Pamela Palmater

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What Happened

Pamela Palmater is an Indigenous lawyer, university professor and activist. Following the news, in 2011, that other Indigenous activists were being surveilled by Canadian security agencies, she filed an Access to Information and Privacy request and learned that she herself is under surveillance.

This surveillance grew as Palmater became prominent in the Idle No More movement, with RCMP and other law-enforcement officers identifying themselves to her during demonstrations.

The scrutiny continues even when Palmater travels in other countries. Despite never having broken the law, engaged in a violent act, or incited anyone to violence, she has had her privacy breached multiple times. Nor is this an isolated phenomenon. Palmater's case is part of a pattern of government spying on Indigenous people and organizations.


Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is an Associate Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. She has also been for several years an outspoken activist for Indigenous rights.

Palmater learned that Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, was under surveillance by federal authorities. At the end of 2011, Palmater filed an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Department of National Defense (DND) for any and all records, reports, security assessments, surveillance reports, etc., in relation to her and her work.

The four ATIP requests resulted in two written replies from CSIS and INAC. CSIS confirmed in December 2011 that they had a Security/Assessments/Advice file on her. CSIS provided some records of assessments done when she worked at INAC and Justice Canada, but refused to disclose other material, stating:

"Portions of the material have been exempted from disclosure by virtue of section 15(1) (as it relates to the efforts of Canada towards detecting, preventing or suppressing subversive or hostile activities) of the Act."

With respect to CSIS Investigational records, they did not confirm or deny that such a file existed, but stated that even if such records did exist, they would not release them to her as part of their efforts in "detecting, preventing or suppressing subversive or hostile activities."

While this is the agency's standard response, it leaves open the inference that Palmater was engaged in “subversive or hostile” activities and raised concerns about what it means for privacy and surveillance of peaceful activities.

In January 2012, Palmater heard back from INAC (now known as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, AANDC). The department would not confirm monitoring, but did admit conducting an analysis of her and her activities. The analysis comprised 750 pages of documents that tracked her whereabouts, in what provinces she was travelling, and her speaking engagements. Some parts were heavily redacted. AANDC could not provide the security file, which it said had been destroyed.

The RCMP did not reply in writing, but RCMP officers on the ground confirmed that they were monitoring her activities. DND did not reply at all.

Palmater comments:

“This, to me, is like being judged without knowing what I am accused of, and then being sentenced to ongoing spying on undisclosed activities for an undetermined amount of time so as to reduce the security risk to Canada in relation to my peaceful Indigenous advocacy activities.”

Life Under Surveillance

In her 2015 written and oral submissions to the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security regarding Bill C-51, Palmater describes life under surveillance (Palmater 2015). When Palmater attends rallies, protests, or public or private events, she stated that she is often unable to make cell phone calls, send texts, or access her social media or her bank or credit card accounts. The blackout imposed on her is selective, she says: she can text her children but not the First Nations Chief present at the same protest. She comments: “This causes me great concern for my safety. How am I supposed to help ensure the comfort and safety of the people at rallies and myself if I can’t communicate with anyone?”

It is unclear whether the communications blackouts are the work of law enforcement and what technology is used, and these incidents have heightened Palmater's fear for her safety and her privacy.

At rallies and teach-ins during the Idle No More movement (2012-2013), undercover-RCMP and/or provincial police would seek her out and impress upon her the need to ensure that “her” protest was peaceful. At other times, she herself would request to the crowd that agents identify themselves. “The usual suspects who introduce themselves to me are: INAC, Justice Canada, the RCMP and/or provincial police,” says Palmater.

The monitoring of her activities continues even when she is lecturing abroad:

“I have attended many other countries like Samoa, Peru, England…and Switzerland to bring attention to Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. To my surprise, at several events, Canadian legal or diplomatic representatives have either identified themselves to me as attending events to report my activities, or were identified to me by local authorities.”

Sometimes, the RCMP would call ahead to the university, school or First Nation where she was going to speak to determine what her “targets” may be or if she had planned a protest.

“The most shocking and disturbing example is the level of surveillance when I am in Manitoba at events with Manitoba Chiefs. Aside from obvious police presence, the surveillance is sometimes done by third parties – corporations like those in the mining industry. In one instance, two large men followed myself and a Manitoba Chief around Winnipeg video-taping us and it was later confirmed that they were two retired RCMP officers working as private security for a large corporation.

In another incident, I was attending a meeting with a Chief and several members of the community and we decided amongst ourselves to attend a law office to try to meet with corporate parties with whom we had an issue over Aboriginal rights. As we arrived at the public building the doors were locked and security told us they received “advance warning” that there were “angry and dangerous Indians” en route. Neither I nor this Chief had ever committed a violent act or crime and we did not that day either.”


The surveillance of individual Indigenous activists such as Palmater, Blackstock, Clayton Thomas-Muller and many others must be seen and understood within the context of a long history of spying on First Nations and all Indigenous peoples that dates at least to the 19th Century.

Shortly after coming into power, the Harper government gave AANDC the task of spying on First Nations. According to a 2011 press release, documents obtained by the First Nations Strategic Bulletin (FNSB) showed that the Conservative government had stepped up intelligence gathering on First Nations to anticipate and manage First Nations political action across Canada:

“The goal was to identify the First Nation leaders, participants and outside supporters of First Nation occupations and protests, and to closely monitor their actions.

To accomplish this task, INAC established a “Hot Spot Reporting System.” These weekly reports highlight all those communities across the country that engage in direct action to protect their lands and communities. They include Tsartlip First Nation, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, Six Nations, Grassy Narrows, the Likhts’amsiyu Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, and many more.” (Voices-Voix has documented other such cases in our report on Aboriginal communitie and environmental groups.)

This “reporting system” fundamentally contradicts AANDC's mandate, which is to:

  • improve social well-being and economic prosperity;
  • develop healthier, more self-sufficient communities; and
  • participate more fully in Canada's political, social and economic development — to the benefit of all Canadians.

Instead, AANDC “rather appears to be a management office to control the costs of Native unrest, and they are willing to work closely with law enforcement to accomplish this task,” according to a 2011 report on the FNSB's findings. In addition, such activities divert precious resources away from the agency's mandated purpose of improving the well-being of First Nations people.

In 2007, the RCMP established the Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group (JIG), “to monitor protests by First Nations, including those that would attract national attention or target 'critical infrastructure' like highways, railways and pipelines, according to RCMP documents." The intelligence unit reported weekly to approximately 450 recipients in law enforcement, government, and unnamed 'industry partners' in the energy and private sector.

The CBC reported that:

“[The RCMP] made a series of presentations to private-sector corporations, including one to ‘energy sector stakeholders’ in November 2011. Other corporations that received intelligence from police included Canada’s major banks, telecom firms, airlines, downtown property companies and other businesses seen to be vulnerable to the effects of summit protests.”

The JIG unit was dismantled in 2010, but a spokesperson said “the work done by the JIG is no longer performed at RCMP HQ Criminal Intelligence (CI). However, we cannot confirm that RCMP divisions are not performing Aboriginal JIG activities under another name of program."

Relevant Dates

1998-2009: Palmater works intermittently at INAC and Justice Canada, while finishing her degrees, including a doctorate in Aboriginal Law from Dalhousie University.

2006: Shortly after coming into power, the Harper government gives the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs the task to spy on First Nations.

2007: The RCMP establishes the Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group (JIG), partnering with the private sector to spy on First Nations.

2009: Palmater starts work as a Professor at Ryerson University

2010: JIG is dismantled. It is not known how their work is continuing or if it is continuing.

Nov. 2011: After discovering that other indigenous activists are under surveillance, Palmater files ATIP requests to CSIS and INAC

Dec. 2011: Palmater files ATIPs to DND and RCMP

Dec. 2011: She hears back from CSIS that they have one active file on her and that they will neither confirm nor deny that they may have an investigational record on her.

Jan. 2012: INAC confirms they were surveilling Palmater. They provide her with 750 pages of documents, many redacted.

2012: Palmater is the runner-up in the election for national chief in the Assembly of First Nations

2012: Palmater wins the YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Social Justice

2012-13: Palmater is active in the Idle No More movement. 

Implications and Consequences

Transparency: CSIS has refused to confirm or deny whether an investigational record on Palmater exists. The RCMP failed to respond to her in writing, although officers on the ground make it clear to her that she is under surveillance. The DND failed to respond to her ATIP in any form.

Democracy: One of the units involved in surveillance is AANDC (formerly INAC). Their mandate is to improve the situation of First Nations, rather than to spy on them. AANDC resources should instead be used to fulfill their proper mandate. It poisons Indigenous peoples' relations with the one department that should be a defender of Indigenous rights rather than spying on them.

Government Integrity: Spying on prominent Indigenous individuals, movements and organizations impedes rather than furthers the move towards “healing, reconciliation and resolution” to which the Prime Minister committed the Canadian government in his 2008 Statement of Apology.

Rule of Law: Sharing the result of the surveillance with “industry partners” infringes seriously on the rights of those spied upon and privileges a corporate constituency whose motive is private profit rather than public good.

Published: June 23, 2015