Indigenous communities

Les faits

According to information obtained through Access to Information requests in 2010, Indigenous communities have been under government surveillance since the Conservative Party came to power in 2006. The former Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) was given the lead role in monitoring Indigenous communities and community leaders. It has shared the results among government departments and with private actors in the oil industry in an effort to undermine communities that oppose resource development projects, such as the Northern Gateway pipeline. At the same time, the federal government has failed to endorse and implement either the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples or the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, despite what is commonly referred to as the “cultural genocide” of Indigenous peoples in Canada. 


Requests filed by journalists and advocacy groups under the Access to Information Act reveal that beginning in 2006 soon after the election of a Conservative majority government, several state agencies have been involved in surveillance of Indigenous communities and their leaders. The documents obtained under the Act reveal that the information collected was disseminated throughout government departments, as well as to private sector actors. Evidence suggests that this monitoring continues and includes the surveillance of individual activists.

INAC and the “Hotspot Reporting System”

In May 2006, shortly after Stephen Harper took office as Prime Minister for the first time, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) was given a directive from the Prime Minister's office to spy on Indigenous communities (this includes First Nations, Innu and Métis). The goal was to identify the leaders, participants, and outside supporters of Indigenous organizations and to closely monitor their actions. Specifically, the intention was to monitor political action, notably but not only protests over land claims and resource development.

To do this, INAC established a “Hotspot Reporting System.” The term “hotspot” denoted Indigenous communities that the deputy ministers of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC) and INAC considered “sources of potential unrest” and made them the object of weekly reports on “militant” or “extremist” political activity. These reports were in turn summarized in a “Hotspot binder” that highlighted community demographics, as well as issues and events that might lead to direct action protests or occupations. The high-level of surveillance of Indigenous peoples evidenced by these hotspot reports suggests a closely monitored Indigenous population, whose internal organization and political activities are treated with increasing suspicion and hostility by Ottawa.

In order to disseminate the information that was gleaned from the surveillance, INAC also created a “Standing Information Sharing Forum.” Chaired by the RCMP, it consisted of weekly conference calls involving several government departments and agencies, including INAC, CSIS, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, and Transportation Canada. These departments subsequently used the information to undermine and prevent protests, a policy depoliticized by INAC in internal ‘state-speak’ as “mitigating.”

One document obtained through the Access to Information requests was a report from March 2007, in which INAC reflected on the first year of surveillance and intelligence gathering. According to their statistics, the majority of hotspot “unrest” (66 per cent) related to lands and resources, and was incited by development activities on traditional territories. Further, the report discusses the role of “splinter groups” in leading protests and speculates on the presence of “multiple competing power groups” and so-called “illicit agendas.” Such terminology, together with phrases like “splinter groups” and “extremists” operates to delegitimize protest.

Indigenous communities named as “hotspots”

These Access to Information documents demonstrate the deep concern of federal officials over growing Indigenous “militancy” and “extremism.” A particular issue for Ottawa is the “unpredictability” of community agitation and leadership by so-called “splinter groups” of Indigenous “extremists.” The following protests were labelled as “unpredictable protests..led by splinter groups” in a 2007 INAC Report:

  • Caledonia, Ontario: (Douglas Creek Estates occupation)
  • Belleville, Ontario: (Montreal/Toronto Rail Blockade in sympathy to Caledonia)
  • Brantford, Ontario: (Grand River Conservation Authority Lands)
  • Desoronto, Ontario: (Occupation of Quarry)
  • Grassy Narrows: (Blockade of Trans Canada Hwy by environmentalists)
  • Maniwaki, Quebec: (Blockade of Route 117)

Communities under surveillance have included bands from the coast of Vancouver Island to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, such as: 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.

As many have noted, it is telling that the INAC statement identifies such protests as “outside of negotiation processes” with elected First Nations councils. The protests threaten the status quo, which is that the Crown will negotiate self-determination only with Indian Act bands, and refuses to recognize First Nations leaders who have not accepted the power dynamics of the Indian Act system.

RCMP and the "Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group" (JIG)

In addition to the hotspot reports and information-sharing forums, the Access to Information requests also revealed that between 2007 and 2010 the RCMP intelligence unit known as the “Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group” (JIG) investigated Indigenous groups engaging in lawful protest. The JIG billed itself as a “central repository” of information about First Nations protest activities, boasting an undisclosed number of field operatives acting as its “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.”

The JIG had a similar mandate to INAC’s hotspot reporting – it kept tabs on certain Aboriginal groups and reported on specific activities. 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.” It focused on “critical infrastructure,” blockades, and “demonstrations, protests or gatherings concerning energy sector development.” As explained in a June 2009 JIG report, the JIG was to “identify current trends, groups and individuals of concern, and geographic areas where conflict and issues are anticipated…and assist with priority-setting and decision-making for provincial and national events.”

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. Like INAC, the JIG circulated weekly summary reports to various agencies, including law enforcement, government, and private industry. Information was gathered through JIG surveillance was circulated to approximately 450 recipients, including several oil companies with financial stakes in the development of the oil sands.

CSIS and Idle No More

In 2014, a different Access to Information request showed that Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was involved in preparing an all-government approach to dealing with First Nations protests during the Idle No More movement (INM). The National Post reported that CSIS began monitoring protests in 2012 in preparation to suppress “subversive or hostile activities” within the movement. That monitoring occurred despite CSIS being barred by law from spying on civilians without a specific justification (it is worth noting that, under Bill C-51, CSIS’ monitoring powers have been significantly expanded to enable this type of activity). Indeed, CSIS had previously denied any role in monitoring INM, with an agency spokesperson saying in no uncertain terms “ITAC does not monitor Idle No More, as they do not meet the definition of terrorism from the Criminal Code of Canada.”

RCMP and the Northern Gateway Pipeline

Unfortunately, government surveillance of Indigenous communities was not limited to Idle No More; it continues, particularly with regards to protests surrounding the economic development of the oil sands. Since 2012, newspapers have reported surveillance of vocal Indigenous opponents of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. According to the Toronto Star, documents suggest that the RCMP gathered intelligence from unspecified “industry reports,” newspapers and websites, as well as Facebook and Flickr. The paper also reported RCMP monitoring private meetings between First Nations and allied groups.

In 2014, British newspaper The Guardian reported that the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (INAC’s successor) has a ‘risk-management program’, operational since 2008, to respond to “significant risks” to the Conservative government’s agenda. These “risks” include the assertion of Treaty rights, as well as the emergence of new legal precedents at odds with the government’s policies of private sector land and resource development. One report obtained by The Guardian states that “there is a risk that the legal landscape can undermine the ability of the department to move forward in its policy agenda” – namely, attracting several billions of dollars in foreign investment to mining, forestry, gas, and oil projects. Such so-called ‘risk management’ initiatives aim to delegitimize Native land claims and circumvent potential legal barriers to lucrative development ventures.

Also in 2014, Indigenous groups opposed to Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline reported that federal law enforcement agencies were spying on them in an effort to intimidate and undermine their advocacy efforts. In February 2014, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) filed complaints against the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to their respective oversight bodies, the RCMP Commission for Public Complaints and the Security Intelligence Review Committee. BCCLA alleged that the two government agencies were sending covert agents to monitor meetings and other activities of pipeline opponents, and sharing findings with the National Energy Board and private actors in the oil industry. According to Josh Paterson, executive director of the BCCLA, the documents suggest that covert means were used to obtain data on Indigenous groups.

Activists and academics under surveillance

Several Indigenous activists have personally found themselves under surveillance as a result of their opposition to government policies. For instance, Pamela Palmater, an Indigenous lawyer, university professor, and activist learned that she was being monitored following Access to Information requests filed on behalf of another activist in 2011. The surveillance increased after she became more prominent in the Idle No More movement. Similarly, Cindy Blackstock, the head of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, had her personal and professional life monitored by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AADC) after filing a discrimination complaint against them. In 2013, the Privacy Commissioner found that the government’s surveillance of Dr. Blackstock violated the Privacy Act. In 2015, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that a government official retaliated against her for filing complaints against the government.

The Federal Government, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and other broken promises

It is important to note that this surveillance occurred during a time that the federal government was pledging to improve collaboration and cooperation with Indigenous communities. In June 2008, the prime minister issued an apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system. Part of the Settlement Agreement with survivors of the schools was the establishment of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In his apology, the prime minister made the following promise:

This Commission presents a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian Residential Schools system.  It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.

In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released their final report, documenting six years of hearings and testimony from over 6,000 survivors. Based on their testimony, the TRC termed the residential school system a “cultural genocide” spanning over seven generations. The report included 94 calls to action for the Government of Canada in the areas of child welfare, education, culture, commemoration, development, outreach, and more.

Following its release, the provincial and territorial premieres met with Indigenous leaders, pledging action and support in implementing the recommendations, but the federal government has failed to endorse any of the TRC’s recommendations. Indeed, as one newspaper reported, silence has largely been the government’s official response to the Commission’s recommendations. Rather than fulfilling his promise of a new relationship built on “respect for each other and a desire to move forward together,” Prime Minister Harper is instead treating Aboriginals as suspects requiring sustained surveillance and suspicion.

This attitude is unsurprising, given that the government was one of only four countries to vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, before calling it “aspirational” in 2010. Though Canada purportedly endorsed the UNDRIP in November 2010, the government has continued to demonstrate its contempt for the Declaration. In 2014 it was the only country to file objections against the adoption of UNDRIP’s “outcome document” at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. The document called on countries to “take appropriate measures at the national level…to achieve the ends of the UNDRIP.” Canada was the only country to raise objections to the outcome document, insisting that it cannot “commit to uphold provisions in the UNDRIP that deal with FPIC [free and prior consent] if these provisions were ‘interpreted as a veto.” The Conservative government’s reaction – or rather, inaction – is also in accordance with its reluctance to launch a national inquiry into the over 1,000 Indigenous women that have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since the 1980s.

Relevant Dates

  • 2006: INAC was given a directive by the new Conservative government to spy on First Nations groups and begins weekly “hotspot” reports documenting politically active Aboriginal communities.
  • 2007: RCMP JIG is formed to monitor Indigenous communities. It remains operational until 2010.
  • 2007: Federal government votes against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
  • 2008: The Prime Minister issues a formal apology on behalf of Canadians for the Residential Schools system.
  • 2008: Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs begins a “risk management” program to prepare for threats to the Conservative government’s policy agenda, specifically as it pertains to economic development of the oil sands.
  • 2012: Idle No More, a grassroots protest movement starts in reaction to legislative abuses of Indigenous treat rights by the Conservative government.
  • 2012: In conjunction with other government agencies, CSIS begins close monitoring the Idle No More movement.
  • 2012: The RCMP begins close surveillance of Indigenous opponents of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
  • 2014: INAC confirms that they are surveilling Pamela Palmater.
  • 2013: The Privacy Commissioner of Canada finds that government monitoring violated Cindy Blackstock’s privacy rights.
  • 2014: BCCLA files a complaint against the RCMP and CSIS for covertly monitoring anti-pipeline activities.
  • 2014: After calling the declaration “aspirational” in 2010, the federal government once again votes against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
  • 2015: The TRC releases final report of the six-year inquiry into the residential school system, calling Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples “cultural genocide.”

Emploi ou fonction

Indigenous communities 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. Individual aboriginal leaders and activists that have been monitored include Pamela Palmater and Cindy Blackstock.

The intimate relationship of the RCMP and the INAC is particularly troubling. As many advocates have noted, that Indian Affairs, contrary to its claims, appears to be a federal effort to deter and oppose Native unrest, and in this effort it works closely with law enforcement. In response to these revelations, Gord Elliot of Tsartlip First Nation stated:

Obviously trust and good faith are expected when working with INAC, the RCMP and other agencies of the government. We are outraged to discover these same ministries 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 Constitutional Rights and Title. We felt we had no choice [than to demonstrate] because the Canadian government won't acknowledge our constitutionally protected Aboriginal Rights and Title.

Portée et conséquences

  • Democracy: The secret surveillance of Indigenous groups that do not present a credible threat to national security or a strong likelihood of committing violent acts threatens legitimate protest regarding resource extraction policies. The participation of diverse voices is essential to democratic debate about the public interest of long-term resource development.
  • Freedom of Speech and opinion: The federal government appears to be targeting Indigenous groups 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 of their opinion violates the constitutional right to free expression and generates a widespread chill on dissent and free expression.
  • Equality: By making a dogmatic commitment to a certain model of resource extraction, designed to favour corporate interests, Ottawa's actions threaten Indigenous communities that have a special relationship to the affected land and environment. This adherence to a single resource model disproportionately injures Indigenous peoples.
    Additionally, the prime minister continues to demonstrate an unwillingness to protect and promote Indigenous rights by denying an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, failing to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and ignoring the recommendations of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

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

Originally published as part of: Aboriginal communities and environmental groups, 4 March 2013

Updated: 6 October 2015