Editorial: A side of CSIS that must be revealed to us

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has released documents it says prove the Canadian Security Intelligence Service illegally spied on environmental and First Nations groups.

A moment’s background: In 2014, while protests were under way over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, the BCCLA filed a complaint in federal court against CSIS. That complaint went to the committee which oversees the spy agency.

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The committee, headed by a former justice of the federal court, Pierre Blais, found the allegations groundless. However, a gag order was issued, effectively burying the proceedings. The BCCLA appealed that order, and the proceedings have now been made public, albeit heavily redacted.

According to the association, these documents raise three issues.

First, CSIS allegedly welcomed briefings from industry sources that warned of violence by protest groups. This is not in itself improper, but the association says CSIS retained these briefings well after there was reason to do so. The agency’s charter forbids this.

Reading the redacted documents, there is no question that CSIS did receive and retain industry briefings. The question is whether, in the circumstances, this was a reasonable precaution.

Here, a threat assessment by the RCMP played a role. The oversight committee was told by a senior staff officer that “there is the possibility that there will be civil unrest and criminal occurrence during the Northern Gateway consultation process.”

Was this a reasonable assessment? Some protest groups had said they would “go to any lengths” to stop the pipeline. On the other hand, civil disobedience has a long history in Canada.

There is no easy answer. If CSIS scrubs files and later a violent confrontation occurs, the agency will be hauled over the coals. Isn’t it supposed to prevent this sort of thing?

On the other hand, carried too far, the spectre of a police state arises. During the 1940s and ’50s, the RCMP spied on respectable politicians such as former Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas. No one wants a return to that form of excess.

More disturbing, on several occasions CSIS officers met with business representatives at events hosted by the industry. Accepting snippets of information from corporate sources is one thing. Being feted by corporate executives is quite another. This must stop.

The second issue raised by the association has to do with alleged manipulation by Joe Oliver, the natural resources minister at the time. In an open letter dated January 2012, Oliver wrote: “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. [They] threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find … They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.”

The concern is that Oliver’s letter could have been taken as a signal to CSIS and the RCMP that the government wanted these groups shut down.

It’s hard to know what effect this inflammatory letter actually had. On the one hand, the oversight committee found it had no impact. On the other hand, for a federal minister to tar thousands of innocent protesters as radical ideologues is deeply troubling.

The association’s third concern was that by warehousing data on groups and individuals who had done no wrong, CSIS exerted a chilling effect on lawful protest.

Many in the environmental community have expressed concern that their personal information is sitting in a CSIS vault. They see it as a deliberate attempt to silence them, despite their right to protest.

This is perhaps the most difficult allegation to assess. Certainly there has been no shortage of protests, most recently directed against the Trans Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby.

That is the conclusion the oversight committee reached — that there was no evidence of a chilling effect.

Yet who can say how many peaceful protesters stay home for fear their names will end up in a CSIS file?

On balance, these documents do not reveal a rogue spy agency out to hunt down innocent Canadians. CSIS faces that most difficult of challenges: How to prepare for an uncertain future in a politically fractious era.

On the other hand, they do show an unhealthy relationship between the agency and corporate interests. In that respect, the BCCLA has done Canadians a favour — by revealing a side of CSIS we have never seen before.

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