Environmental groups in Canada

What Happened

From 2006-2015, the Conservative government defunded and attempted to discredit leading and respected environmental research and advocacy groups. Environmentalists were portrayed as a threat to Canadian security. Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act confirm that the RCMP and CSIS were monitoring environmental groups opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline. This information from intelligence gathering appears to have been shared with the National Energy Board (NEB) and private petroleum industry security firms.  


The Conservative government’s hostility toward environmental groups was the result of its general opposition to environmental protection. During this period, the key tactics included: weakening of legislative protections, suppressing environmental research, public statements denouncing environmentalists as potential threats to Canada, and severe cuts to government departments, including Environment Canada (EC), Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and Parks Canada..

Surveillance and the “Security Culture”

A series of Access to Information requests revealed that Canadian government agencies have been spying on environmental groups and individual activists for several years. The documents obtained through these requests reveal that this information is being shared between federal agencies and private industry.

In 2012, journalists reported that since 2005, the government has been orchestrating bi-annual briefings that provide energy companies with classified intelligence from CSIS, the RCMP, and other federal agencies. A Natural Resources spokesperson stated that the classified briefings enabled the owners and operators of energy infrastructure to develop measures to protect their facilities from environmental activists. This sort of information-sharing suggests that the federal government is working closely with the private sector; as several environmentalists have noted, there is a worrying trend of blurring the lines between the government security apparatus and the private sector, with little separation between the federal government and the fossil fuel industry. Also in 2012, Canadian media outlets reported a declassified RCMP intelligence report from September 2011 calling activists “a growing radicalized environmentalist faction.” The report was compiled with input from several other agencies and departments, including: the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Defence Department, DFO, and Transport Canada.

There is evidence that this behaviour is continuing apace. For instance, in a January 2014 report obtained by Greenpeace, the RCMP labelled the “anti-petroleum” movement as a growing and violent threat to Canada’s security. For their part, the RCMP has consistently denied spying on environmental groups. RCMP spokesperson Greg Cox asserted that the RCMP does not monitor any environmental protest group, despite documentary evidence to the contrary.

Spying and Monitoring

In February 2014, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) filed a complaint with the Security Intelligence Review committee (CSIS’ watchdog) and the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP (the RCMP complaints department). The complaints allege that the two agencies illegally monitored and spied on peaceful and democratic activities of environmental groups opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project.

As stated in the BCCLA’s complaint, the RCMP’s collaboration and information sharing with the National Energy Board and other interested parties on issues pertaining to the development of the oil sands may have undermined the Board’s proceedings. The RCMP allegedly gathered information about parties to a judicial proceeding and shared that information directly with the tribunal and with another party to the proceeding – namely Enbridge, giving rise to a perception of partisan activities by a natinal police force. 

CSIS is currently in the process of reviewing this complaint.

Vilification and Smearing

Journalists have also reported 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.” That same year, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver publicly accused environmental groups of being funded by “foreign special interest groups” seeking to undermine the Canadian economy.

The labelling of environmental groups as “extremists” was part of a coordinated effort to undermine their message and position them as security threats requiring intensive monitoring and surveillance. Indeed, several legal experts have concluded that environmental groups are one of the principal targets of changes brought about through Canada’s newest anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51: Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015.

Bill C-51 identifies “activity that undermines the security of Canada” as anything that interferes with the economic or financial stability of Canada. As such, it allows CSIS immense discretion to take measures to reduce what it perceives to be threats to the security of Canada. One of the bill’s key components is that it purports to enable information sharing to protect against interference with Canada’s “critical infrastructure.” As noted by Ecojustice, legal scholars, Indigenous leaders, and environmentalists have expressed concern that this term could be interpreted to apply to things like pipelines, oil and gas developments, and hydro-transmission towers. Because of its broad framing, the legislation will allow CSIS to label activists who oppose certain government polices – such as the economic development of the oil sands – as terrorists, and subject to state-sanctioned surveillance. Given the fact that government agencies have already taken to painting environmentalists in this light, many environmentalists see this as a foregone conclusion.

Selective Defunding and Targeted Auditing

Voices-Voix has documented several cases where the Harper government had cut or reduced funding to progressive environmental organizations. These include: Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS), Ecology Action Centre, Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), National Round Table on the Environmental and the Economy(NRTEE), Polar Environmental Atmosphere Research Laboratory (PEARL), and the Sierra Club of British Columbia.

Charitable tax audits were another means that the government employs to target environmental organizations that campaign to protect the environment. These audits are particularly troubling because the increased scrutiny appears to be linked to pro-oil lobbyists. A group called "Ethical Oil", a non-profit with strong links to the Conservative Part of Canada, filed formal complaints with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) against at least six leading environmental charities. In all but two cases, the charity was placed under audit following the complaint (Tides Canada’s two charities were already under audit when the complaints were filed. Environmental Defence was already being audited as well, but following Ethical Oil’s complaint, a promise that everything was well turned into a negative findings letter.). For instance:

  • Environmental Defence (audit began in 2011; complaint filed by Ethical Oil in March 2012)
  • The David Suzuki Foundation (audit began in May 2013; complaint filed by Ethical Oil in April 2012)
  • Pembina Foundation (audit began in Dec. 2013; complaint filed by Ethical Oil in April 2013)
  • Sierra Club Canada Foundation (audit began in May 2015; complaint filed by Ethical Oil in Dec. 2012)
  • Tides Canada Initiatives Society (audit began in 2011; complaint filed by Ethical Oil in August 2012)
  • Tides Canada Foundation (audit began in 2011; complaint filed by Ethical Oil in August 2012)

Other environmental groups that have recently undergone invasive charitable tax audits by the CRA Charities Directorate include: Ecology Action Centre, Équiterre, ForestEthics, and West Coast Environmental Law Research Foundation. Invasive charitable audits occupy a large portion of the affected organization’s resources, effectively curtailing their advocacy and/or research efforts. Additionally, charitable audits can lead to the loss of charitable status, subsequently leading to a loss of credibility and a decline in donations. In 2014, Members of Parliament Murray Rankin and Megan Leslie asserted, “These targeted audits are effectively muzzling public interest groups.”

Legislative Changes

The Harper government significantly and systematically weakened laws that protect the environment. In 2011, the Conservative government pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol citing scepticism about the cost and efficacy of international efforts to curb climate change.

According a report from Canada,.com's Mike De Souza, when the Harper government changed the Environmental Protection Act in one of its omnibus bills, almost 3,000 environmental reviews were summarily dropped. Indeed, “out of 2,970 project reviews that were stopped by the legislation that rewrote Canada’s environmental laws and weakened federal oversight on industrial development, 678 involved fossil fuel energy and 248 involved a pipeline, including proposals from Alberta-based energy companies, Enbridge and TransCanada.” Examples of legislation that have been modified under the Harper administration include the Fisheries Act, Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, Species at Risk Act (SARA), and Navigable Waters Protection Act.

According to David Schindler, a professor at the University of Alberta world-renowned for his research on water pollutants, the Fisheries Act  was modified from being a law that afforded general protection for fish and their habitat to one that only protects those species deemed important parts of Commercial, Recreational, and Aboriginal fisheries. Similarly, under the Conservative government, politicians now have the final say in whether a species in decline can be listed under SARA; , the Conservatives delayed the listing of 67 species. Meanwhile, the government has also cut resources dedicated to the Environmental Assessment Agency and the Navigable Waters Protection Act has been significantly weakened by the removal of provisions that allowed for pipelines, bridges, and dams to be challenged for the protection of the waterways. In short, according to Schindler, “the Harper government has used omnibus bills to reduce protection of Canadian wildlife, plants, and their habitats, including marine habitats, by eliminating consultation with experts and concerned stakeholders and putting decision-making in the hands of politicians and their appointees. These changes have been made to ease the way for industrial development, and have the additional benefit of reducing citizen involvement and understanding in the process.”

Suppression of Environmental Research

Simultaneously, the Conservatives have been suppressing environmental research by defunding research facilities and placing scientists under gag orders. For instance, in 2012, Environment Canada researchers attending the International Polar Year conference in Montreal were shadowed by media handlers tasked with squelching any conversation between researchers and the press. In 2013, Maclean’s reported that David Tarasick, an Environment Canada scientist, was prevented from doing interviews about a Nature paper on an unprecedented hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic in the fall of 2011. Similarly, Mary Waiser, an Environment Canada water researcher, was denied permission to speak about two papers she had written for the department disclosing the presence of chemicals and pharmaceuticals in Saskatchewan’s Wascana Creek, downstream from Regina’s sewage treatment plant. However, the suppression of research goes far beyond silencing individuals or preventing scientists from communicating with the public or their colleagues.

In 2013, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada hired the Environics Insitute in 2013 to conduct a survey of their members about their working conditions. They reported that 73% of the respondents who worked for Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) agreed with the statement “I am aware of cases where the health and safety of Canadians (or environmental sustainability) has been compromised because of political interference with our scientific work.” Additionally, 67% of the respondents at DFO and 59% at Environment Canada (EC) agreed with the statement “I am aware of cases where my Department or Agency has suppressed or declined to release information, and where this led to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions”.

Surveilling, monitoring, vilifying and smearing environmental groups parallels what is happening in the public service.

Relevant Dates

  • 2005: Federal government begins orchestrating bi-annual briefings that provide energy companies with classified intelligence from CSIS, the RCMP, and other federal agencies.
  • 2006: Newly elected Harper government ends Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences’ (CFCAS) funding.
  • August 2008: Federal government rescinds $100,000 funding contract for Sierra Club of B.C.
  • 2011: Canada withdrawals from the Kyoto Protocol.
  • 2011: Federal government’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy lists environmental groups as “extremists” likely to cause violence.
  • 2011: Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) begins selectively auditing progressive charities, specifically targeting environmental defence charities.
  • 2012: PEARL is forced to cease year-round operation due to lack of funding.
  • 2012: CFCAS’ federal mandate is terminated.
  • 2012: Ethical Oil files complaints with the CRA against Tides Canada Initiative, Tides Canada Foundation, Sierra Club of Canada, The David Suzuki Foundation, and Environmental Defence.
  • 2012: Ecology Action Centre is audited by the CRA.
  • January 2012: Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver accuses environmental groups of being funded by “foreign special interest groups” seeking to undermine the Canadian economy.
  • January 2012: ForestEthics releases a sworn affidavit, alleging government tactics to intimidate Tides Canada and silence ForestEthics’ opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Proposal.
  • March 2012: The federal budget announces the closure of the NRTEE in March 2013.
  • June 2012: RCMP expands its INSET team in Alberta to protect critical infrastructure from “extremists.”
  • December 2012: The conservative group Ethical Oil files a complaint to the CRA about the Sierra Club Canada Foundation (SCCF) seeking to revoke the Foundation’s charitable status.
  • 2013: Ethical Oil files complaint with the CRA against the Pembina Foundation.
  • March 2013: Federal government terminates the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) as a federal public science program and the field station is officially closed. However, it was later opened again due to the intervention of Ontario and Manitoba.
  • January 2014: Greenpeace obtains an RCMP report that labels anti-petroleum activists as a threat to Canadian security.
  • February 2014: BCCLA files complaints against RCMP and CSIS for illegally spying on environmental groups.
  • 2015: Federal government introduces Bill C-51, which will amend Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation to make it easier to spy on environmental groups. The legislation passed.
  • May 2015: CRA begins a political activities audit on SCCF.

Implications and Consequences

Freedom of Expression, Assembly, and Association: By gathering intelligence about citizens opposed to the Enbridge pipeline, CSIS and the RCMP interfered with freedoms of expression, assembly, and association protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The agencies broke the law by gathering information on the peaceful and democratic activities of Canadians who posed no threat to public safety. The government used intimidation as a tactic to silence opposition to resource development projects, creating a chilling effect on advocacy.

Democracy and Dissent: One of the tasks of CRA is to conduct audits of charitable organizations. However, when charitable organizations that have been critical of government policy are singled out for audits, this raises troubling concerns about the criteria used by the CRA in deciding which organizations to audit. Canadian charities have always brought forth public issues to promote discussion and work towards a feasible solution. In recent years, the Conservative government has labeled many charities and environmental groups as “radicals” – and these groups are being sanctioned for partaking in “political activity” by taking a position on public issues. By restricting the advocacy work of charitable environmental groups, the foundations of a democracy are jeopardized as it suppresses the ability to dissent and limits public discussion.

Knowledge: The decision to defund several environmental research facilities severely stunts the advancement and understanding of science, particularly as it pertains to climate changes. By requesting changes for non-scientific reasons deprived of in the scientific reports of its own employees the public is deprived of important knowledge. The federal government has demonstrated a pattern of cutting funding and support for environmental research and programs that do not directly support the development of industrial and economic projects in Canada.

Image: Chris Yakimov via Flickr

Published: 8 October 2015