Researchers and journalists have begun to reveal the extent to which Indigenous activists and organisations in Canada are subject to surveillance by police, military, national security intelligence agencies and other government bodies. While security agencies have long looked beyond ‘traditional’ national security threats and set their sights on activists – even in the absence of evidence linking these individuals or organisations to any violent criminal activity – this reality is increasingly the subject of media and public scrutiny. As Jeffrey Monaghan and Kevin Walby have written, the language of “aboriginal and multi-issue extremists” in security discourse blurs the line between threats to national security, matters of ordinary law enforcement, and lawful, democratic advocacy.
In this piece, we summarise some of what is known about the surveillance practices employed to keep tabs on Indigenous leaders and activists, and describe their impact on Charter-protected and internationally recognised human rights and freedoms.
Indigenous nations and peoples have emerged, worldwide, as vocal defenders of land and water, organising to protect ancestral territories and ways of life. In Canada, while aboriginal and treaty rights are constitutionally recognised and affirmed, the interpretation of those rights is highly contested and a matter frequently before the country’s highest court. Indigenous activists and organisations in Canada have led popular resistance to the development of new oil and gas pipelines, hydroelectric dams, mining operations, and other extractive industries that have significant environmental impact and which frequently encroach on Indigenous territories.
This resistance – with tactics ranging from peaceful protest and strategic litigation to the establishment of creative action camps and blockades – has frequently been met with a forceful police response. Through diligent research and investigative reporting, a pattern of extensive surveillance of these activities has also emerged – implicating law enforcement, intelligence agencies and numerous other government bodies.
The pattern of surveillance against Indigenous activists and organisations… can be characterised as disproportionate and alienating
Both freedom of expression and assembly are guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which forms part of the Canadian constitution. The freedom from unreasonable search and seizure – which provides constitutional protection for privacy – is also guaranteed. The law recognises certain limits to these rights, provided they further a compelling government objective and are proportionate to that objective. However, the pattern of surveillance against Indigenous activists and organisations that has emerged in Canada is one that can clearly be characterised as disproportionate and alienating, with no evidence that it is necessary. Though these operations are inherently covert, Indigenous activists, researchers and human rights advocates have begun – largely through access-to-information requests – to piece together a clearer picture of the ways in which this surveillance takes place. Below, we discuss surveillance of individual leaders, surveillance of communities and movements, and how the agencies and departments that gather information use and share it.