MONTREAL—Nearly 70 groups across Canada have joined a campaign to no longer co-operate with the work of Canada's national spy agency, and are calling on others to join them.
The organizations represent a broad swath of society, covering such a diversity of issues as migrant rights, anti-war organizing, women's rights, social welfare, international solidarity groups, unions and community media organizations. As representatives from several organizations laid out at a press conference in Montreal on Sunday, they share the belief that the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) targets political organizations in Canada and sows fear and suspicion each time they knock on someone's door.
Coalition groups are urging that their members not interact with CSIS agents should they be approached. This includes answering questions or even listening to what the agents have to say. Legally, Canadian citizens can refuse to speak or even listen to CSIS agents; for others, the coalition suggests only interacting with CSIS with a lawyer present.
"Visits [by CSIS] are meant to create psychological profiles, to instill distrust and to create tensions within groups and communities,” said Marie-Ève Lamy, a spokesperson for the People's Commission Network, which has spearheaded this campaign. Lamy added that the coalition believes visits from CSIS agents also aim to aggravate divisions among groups and individuals, discourage participation in social movement, isolate individual activists or community members – actions that do not actually make people any safer.
The idea for the coalition came about when members of the People's Commission Network (PCN), which organizes around questions of abuse in Canada's anti-terror laws, began hearing a growing number of accounts of unannounced visits by CSIS agents to people's homes in the lead-up to the Vancouver Olympics and the G20 meeting in Toronto, both held in 2010.
While the PCN and other organizations were already familiar with CSIS' tactics—visits from the spy agency were nothing new—the renewed and more widespread visits caused concern, especially since stories were surfacing of CSIS agents appearing at people's workplaces, and questioning family members and neighbours of people involved in anti-Olympic and anti-G20 organizing.
Such visits can be destabilizing and frightening, said Lamy. "People don't know their rights towards secret services, given that all their activities are secret. From that came the idea of a community notice suggesting complete non-collaboration if visited by CSIS."
Now two years later, while the visits have diminished in frequency, their impacts remain. Representatives from Montreal's South Asian Women's Community Centre (SAWCC), migrant rights group Solidarity Across Borders, Tadamon! (which focuses on international solidarity in the Middle East, particularly with Palestinians), and the Central Committee of Metropolitan Montreal of the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux, the largest regional council of Quebec's second largest union, all spoke about how they are advising members to no longer collaborate with CSIS agents.
"We feel that CSIS is preying on our community's insecurities, vulnerabilities,” said Dolores Chew, of the SAWCC. “The countries we come from already have a tradition where people feel they have no other option but to comply with police and the authorities. and we know from our experience that CSIS uses fear, sowing seeds of mistrust, turning people one against the other."
That history of sowing divisions has been apparent for decades in the labor movement, according to Francis Lagacé of the CSN. Canadian security agencies have had a history of infiltrating labor and social movements, he said, pointing to Marc-André Boivin who infiltrated and spied on the CSN for 15 years for the RCMP and CSIS, as well as the spy agency's targeting of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in the lead up to the 1991 postal workers strike.
Most concerning, said Legacé, is the agency's history of making something out of nothing:
"They don't know the difference between organizing and conspiring. [...] [CSIS officers] collect info, and once they hear our answers, imagine that we know 'something,' something on we-don't-know-what. They imagine that it's useful info, they create plot, they continue to interview more and more people and they create a climate of fear and suspicion between people."
CSIS was involved in gathering information on protests, along with the RCMP and other law enforcement agencies, in the lead-up to the Toronto G20 meetings and protests. Of the 17 people eventually charged with conspiracy following those investigations, 11 saw their charges dropped, and of the six facing jail-time, none were found guilty of the original conspiracy charges.
Concerns about CSIS' actions are not confined to Canada's borders either. Singh, Chew and Amy Darwish of Tadamon! all warned that the spy agency's actions abroad should make Canadians think twice about cooperating with them.
“It's important to recognize that CSIS is not our friend,” said Signh. “We can look to renditions to torture, through cases like Abdullah Almalki or Maher Arar [or] the treatment of Omar Khadr at Guantanamo, where he was interrogated by CSIS, and they we complicit in his torture there.”
Almalki and Arar both faced rendition, detention and torture in Syria based on suspect information gathered by CSIS and provided to the Syrian government. Khadr was arrested at age 15 by US soldiers in Afghanistan in 2001 and has been detained in the Guantanamo Bay prison ever since. There are allegations he has been tortured while in custody, and human rights groups say that as a minor he should have been treated as a child soldier under the Geneva Convention.
Despite these incidents, information sharing between CSIS and international intelligence agencies known or suspected to use torture continues.
“It maintains intelligence sharing agreements with 147 other agencies, including not only Israel's Mossad, but also the Mukhabarats or secret police of Egypt, Syria and Morocco,” Darwish explained. “This can not only cause complications for people when they travel overseas, but can also put community members and their families at risk.”
The result of CSIS' actions, the coalition alleges, is a chilling effect on anyone who considers joining a social movement, getting involved in community organizing, or speaking out publicly on issues contrary to the federal government's concerns.
“[CSIS' actions] creates a climate of fear and insecurity, so people stop wanting to get involved in community organizing of any kind because they feel it will attract unnecessary attention; it creates a chilling effect,” said Chew who added that the impact doesn't just stop with the peopel who receive visits. "There are many people who would like to be here from my community but who won't come forward. You don't speak out for your rights generally; it creates fear, intimidation.”
CSIS has defended it's actions in the past, saying that their investigations are necessary to ensure the safety of the Canadian public and for our national security and interests. CSIS, though, is not charged with setting those interests, leading some to question to what degree changes in the political wind can impact their investigations.
According to Darwish, the fact that CSIS is mandated to collect information about the influence of foreign interests on domestic activities in Canada provides a pretext for unfairly targeting groups, particularly those who support “national liberation struggles or anti-colonial movements abroad.”
She characterized CSIS' definition of what constitutes Canadian interests and what poses a national security risk as “very narrow” and “influenced by political priorities and interests.”
“In fact, even the Security Intelligence and Review Committee, which is CSIS' own oversight body, has claimed that CSIS has a regrettable attitude that supporting Arab causes can be suspicious,” she said.
Domestic activities also raise questions of the agency's impartiality and whether its actions can be seen as separate from political priorities, said Singh.
“The surveillance of Indigenous communities is one example among many showing that CSIS does not play a neutral role. [...] It's highly politicized and the state determines who the enemies are,” he said. “And historically, the very origins of policing in Canada, the Northwest Mounted Police and eventually the RCMP, was to quell native rebellions and was in the service of Canadian colonialism.”
Echoes of this can be seen today, panelists said, in the government's use of terms like “enemy of the government” in internal documents, publicly characterizing environmental groups as “radicals,” as Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver recently did, or dividing society into sectors such as government “allies” and “adversaries,” as revealed in recent government documents.
Such heavy-handedness and political labeling may come to backfire, though, said Lamy. She said the Conservative government's continued attempts to equate dissent with criminality will lead to the label of “radical” being applied to a growing number of groups from wide range of society. The result, she believes, will be that “the feeling of solidarity will grow larger and larger, because the label [of “radical”] will be stuck to more than anarchists or anti-capitalists or Indigenous movements, but will be applied to a variety of groups that work on questions of social aid, welfare, even women.”
The ultimate goal of this new coalition, and the ongoing campaign against cooperating with CSIS, the speakers said, is to build a greater capacity for self-defense within communities when faced with harassment or interrogation from the spy agency. “[This campaign] is done in the spirit of support and understanding and dialogue,” said Singh. “It's trying to build community-based trust between our different groups and it's there that we can provide proper security versus any kind of threat.”
To that end, the coalition will continue to approach groups across Canada to join the campaign against cooperating with CSIS, as well as share information on what people should do if they or others in their community are approached by the service. Lamy also said that an annual march against what is seen as CSIS' myriad abuses could be in the works for the future.
“[We want to make] sure this gets out across the country and that there are clusters and nodes in every city and town that are getting endorsements and breaking that fear of CSIS,” said Singh.