surveillance of Indigenous activism, as “civil unrest” is considered a type of “human-induced” emergency that threatens critical infrastructure. This new language exposes Indigenous people to higher risk of criminalization by broadening the state’s “legitimate” surveillance activities. In its 2009 National Strategy for Critical Infrastructure, Public Safety Canada identifies 10 sectors as comprising Canada’s critical infrastructure: energy and utilities, finance, food, transportation, government, information and communication technology, health, water, safety and manufacturing.

This framework implicates Indigenous communities as “threats to national security” where “critical infrastructure” is located on or near First Nations communities, or when the assertion of Indigenous rights and jurisdiction creates perceived insecurities for the state and corporations. Whether through legal challenges or direct actions such as blockades, Indigenous activism can directly and indirectly affect critical infrastructure, especially in the energy and utilities, manufacturing, and transportation sectors. This has become the primary rationale of police forces, intelligence agencies, government departments and private corporations for their surveillance of Indigenous communities, groups, and individuals.

With the federal government’s introduction of Bill C-51 at the end of January 2015, surveillance is likely to intensify. The legislation goes even farther than the information-intelligence sharing processes established through the National Security Policy and criminalizes “advocating or promoting” “terrorism.” C-51 gives CSIS policing powers, allowing CSIS to not only develop intelligence, but also to act upon it.

CSIS and the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre

Housed within Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre was established in 2004, as part of the National Security Policy, in order to increase intelligence gathering and sharing between agencies. Renamed the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre in 2011, it centralizes the collection and analysis of national security intelligence from partner agencies including CSIS, RCMP, Transport Canada, Canada Border Services Agency, Revenue Canada, Communications Security Establishment, National Defence and other government departments, including the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Targets of surveillance by the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre have included:

  • The 2007 Assembly of First Nations National Day of Action called by National Chief Phil Fontaine. Aboriginal Affairs representatives were embedded within the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre before and during the national day of action to facilitate information sharing
  • Indigenous protests in the summer of 2008; the Six Nations reclamation, blockades in Tyendinaga in 2007 and 2008; all focus on potential for “violence” and/or critical infrastructure disruption, and the possibility of sparking wider mobilizations. “Aboriginal communities” and warrior societies have also been discussed in the 2010 and 2012 “Bi-annual Update[s] on the Threat from Terrorists and Extremists” under “domestic-issue-based extremism.”

These threat assessments note that “the right of Canadians to engage in peaceful protest is a cornerstone of Canada’s democratic society. ITAC is concerned only where there is a threat of politically motivated violence or where protests threaten the functioning of critical infrastructure.” However, many Indigenous protests take the form of peaceful blockades, which can be interpreted as “threatening the functioning of critical infrastructure” and get lumped in with terrorism under this framework.

Art by Gord Hill, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation whose terri-tory is located on northern Vancouver Island. An artist and political activist, Hill maintains the Warrior Publications website.

The Canadian Forces National Counter-Intelligence Unit

In 2005, it was revealed that “radical Native American organisations, such as the Mohawk Warrior Society” were included as an example of “insurgency” in the Canadian Force’s draft Counter-Insurgency Manual. Although it was removed from the final manual, a broad spectrum of Indigenous activism has come under the gaze of National Defence intelligence activities. Through the Security Intelligence Liaison Program, the Department of Defence is able to exchange information and intelligence with civilian police and CSIS.

The Defence Department has engaged in surveillance of Tyendinaga, the Six Nations reclamation, anti-HST protests in 2010, Red Power United protests during the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto, and Idle No More. After the reports on Idle No More were publicized, the Defence Department rationalized that these reports concerned activities that potentially “impact on Canadian defence operations and personnel,” which includes road closures that can affect the movement of personnel and equipment.

RCMP: Criminal Intelligence and National Security Criminal Investigations

In 2006, Haudenosaunee activists from Six Nations reclaimed land belonging to them under the Crown’s Haldimand Proclamation after the American Revolution. Blindsided by this development, in 2007 the RCMP established an Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group in preparation for the Assembly of First Nations’ 2007 National Day of Action. The Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group was mandated to “produce and disseminate intelligence concerning conflict and issues associated with Aboriginal communities” with partners including CSIS, the Ontario Provincial Police, Sûreté du Québec, Natural Resources and Aboriginal Affairs Canada.

In weekly “Situation” and annual “Communities of Concern” reports, the Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group profiled a number of Indigenous communities with specific ongoing or potential conflicts that could lead to “civil disobedience and unrest.” These include “grievances pertaining to land claims, treaty disputes, environmental issues, economic and sovereignty disputes, internal conflict and social issues.” By 2009, these reports were being disseminated to approximately 450 “partners,” many of them private corporations. The Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group was officially disbanded in November 2009 and monitoring of Indigenous protests involving threats to critical infrastructure became the full responsibility of National Security Criminal Investigations and its Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Team.

By RCMP estimates, at least 85 per cent of critical infrastructure in Canada is privately owned. The Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Team’s monitoring is therefore significantly dependent on the participation of corporate third parties who are both “clients” (recipients of intelligence) and sources of information and intelligence. Twice a year the RCMP and CSIS hold briefing sessions with these private partners. The purpose of these briefings is to exchange intelligence, especially with energy companies, on matters of critical infrastructure security. These spaces allow participants to engage face to face and, thus, “off the record.”

Through these partnerships, corporations and other private stakeholders can identify their opponents as targets for surveillance. One of the key mechanisms for this is the Suspicious Incident Reporting system. This is a web-based portal that owners and operators can access and report “suspicious incidents” relating to their infrastructure and operations.

According to National Security Criminal Investigations, Indigenous communities, activists, and protests are not targets for information gathering, but if there is a “national security nexus,” it will be investigated. This requires an identifiable threat of violence or serious criminal activity in relation to critical infrastructure. Yet intelligence reports consistently refer to the overall lack of violence in Indigenous protests. However, the potential, however low, provides the rationale for continued monitoring.

Graphic from December 2012 poster honoring 10 years of the Grassy Narrows Blockade, north of Kenora, Ontario. Resource extraction has netted fabulous profits for corporations while bringing devastation and mercury poisoning to the Anishinabek peoples.

Concrete examples that have recently come to light show how this logic has worked to bring Indigenous activism within the folds of national security intelligence. In one case, in 2010, concerns about possible actions disrupting Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project formed the basis for the RCMP opening a Suspicious Incident Report file on Indigenous environmental rights activist Clayton Thomas-Muller, who travelled to the Unist’ot’en protection camp. While RCMP intelligence analysts concluded that there was no national security nexus, this was overruled by another member because the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), of which Thomas-Muller was a member at the time, was categorized as an “extremist” group.

With the new provisions introduced through Bill C-51, police and CSIS agents would not need to show that there is a specific threat or act to justify investigations. Merely “promoting” or “advocating” actions that could disrupt critical infrastructure — which could include expressing support for direct action tactics — would be sufficient grounds. So while it is uncertain whether an activist would ever actually be charged with this offence, police and intelligence agencies would have discretionary power to investigate without an identifiable threat to an individual or property.

The Indian Agent 2.0

While the role of Indian Affairs in the surveillance of Indigenous communities is not new, what is significant is the degree to which its surveillance practices are increasingly formalized and integrated within the broader security apparatus. In the proliferating emergency management framework of national security, Aboriginal Affairs has had a central role as both “subject matter expert” for other agencies and as a major source of information about Indigenous communities and activism. This latter role has grown since the 2007 federal Emergency Management Act required all federal departments to implement an “all-hazards” approach to emergency management and to manage its own “risk environment” — the department itself and the sector under its administration. For Aboriginal Affairs, this includes risks both affecting and emanating from First Nations reserve communities. According to its National Emergency Management Plan, “all-hazards” includes situations involving issues of “civil unrest.” As with the RCMP’s creation of the Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group, the catalyst for formalization of Aboriginal Affairs’ Emergency and Issues Management Directorate was the impending 2007 National Day of Action.

The Emergency Operations Centre produces situation reports, notifications, weekly hotspot reports, and weekend summary reports. The most common types of events in these reports are forest fires, flooding and “civil unrest.” Unlike the RCMP and CSIS, Aboriginal Affairs monitoring is not limited to people or activities where there is a perceived criminal activity or national security dimension. There are therefore a much wider range of “issues” captured in this surveillance. These reports are disseminated throughout Aboriginal Affairs as well as to external partners. Bill C-51 further expands requirements for government departments like Aboriginal Affairs to share private information with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Government Operations Centre

The Government Operations Centre is housed in Public Safety Canada and is the centralized hub for situational awareness relating to critical infrastructure threats. The information and intelligence it collects comes from federal, territorial and provincial law enforcement, intelligence, emergency management agencies, federal and provincial government departments, and other “stakeholders.” In turn, it provides reports to these partners. The Centre’s purpose is to provide constant national-level situational awareness to support “strategic level” coordination for government responses to issues and emergencies.

RCMP raid on First Nations blockade at Rexton, N.B., October 17, 2013.

Despite the insistence by the Government Operations Centre and other emergency management entities that their activities are solely concerned with threats to critical infrastructure, this is contradicted by their monitoring of protests where an emergency or critical infrastructure dimension is non-existent. In the case of Idle No More, for example, GOC Situation Reports identified events such as flash mobs, horse rides and the open house on Victoria Island to visit with Chief Spence during her hunger strike; they also documented teach-ins, fundraisers and community gatherings. While concerns about rail, highway or road blockades could be justified — using the emergency management logic — as falling under the GOC purview, events such as teach-ins and fundraisers reflect the political interests underlying this kind of monitoring.

This overview of entities and processes involved in the surveillance of Indigenous activism is not exhaustive, but aims to show the scale and complexity of practices occurring on a regular basis as part of the national security apparatus of the Canadian settler state. This national security apparatus is not a static one — strategies, relationships and entities are constantly emerging as well as receding. The recent introduction of Bill C-51 will further shape this security landscape.

One of numerous cop snipers in a paramilitary operation to crush Indigenous protest against shale gas exploration

What appears to be an increasing surveillance of Indigenous communities and activists can be contextualized by the implementation of an emergency management paradigm of national security concerned with critical infrastructure, and the prioritization of resource expansion projects. While this context has broader implications for dissent, they are especially significant for Indigenous self-determination struggles because the assertion of Indigenous rights and jurisdiction are fundamentally challenges to the settler state’s claim to territorial and political authority.

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