Natives decry military’s comparison of protests to terrorism
OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Oct. 13 2011, 10:47 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Sep. 06 2012, 10:35 AM EDT
The head of Canada’s largest aboriginal group is denouncing the military for using its counterintelligence unit to keep an eye on native organizations and their protest plans, saying this implies such advocacy can be compared to terrorism.
The Canadian Forces’ National Counter-Intelligence Unit, meant to address “threats to the security of the Forces and the Department of National Defence” such as espionage, terrorists and saboteurs, assembled at least eight reports on the activities of native groups between January, 2010, and July, 2011.
Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he was offended to learn that native activism is considered “threatening to national safety and security” in Canada.
“The fact that Canada would expend national defence resources to monitor our activities amounts to a false and highly offensive insinuation that First Nation advocacy is akin to terrorism or threats to national security,” Mr. Atleo said in a statement. “The reality is that all of the events monitored in the documents released were peaceful demonstrations conducted with the full co-operation and notification of all relevant authorities.”
Critics on Thursday called for Canada to subject the military’s counterintelligence unit to monitoring by independent overseers in the same way that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is scrutinized by the Security Intelligence Review Committee.
Navy Captain Dave Scanlon, a National Defence spokesman, said the Canadian Forces “do not spy on Canadians, nor do we monitor aboriginal or other groups.”
“We’re not keeping watch on aboriginal groups,” he said. “We’re keeping a watch on activities in Canada that could affect Canadian Forces operations. It doesn’t matter [which]group. It’s the activity that matters.”
He said when choosing what to watch, the counterintelligence unit also anticipates where it might be called on to help. The Forces insist the unit doesn’t do any snooping itself, but receives intelligence from other government agencies.
Little is known about the Forces’ National Counter-Intelligence Unit. The military refuses to divulge its budget or staffing, citing national security. It won’t even say whether the operation has grown over the past decade as Ottawa ratcheted up defence spending after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and for the war in Afghanistan.
“If you’re lining up your troops on the front line, you don’t want to tell the enemy that you have three battalions on the right, three battalions in the middle and only one battalion on the left,” Capt. Scanlon said.
The unit’s described mandate talks of identifying “threats” – which the military defines broadly.
“I think the word threats is almost too narrow,” Capt. Scanlon said. “If I’m planning to do a road move of tanks from one part of Ontario to another, and I’m going to go down the TransCanada and I see there’s going to be a demonstration on the TransCanada … that constitutes a threat to our ability to conduct that operation down that path.” In that case, he said, the Forces might want to plan a route that avoids the protest.
Philippe Lagassé, assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the counterintelligence unit needs to be more accountable to independent oversight.
“They’re created by the executive through executive powers and essentially this power, it just fills voids. So whatever is not strictly forbidden, they can do,” Prof. Lagassé said.
He recommends giving MPs on the national security committee special clearance, sworn on oath, so they can ask more probing questions of the counterintelligence unit.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said history has shown government agencies that aren’t monitored by external oversight have gone beyond their mandate and threatened civil rights.
“Even within the military we have the Communications Security Establishment,” he said, referring to the crypto-logic agency that among other things collects and analyzes foreign electronic, radar and radio signals.
“It’s a mysterious organization that very few Canadians know anything about. But they have oversight. There’s a commissioner whose job it is to ensure they operate within the law,” Mr. Harris said.
Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, an expert in military law, said the Forces vastly expanded their operations in the past decade as a result of funding increases to fight terrorism and the war in Afghanistan.
“They got the funding, the equipment, the augmentation in strength, they were allowed to create almost overnight a whole number of headquarters,” Mr. Drapeau said.
“There are few organizations in Canada that can hold DND to account,” the former colonel said. “For everybody’s sake we want a military that basically stays in its place and is subject to civilian control, real civilian control.”
The Forces said they have worked hard to build a good rapport with aboriginal groups.
“The Canadian Forces are committed to maintaining a strong relationship with the First Nations, one that is built on trust, embraces their culture, and seeks inclusiveness,” Capt. Scanlon said.
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On a typical humid morning in Ottawa, Cindy Blackstock sits on the patio of a downtown coffee shop and talks about the day ahead.
“I have an interview with a reporter to talk about the child welfare system, and then I’ll be going through e-mails and documents getting ready for the upcoming hearing,” said Blackstock.
The hearing is Blackstock’s retaliation complaint filed against the federal government at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, along with the Assembly of First Nation are at the tribunal because they accuse Canada of spending less on First Nations child welfare than what provincial governments spend for off reserve children. The complaint was filed in 2007 and Blackstock said the retaliation against her started after.
She claims Canada has been spying on her.
Blackstock is not alone in believing that.
In May of this year, the office of the Privacy Commissioner found that officials in both the department of Aboriginal Affairs and the department of Justice began collecting personal information about Blackstock in February 2010.
“(The two departments) have repeatedly accessed, viewed, read, copied and recorded personal information from (Blackstock’s) personal Facebook page,” said the report.
The report also said they gathered information that was “unrelated to their ordinary operating activities.”
Along with asking Canada’s privacy watchdog to look into the matter, Blackstock filed a complaint with the human rights tribunal. Under section 14.1 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, it is a discriminatory practice for a person against whom a complaint has been filed to retaliate or threaten retaliation against the individual who filed the complaint.
Blackstock’s complaint at the tribunal is much like the one she filed with the privacy commissioner, which includes monitoring her agenda and taking screen shots of her personal Facebook page and accessing her Indian status registry.
“They accessed my Indian status registry, why would they do that?” said Blackstock.
She went on.
“In 2009, I was accompanying a number of chiefs to a meeting with Minister Chuck Strahl’s staff and I was barred from the meeting. I was guarded by a security guard while I sat in the reception area of the minister’s office waiting for the meeting to conclude,” she said. “I was seated on a couch with a coffee table in front of it. The rather large male security guard stood directly on the other side of the coffee table while I read the newspaper.”
The hearing into the retaliation complaint comes on the heels of a scathing report filed by the tribunal panel of Sophie Marchildon, Rejean Belanger and Edward Lustig Wednesday.
It found that the department of Aboriginal Affairs and the department of Justice withheld tens of thousands of documents relevant to the complaint filed against it. The panel has given the government until the end of August to disclose them.
In the meantime, the retaliation complaint will start July 15.
Blackstock will be calling two witnesses, former Grand Chief Randall Phillips and Mary Teegee from the British Columbia Aboriginal Child Care Society. The government is calling at least seven witnesses including David McArthur, former special assistant to the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Monica Fujikschot, executive director of secure certificate of Indian status.
“I just want them to stop,” said Blackstock.
Blackstock said she doesn’t know if the department has stopped. She hasn’t heard from anyone at Aboriginal Affairs or Justice.
In May 2013, she wrote a letter to Aboriginal Affairs minister Bernard Valcourt and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson asking for an update on whether the privacy commissioner’s recommendations, including the need to stop monitoring Blackstock and destroying the information that was collected, was being implemented.
So Blackstock sent a second letter in June asking the same question.
“I received a form letter,” said Blackstock. “Thank you for writing…”
She said it’s time Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped in.
“This is a matter for the prime minister now,” said Blackstock, adding a number of reports and rulings have gone against the government regarding First Nations child welfare in Canada.
“There are two auditor general reports, two reports from the standing committee on public accounts, two reports from the United Nations, four failed federal court challenges brought by the government to stop the complaint at the tribunal, the privacy commissioner’s report and of course the documents that were withheld at the tribunal,” said Blackstock. “This should scare everyone. This is about the government of Canada.”
If found guilty, the government if facing the embarrassment of retaliating against a First Nations child advocate and the panel could award Blackstock and the Caring society a maximum of $20,000 each.
All rulings from the panel can be appealed at the federal court level.
“I’m nervous,” Blackstock said as she gets ready to head to work. “For two weeks bureaucrats will be testifying about me. About what, the cookie recipe on my Facebook page?”