Canada: Surveillance of Indigenous protests and rule of law

Reports published this week in the Toronto Star and on indy media sites reveal that a special RCMP unit was formed in 2007 to produce intelligence updates on potential Indigenous protests “incited by development activity on traditional territory.” The RCMP shared this information with other police forces, with government and with “industry partners.”

Many of the communities under surveillance by the RCMP had been subject of reports by Amnesty International and by United Nations human rights bodies. These include the Lubicon Cree in Alberta and Grassy Narrows and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug in Ontario.

The latest revelations about surveillance of Indigenous activists raises serious concerns about the complicity of police and government in defining legitimate defense of human rights as “threats” requiring a law enforcement response – and the consequence that this has had for the rights and safety of those activists.

RCMP scrutiny included protests in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. In 2007 and 2008 the Ontario Provincial Police deployed hundreds of heavily armed officers, including snipers, in response to road blockades and land occupations. The OPP have never explained how this preparation to use lethal force could be justified or how it was consistent with police policies requiring use of force be kept to the minimum and used only when strictly necessary.

Amnesty International’s own research has shown that the OPP response was vastly out of proportion to any demonstrated threat to public safety from the protests themselves. In fact, in one incident, the police decision to arrest selected “protest leaders” by force, rather than simply asking them to turn themselves in for arrest, escalated the situation to the point that police pointed automatic rifles at protesters and bystanders.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called for the province to carry out an independent probe into police actions at Tyendinaga to determine what went wrong. The information that Tyendinaga was the subject of RCMP intelligence at the time of these incidents raises additional questions about whether specific information supplied by the RCMP contributed to this dangerous over-reaction, or whether the simple fact of the protests being discussed as a potential threat to security contributed to an unwarranted escalation of the OPP response.

The deeper question being asked by Indigenous peoples is why so time and money being spent on keeping tabs on Indigenous activists rather than addressing the violations of Indigenous peoples’ land rights that lead to protest. After all, Indigenous peoples’ rights to the land are also part of the structure of the law, affirmed in Canadian constitutional law and in international human rights treaties and standards. As Ontario’s Ipperwash Inquiry observed, land rights protests arise out of frustration with the ongoing failure of governments in Canada to respect and uphold these legal rights.

One of the most notorious cases of land rights violations in Canada is the situation of the Lubicon Cree. United Nations human rights bodies have repeatedly condemned Canada’s failure to protect Lubicon land rights in the face of massive oil and gas development on their land. The federal government has not held any talks with the Lubicon since 2003. We now know however that the RCMP was keeping an eye on the Lubicon and keeping “industry partners” informed.

Article on RCMP surveilance by Tim Groves and Martin Lukacs