Justin Ling, National Post Staff
As First Nations activists shut down roads and bridges in protest last year, the Counter-Intelligence Unit of the Ministry of National Defence was watching. Closely.
All the while, behind the scenes, they were preparing to tell the media they were doing no such thing.
The Canadian Forces spent virtually all of 2013 keeping eyes on the Aboriginal protesters, out of fear that they could pose a threat to military personnel or intercept weapons shipments, according to documents obtained under Access to Information laws.
The discussion about what to do about the movement began on Jan. 8 of last year, in an email chain within the J2 section of the Canadian Joint Operations Command — military jargon for the intelligence wing of the unified body that runs Canadian military operations domestically.
“We are requesting that you provide us with a complete list of blockade and protest sites,” wrote one officer. They also requested transportation routes and scheduled shipments.
The next day, an email from the head of the unit was sent out to cease the information gathering. “Who directed this?” it asked.
In the resulting flurry of emails, a senior officer explained: “A few weeks ago, an ammo shipment was blocked during a protest activity. In that instance it was a Native protest. As a result, Commander CJOC has asked for a weekly report … on potential issues with an operational impact.”
But there was a snag. As was pointed out in emails, there are only two bodies in the Canadian Forces that are “legally mandated to collect detailed intelligence on Canadian citizens within a domestic context” — and their unit wasn’t one of them. The only way they could keep an eye on those protests would be “in support of force protection.”
But the officer in charge of the unit was skeptical that the military had an interest in snooping on the movement.
“It may not be the best answer,” they wrote. “But [at this time] there is no indications of any [Canadian Forces] nexus with Idle No More protests.” Another officer backed that up.
But the objections faded away, as the email chain turned to the idea of posting additional plain-clothed officers in Whitehorse, where a training operation was taking place, for fear that there would be Idle No More protesters. It was under the guise of “force protection.”
The officers continually point out that Idle No More activists did not appear to have any knowledge of the weapons shipments, or troop activities, and that the activists remained entirely peaceful.
Nevertheless, one report instructs that: “Affected commanders are encouraged to establish contingency plans to mitigate any unintended contact or clauses between personnel and civilians.”
The consensus in the email chain was to order weekly intelligence reports. Some reports came from J2, which had tasked regional offices to produce reports on Idle No More activities. Those reports, however, were limited to, as one Lieutenant-Colonel wrote, “open source collection” — that is, browsing Facebook pages and websites — “you do not use individual names.”
Other reports, however, came form the Counter-Intelligence Unit — one of only two units within the Canadian Forces which is permitted to run domestic surveillance, including human intelligence, within Canada. Its staff and budget are kept secret as a matter of national security.
Any details about individuals targeted by the department would be found in the whited-out sections of the heavily-redacted documents.
Niigaanwewidam Sinclair is a First Nations activist, author, and professor in Winnipeg. He says he found the information “disappointing.”
Mr. Sinclair says that “if the federal government worked half as hard building its relationship with First Nations as it did tracking Idle No More, things would be much better.”
He says that the protests were entirely peaceful, and that they had a good working relationship with the city’s local police. He doesn’t understand why National Defence would be keeping tabs.
“Strange isn’t the right word. I would say: They completely misunderstood the movement,” he says.
It appears the department was worried that others wouldn’t understand, either. In May 2013, with reporting ongoing, media lines prepared by the department read: “The Canadian Armed Forces are not in the business of spying on Canadians,” but notes that the Counter-Intelligence Unit runs “routine” reporting.
The media lines were prepared — though, seemingly, never used — “as the reports may be perceived as targeting Abroginal [sic] groups.”
Reports surfaced in 2011 that the unit had kept tabs on First Nations groups, but the military insisted that the data was aggregated, and not collected by the military itself.
Yet many reports note independent open-source intelligence collecting done by the Forces themselves.
“A recent [Open Source Intelligence] search confirmed members of Occupy Edmonton are supporting the Idle No More movement throughout online comments and uniting at geographical protest areas,” read one account, cited in a number of intelligence reports from May.
A protester who identified himself as Terry Goldman helped organize the Occupy Edmonton encampment, and has participated in weekly meetings ever since. The Defence documents clearly show that the military kept a close eye on him and his compatriots’ Facebook accounts.
“Well, that’s…” Mr. Goldman pauses. “I’m not surprised.” He said that ever since Edward Snowden came forward with revelations that the National Security Agency and its Canadian counterparts engage in widespread state surveillance, he anticipates being watched.
Mr. Goldman did say some aspects were “strange.” The Post showed him a section of one intelligence report that detailed Occupy’s “passive resistance methodology,” including how the Edmonton group temporarily placed an anti-war banner on Royal Canadian Air Force monument near the city’s garrison. It read: “Why make war when we can make art?”
“Wow,” Mr. Goldman said. “It sounds like a lot of effort and work to keep track of a group just because they hoist a banner somewhere.”
Other reporting got quite specific.
“CBC News reported that a Resolute Bay family posted a photograph on a social media website in support of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence,” notes one intelligence report.
Although the initial mandate was to monitor the protests in case they obstructed military ammunitions shipments or military exercises — as one intelligence report noted, “it could be a negative public relations issues if a military convoy unintentionally entered an area of protest” — the reporting included numerous demonstrations that were nowhere near Canadian Forces bases.
The National Post has previously reported that the protests were being constantly monitored by Public Safety, Aboriginal Affairs, local police, the RCMP, CSIS, and the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre — all falling under the guise of the Government Operations Centre, which acts as an intelligence hub. Departments even held meetings to discuss possibility for an “escalation” in the protests. Given the bevy of detailed information about the protests, including location and time, it remains unclear why National Defence ran their own surveillance.