CSIS withholds information on Wet'suwet'en demonstrations citing national security threat exemption

Professor says CSIS sees Indigenous movements as challenging Canadian sovereignty

Canada's spy agency has refused to release internal records on Indigenous-led actions in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs by using an exemption under the access to information law normally reserved for information related to gathering intelligence to detect or suppress terrorism. 

The use of the exemption by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service suggests the spy agency viewed Indigenous road and rail blockades and demonstrations as threats to Canada's sovereignty, said Jeffrey Monaghan, an associate professor of criminology at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

"It completely fits the CSIS operational culture that sees these groups as antagonists, political antagonists, especially Indigenous movements, as capable of challenging Canadian sovereignty," said Monaghan, who co-wrote Policing Indigenous Movements examining how Canadian police, military and intelligence agencies surveil Indigenous resistance movements.

"Using that section is indicative of the types of language being used in those documents. They are seeing these movements as kind of hostile movements...This reflects a lot more on CSIS and how they understand these movements, really like internal enemies."

CBC News requested internal records from CSIS that discussed the February Indigenous-led protests which flared from coast-to-coast in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs' opposition to a natural gas pipeline.

CSIS withheld internal records under a section of the Access to Information Act that allows exemptions for records connected to intelligence activities related to "detecting, preventing or suppressing subversive or hostile activities," according to a letter from the agency's Access to Information branch. 

The demonstrations began in early February after the RCMP enforced an injunction against Wet'suwet'en camps that were preventing Coastal GasLink contractors from gaining access to the territory. The Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs said the pipeline project did not have the nation's consent to cross its territory. 

Indigenous solidarity actions, in the form of rail blockades, road blockades and demonstrations, sprung up from B.C. to Prince Edward Island. In Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Ontario, a camp was established along a CN Rail line connecting Montreal to Toronto, shutting down freight and passenger trains for nearly a month.

The spy agency used section 15 of the Access to Information Act to exempt some records from release, according to the letter from the branch co-ordinator. Section 15, subtitled "international affairs and defence," defines "subversive or hostile activities" as including sabotage, terrorism, actions directed at a "government change," activities that "threaten" Canadians or federal employees, and espionage.

Monaghan regularly files access to information requests with federal agencies but said he's rarely seen section 15 invoked to withhold records.

"It's not something I've seen a lot of," said Monaghan.

The agency also invoked sections 13(1), which includes information received in confidence from other governments, 16 (1a and c), information from a law enforcement criminal investigations, 19 (1), personal information, section 23, information covered by solicitor-client privilege, and section 24, information restricted by other federal laws. 

CSIS reacted to Trudeau's news conference 

CBC News received only two emails from its information request. Both the emails, from Feb. 21, were written in response to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's declaration at a news conference that the blockades must end.

"PM has just finished a press conference indicating that all avenues for dialogue have been exhausted and 'the barricades must come down,'" said the heavily redacted email, sent at 3:51 p.m. with the subject line, "Blockade - UPDATE," and importance marked "high."

The name of the senders and recipients are redacted. It appears to have been directed at two people, but it's unknown if any others were carbon-copied. 

"I will forward any information rec'd to both of you, according [redacted]."

The second, heavily redacted email, marked importance "High," with the subject line reading, "FW: Blockade - UPDATE," was sent at 4:38 p.m. The senders and recipients are also redacted. 

"FYI. Folks are sensitized [redacted] response to PM announcement. CGOC contacted as well with POC in leads if anything comes their way," said the email.

It's unclear what "CGOC" stands for, but it could refer to the Government Operations Centre, which is the 24-7 federal information nerve centre for national-scale emergency responses. "POC" is also unclear, but could refer to provincial operations centres, which would be involved in co-ordinating emergency responses.

The Ontario Provincial Police enforced an injunction against the Tyendinaga camp days after Trudeau's news conference.

Andrew Brant, who is Mohawk from Tyendinaga and supported the action, said it's been Canadian and colonial authorities that have executed hostile and subversive actions against his people for hundreds of years. Brant was charged for allegedly being at the site after a court issued the injunction against the camp.

"What is happening right now and what has happened is just ongoing persecution of Indigenous people to continue piggybacking on our resources and trying to label us as terrorists, labels used to get control and power," said Brant.

CSIS said in a statement that its mandate is "to protect Canadians from threats to national security at home and abroad." The statement said that the law governing CSIS "specifically excludes lawful protest and dissent."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.