Aboriginal communities and environmental groups

Aboriginal communities and environmental groups

What Happened

Since 2006, according to documents obtained through the Access to Information Act, Aboriginal communities and environmental groups have been under a special program of government surveillance, and the information was shared among security agencies, government departments and industry about groups that oppose resource development projects. 

CSIS, the RCMP, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and the Department of Natural Resources Canada, along with other agencies and governmental departments, are alleged to have been engaging in surveillance of Aboriginal communities and environmental groups whom they believe are likely to engage in protests and acts of civil disobedience.

Surveillance of Aboriginal Communities: INAC & the RCMP

In 2010, journalists and academics obtained documents through Access to Information Requests. The former Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) was shown to have been monitoring closely the activities and protests of certain First Nations groups. INAC produced weekly reports about dozens of communities that it referred to as “hot spots” and “sources of potential unrest.” INAC believed that “splinter groups” of “Aboriginal Extremists” were leading protest actions in these communities.

The ‘hot spot’ communities included: Tobique First Nation, Tsartlip First Nation, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) First Nation, Six Nations, Grassy Narrows, Stz’uminous First Nation, the Likhts’amsiyu Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Gitxaala First Nation, Wagmatcook First Nation, Innu of Labrador, Pikangikum First Nation.

In a presentation in March 2007, INAC explained that a “Hotspot Reporting System” had been created in 2006 to undertake “continuous environmental monitoring,” and “continuous information dissemination.” Cases were summarized in a “Hotspot Binder.” A “Standing Information Sharing Forum” was also formed. Chaired by the RCMP, it consisted of “weekly conference calls” with, among others, INAC, CSIS, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, and Transportation Canada.

In response to these revelations, Gord Elliot of Tsartlip First Nation stated: "We are outraged to discover these same ministries [that we work with in trust and good faith] are spying on us. We were identified as a ‘hot spot’ because we had a roadblock demonstration to voice our concerns about the treaty process and non-acknowledgment of Section 35 [Aboriginal] Constitutional Rights and Title.”

Journalists who filed Access to Information Requests also report that an RCMP  intelligence unit known as the Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group (JIG) was in operation between 2007 and 2010 to survey First Nations groups engaging in protest. An RCMP spokesperson reportedly commented that while the Aboriginal JIG has been dismantled, “we cannot confirm that RCMP divisions are not performing Aboriginal JIG activities under another name or program.”

According to a slideshow, dated March 2009, the Aboriginal JIG included members from the RCMP National Security Criminal Investigations branch, which investigates threats to national security and criminal extremism or terrorism. Its mandate was to “collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence on tensions and conflicts occurring within Aboriginal communities (...) as they may escalate to civil disobedience and unrest.” The mandate focused on “critical infrastructure,” blockades, and “demonstrations, protests or gatherings concerning energy sector development.”

In promoting the activities of the Aboriginal JIG, the slideshow informed that the Aboriginal JIG had members in the field acting as the organization’s “eyes and ears,” as well as an “extensive network of contacts throughout Canada and internationally” able to “provide information on activist groups who are promoting Aboriginal issues within your area.”

Sharing intelligence with the private sector: RCMP & Natural Resources Canada

The Aboriginal JIG also appeared to be part of a practice of sharing intelligence information with the private sector. The 2009 Aboriginal JIG slideshow indicated that the intelligence unit provided weekly situation reports to about 450 recipients in “law enforcement, government, and energy/private sector” and “public safety special bulletin[s]” as needed. It also produced an “Annual Aboriginal communities of concern strategic intelligence report,” a version of which was sent to “industry partners.” In a 2011 interview, an RCMP spokesperson refused to name the private sector companies receiving these reports, however the spokesperson confirmed that private companies also supplied information to the unit about the "current criminal threat environment for their facilities."

More details regarding the extent of information sharing between industry and federal agencies were revealed in 2012 by additional documents acquired through Access to Information Requests. According to journalists, these documents reveal that Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) provided reports to the energy sector containing “unclassified information and intelligence” to about 300 stakeholders several times a week. Further, in-person classified briefings have taken place between federal agencies and the private sector twice a year since 2005. The draft agenda for one such secret briefing indicates that it took place in November of 2010 at the CSIS Headquarters in Ottawa and was organized by NRCan with the help of the RCMP and CSIS.  

In response to these revelations, a spokesperson for NRCan stated that these meetings enabled energy infrastructure stakeholders to “plan and develop measures to protect their facilities” and that meetings of this nature accord with the department’s mandate to “engage with partners and key stakeholders.” The spokesperson asserted that NRCan does not monitor environmentalist groups. 

Treating Environmentalists as a National Security Threat

Journalists also report that documents obtained through Access to Information Requests reveal that as early as 2010, the CSIS Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC) was engaging in intelligence gathering regarding environmental groups. The following year, the treatment of environmentalists as possible terrorist threats was made explicit by the federal government’s 2011 Counter-Terrorism Strategy policy document, where environmentalism, along with animal-rights and anti-capitalism are listed among the “extremist” causes that might lead “domestic issue-based groups” to engage in violence.

This policy set the tone for public allegations made over the course of 2012 by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver against environmental groups. In an open letter dated January 2012, he declared that “environmentalists and other radical groups…threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda” and that “they use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.”

Following these statements, in June 2012, the RCMP expanded its Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) program to Alberta. This decision was based on Alberta’s “strong economy supported by the province’s natural resources and the need to protect critical infrastructure” from “criminal extremism and terrorism.” INSETs were originally created in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal following the events of 9/11. Each INSET brings together employees of CSIS, provincial and municipal police services and border patrols.

Gilles Michaud, Assistant Commissioner of the 32-member Alberta INSET, stated that it is tasked with gathering intelligence on groups “that pose a threat to critical infrastructure, to our economy, to our safety that is based on either religious, political or ideological goals.”  

John Bennett, Director of the Sierra Club Canada, reacted negatively to the creation of the Alberta counter-terrorism unit. Recalling the federal government’s rhetoric around the environment and activists, he stated that the Alberta INSET is “part of their overall propaganda campaign to try to convince Canadians that environmentalists are somehow a threat.” Similarly, Bill Phipps from KAIROS described the Alberta counter-terrorism unit as an attempt at the “vilification and intimidation” of citizen groups.

Also responding to these issues, Keith Stewart of Greenpeace stated: “The only threat we pose is the threat to change people’s minds, and changing public opinion—and I understand why oil companies might be worried about that. I understand why government might be worried about that, but I think that is a fundamental part of democracy and they just have to learn to live with free speech.” 

Surveillance of opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline: RCMP

These reported practices of surveillance of Aboriginal groups and environmentalists appear to converge when it comes to intelligence gathering regarding opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline. Journalists report that documents obtained in 2012 in response to Access to Information Requests reveal that the Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of northern B.C. First Nations who oppose Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, has been put under surveillance by the RCMP. Reportedly, the activities described in these documents include monitoring of websites, Facebook, and online photo accounts, as well as alleged surveillance of private meeting between First Nations communities and environmental groups. The impetus for this surveillance appears to be a concern for “acts of protest and civil disobedience.”

The documents obtained include monthly RCMP intelligence reports. One such report reportedly states that Enbridge “will experience increasingly intense protest activity due to the environmental sensitivity of the Northern Gateway path, combined with the fact that the territory has never been ceded to the Crown by First Nations in B.C.”

In response to the public revelation of these reports, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, stated that this surveillance is “consistent with the Harper government attack on First Nations and environmentalists.” In his view “…the Harper government and [Natural Resources] Minister Oliver are taking all measures to silence our voices” and are “moving toward a very totalitarian approach to Canadian values like freedom of speech.” 

Resource Extraction: “A pattern of convergence among activist groups”

The surveillance of groups opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline demonstrates that one link between the federal government’s surveillance of First Nations and environmentalists is these groups’ common concerns raised by resource extraction projects.

In its mandate, the RCMP’s Aboriginal JIG described the grievances that have caused Aboriginal groups to engage in civil disobedience in terms of “land claims, treaty dispute, environmental issues, economic and sovereignty disputes,” among others. Journalists report that in documents obtained through Access to Information Requests, the RCMP informed that the “vast majority” of the Aboriginal protests and actions that it monitors are “related to lands and resources,” and “most are incited by development activities on [Aboriginal] traditional territories.”

A 2009 RCMP Aboriginal JIG report observes a “pattern of convergence among activists groups” where non-Aboriginal groups are focusing on issues of concern for Aboriginal groups. Researchers also report having obtained a 2008 assessment prepared by CSIS that advises that “multi-issue extremists and aboriginal extremists may pursue common causes, and both groups have demonstrated the intent and the capability to carry out attacks against critical infrastructure in Canada.” Finally, in a 2010 report drafted by the G20 Joint Intelligence Group (JIG), twenty-two “domestic groups of concern” included organizations such as Defenders of the Land, the Indigenous People Solidarity Movement Organization, Greenpeace, as well as Oxfam Canada and the Council of Canadians

No Clear Justification for Surveillance of Activists

The surveillance practices against Aboriginal and environmentalist groups, as documented through Access to Information Requests, raises serious questions about the justification for these practices. 

On this point, the Assistant Commissioner of the Alberta INSET stated that “there has to be violence attached to [groups’] activities in order for us to pay attention to them,” but that “that being said, in our role of preventing these threats…it is important that intelligence is collected against the activities of groups before they become violent.”

One report produced in 2009 by the Aboriginal JIG states that it “does not assess acts of lawful protest or legitimate dissent.” However, this same document acknowledged that “within the last 12 months, no violent acts associated with Aboriginal extremism were reported” and that "overall, occupations and protest in Canada associated to Aboriginal communities have experienced low levels of violence."

In sum, documents obtained through Access to Information requests point toward widespread surveillance practices of environmentalists and Aboriginal groups, often carried out by national security and anti-terrorism units. These secret practices occur in the context of Minister Oliver’s public accusations against environmentalists. However, the groups being subjected to surveillance appear to present neither a credible threat of violence nor a threat to national security. This sends the message that the federal government views any opposition to its resource development agenda to be illegitimate and a possible target of surveillance. 


Relevant Dates:

  • January 2012: In an open letter, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver declares that environmentalists are “radicals” who “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.”
  • March 2012: Canada’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy lists environmentalists, along with animal-rights defenders and anti-capitalist groups, as “extremists” and “terrorist threats.”
  • May 2012: Documents obtained through Access to Information Requests reveal that the Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of First Nations in British Columbia who are opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline, has been put under surveillance by the RCMP. 
  • June 2012: The RCMP announces the creation of an Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) in Alberta in order to protect its “critical infrastructure” from “criminal extremism and terrorism.”

Role or Position

Aboriginal communities and environmental groups that have been targeted by the government and placed under surveillance include: Tobique First Nation, Tsartlip First Nation, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) First Nation, Six Nations, Grassy Narrows, Stz’uminous First Nation, the Likhts’amsiyu Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Gitxaala First Nation, Wagmatcook First Nation, Innu of Labrador, Pikangikum First Nation, and the Yinka Dene Alliance. Groups that are listed as “domestic groups of concern” include Defenders of the Land, the Indigenous People Solidarity Movement Organization, Greenpeace, as well as Oxfam Canada and the Council of Canadians

Implications and Consequences

  • Democracy: The public demonization and secret surveillance of environmentalists and Aboriginal groups who do not present a credible threat to national security or a strong likelihood of committing violent acts is undemocratic because it may weaken or eliminate these groups’ capacity to express their viewpoints and opinions regarding resource extraction policies. The participation of diverse voices is essential to debating the public interest of resource development projects.
  • Freedom of speech and opinion: The federal government appears to be surveilling, defaming and criminalizing Aboriginal and environmentalist groups primarily based on their political opposition to certain resource extraction projects. Where there is no credible threat of criminal activity, selecting individuals or groups for surveillance simply on the basis on their opinion is a violation of their right to express themselves without fear that the government will act to inflict adverse consequences. This in turn generates a widespread chill on dissent and free expression.
  • Equality: By making a strong commitment to a certain model of resource extraction, the federal government's actions have an adverse impact on those Aboriginal communities and individuals who have a special relationship to the affected land and environment. For some of these communities and individuals, this relationship is rooted in the core of who they are and their identity as Aboriginal peoples. Thus, when the government criminalizes opposition to this model through surveillance practices, Aboriginal peoples are disproportionately and negatively affected.

Date published: 4 March 2013

Photo from Wayne Cuddington/Ottawa Citizen, Idle No More protest in Ottawa, January 2013