Ben Nelms / Reuters / Landov

In Canada, officials keep close watch on environmental activists

Newly released documents show that police in British Columbia are monitoring opponents of oil pipeline development

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — On July 16, James McIntyre, 48, was shot and killed by police outside a public meeting about a proposed hydroelectric dam in Dawson Creek, a small town in northeastern British Columbia. The dam, called Site C, is controversial among environmentalists and First Nations people, and the night McIntyre was shot, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were responding to reports that a protester was disrupting the meeting.

Little is known about the circumstances surrounding his death, but in a video taken immediately after the shooting, his blood can be seen pooling on the sidewalk and dripping into the street. Eventually, two officers approach his slumped body and place restraints on it while a third policeman keeps his gun drawn.

A day after the shooting, it emerged that McIntyre was not the person who interrupted the meeting, though he was reportedly wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and holding a knife. Five days after McIntyre’s death, Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney responded to questions about the incident at a press conference in a Vancouver suburb.

“I’ve said clearly in the past, there are many ways, in this country that enjoys freedom, to express our democratic views,” he said. “I invite those who want to express their views to use democratic ways. Those who don’t expose themselves to face the full force of the law.”

According to Sean Devlin, an activist who has spent the last two years working on a documentary about Canadian government surveillance, both the shooting and Blaney’s remarks are consistent with a larger government crackdown on environmental activists. “They are using violence to intimidate those who oppose [projects like the Site C Dam],” Devlin said, adding that what the country’s conservative government tolerates as legitimate dissent is shrinking.

Nowhere is this tension felt more acutely than in British Columbia, where the province’s premier, Christy Clark, has staked her legacy on transforming the region into a global hub for liquefied natural gas. In addition to megaprojects like the Site C dam, two pipelines are under discussion that would carry massive amounts of heavy crude from the Athabasca oil sands in central Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. The scramble for natural resources has turned Canada’s westernmost province into a battleground for conservationists, and First Nations people have led the way in fighting these efforts.

The environmental movement in British Columbia is diverse and gaining public support. It enjoys the backing of Vancouver’s mayor, for example, and rallies attract thousands, including families. Occasionally, there are confrontations with police. In November 2014 dozens of people were arrested when they refused to leave a protest camp erected to prevent survey work related to a proposed pipeline expansion. But that incident eventually ended peacefully, without violence or accusations of police brutality.

Meanwhile, evidence has slowly revealed that several Canadian security agencies are monitoring the activities of pipeline opponents, demonstration organizers and First Nations people involved in related activities. Documents released in response to freedom of information requests present a picture of state surveillance that activists say is stifling dissent. In the wake of McIntyre’s death, these tensions have only heightened.

Widespread surveillance

One afternoon in March 2015, Tim Takaro, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, and a self-described activist, was out for lunch with his teenage daughter when her cellphone rang. On the other end was an RCMP officer who wanted to know her father’s whereabouts.

Demonstrators protest the Northern Gateway pipeline project in Vancouver, British Columbia, in May 2014.
Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press / AP

After she handed the phone to him, the officer said he was calling about photographs Takaro took of a property owned by Kinder Morgan, an oil pipeline company. Takaro acknowledged that one week earlier, he had had a brief interaction with a security guard working for Kinder Morgan. But the incident was nothing serious, Takaro recounted. He was simply asked to stop taking pictures. Takaro thought it was all a misunderstanding until the officer continued to press him. “Then he said, ‘We also saw your car at a protest in November,’” Takaro continued. “And then, ‘But don’t worry, there are no criminal charges.’”

“It was definitely intimidation,” Takaro concluded.

Over the last several years, stories like Takaro’s have corroborated documents released through freedom of information requests that outline the extent to which law enforcement agencies are monitoring environmental activists. These files are notable for the language they use to describe protesters and the level of detail they include on the activities of organizations and the lives of their members.

An RCMP internal document dated December 2012 compares the First Nations movement Idle No More to “bacteria,” warning, “it has grown a life all of its own all across the nation.”

“There is a high probability that we could see flash mobs, round dances and blockades become much less compliant to laws,” it continues. “The escalation of violence is ever near.”

Two years later, a separate RCMP intelligence assessment warns, “violent anti-petroleum extremists will continue to engage in criminal activity to promote anti-petroleum ideology.” The 44-page document, made public by Greenpeace in February, calls attention to British Columbia, saying, “there is a coalition of like-minded violent extremists who are planning criminal actions to prevent the construction of the pipeline.” Yet with rare exceptions, there are almost no reports of existing environmental groups engaging in illegal actions. When asked for examples, RCMP representatives usually cite a series of attacks that occurred in the 1990s. (These were the actions of one man, Wiebo Ludwig, who in 2000 was convicted of sabotaging oil and gas infrastructure in northern Alberta.) 

In March, declassified documents revealed that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s equivalent of the CIA, was involved in helping local law-enforcement agencies track protesters, particularly in British Columbia. That memo also described the role of the Government Operations Centre, another federal agency, in compiling a “risk forecast” report for the 2014 “spring summer protest and demonstration season.” A previously released Government Operations Centre document includes details of more than 800 demonstrations throughout Canada since 2009.

The names of well-known Canadian environmental groups appear in these documents. Among them are Greenpeace, Tides Canada, the Sierra Club, the Georgia Strait Alliance, the Wilderness Committee and Idle No More.

Creating paranoia

In November 2014, David Lavallee, a Vancouver-based filmmaker, used a small unmanned aerial vehicle to record footage of an oil tanker marine terminal that serves as the endpoint for a Kinder Morgan oil pipeline. Lavallee is producing a documentary about unconventional energy sources such as the oil sands, and the facility he videotaped receives significant amounts of diluted bitumen from Alberta.

Two days later, he received a voice mail from a local RCMP detachment. That was followed by a visit from two local police officers and a visit from officers with the RCMP’s anti-terrorism unit.

Demonstrators protest the Northern Gateway pipeline project at English Bay in Vancouver in May 2014.
Ben Nelms / Reuters / Landov

In a subsequent telephone call, an officer warned him, “What you are doing could be seen as a precursor to terrorist behavior,” Lavallee said.

“I’m not a terrorist,” he told them. “I’m a kindergarten teacher.”

Lavallee wasn’t surprised when he learned about the Dawson Creek shooting, saying that it was only a matter of time before a violent confrontation occurs between protesters and police. “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” he said.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, a former organizer with Idle No More, now works as an campaigner on indigenous issues for the climate change group 350.org. Documents made public by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in October 2014 reveal that the RCMP has monitored his activities since at least 2010.

“A known member of the Indigenous Environmental Network will be heading to northern B.C. tomorrow,” reads a reference to Thomas-Muller that appears in an RCMP occurrence report dated July 7, 2010. “We would like to anticipate and monitor any protests in order to keep you informed if these protests happen in your detachment areas.”

On the phone from his home in Winnipeg, Thomas-Muller said he suspected that the government was monitoring him. He recounted how RCMP officers often acted as if they were familiar with him when they saw him at public demonstrations, making clear they knew his name and face.

“These things are designed to create paranoia. They are designed to create mistrust. They are designed to affect your confidence in your cause,” he said.

‘I’m not a terrorist ... I’m a kindergarten teacher.’

David Lavallee

filmmaker and teacher

The Canadian Ministry of Public Safety and the RCMP refused repeated requests for interviews. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service did not respond to emails or voice mail messages. An emailed statement supplied by RCMP spokeswoman Annie Delisle claims the force respects the public’s right to peaceful demonstration. “Security operations balance individual rights and freedoms with the need to maintain public safety, peace and good order,” it reads.

Stewart Phillip is the president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and a prominent figure in the province’s environmental movement. He described the federal government’s monitoring of environmentalists as part of its focus on the development of the Alberta oil sands and pipelines.

He called attention to the controversial anti-terrorism legislation Bill C-51, which was passed into law on June 18. He warned that several aspects of Bill C-51 could be used against environmentalists. For example, the bill broadens the definition of an “activity that undermines the security of Canada” to include anything that targets the country’s “economic or financial stability” or “critical infrastructure” — including energy projects such as pipelines.

Activists such as Takaro worry that this legislation could be used to expand what he sees as overreaching federal oversight. “The thing that is most concerning to me is that with Bill C-51, my taking a picture could actually be construed as a criminal act, because it could be construed as interfering with critical infrastructure,” he said.

“If they are really after you,” Takaro continued, “you’re not paranoid, right?”

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