CALGARY—Trans Mountain opponents are prepping for what is expected to be a summer of protest against the pipeline expansion project, but experts fear police and private security teams already have them under surveillance.
Corporate security teams for major energy companies have long worked hand-in-hand with the RCMP and CSIS to deter protesters who are seen as potential eco-terrorists, according to a paper published by two academics in 2016. Its authors suggest the same situation is likely with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
Experts say the importance of the Trans Mountain pipeline to the federal government means surveillance of protests is almost certainly happening.
Drawing from internal RCMP memos obtained through Access To Information and Privacy requests, they found both sides collect a broad range of mundane information, including the attendance of peaceful protests and anti-infrastructure comments made on blogs.
For a protester caught up in this surveillance, the consequences can be quite real.
Kevin Walby, an associate professor in the department of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg and one of the paper’s co-authors, gave a hypothetical. Photos of a particular protester might be taken by corporate security agents, shared with police officers, and then used to pull them out of a crowd at a protest even if they haven’t committed an offense.
It raises the profile of any given activist, making it more likely that police will target them,” Walby said.
Once a person’s information is in the hands of the RCMP or CSIS, Canadian national security law also allows it to be shared between a wide range of government departments under certain circumstances. Bill C-59, which recently received royal assent, grants permission to do so if the person in question is involved in “significant or widespread interference” with critical infrastructure.
Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties’ Association’s privacy, technology and surveillance project, said significant or widespread interference with “critical infrastructure,” such as a pipeline, could qualify. She explained that C-59 contains a rider exempting constitutionally-protected acts of advocacy, protest, dissent, or artistic expression — unless they’re conducted in conjunction with an activity that does.
“Increasingly, security forces view protests as potential sites of violence rather than constitutionally protected spaces to express dissatisfaction or political opinion,” she said.
The word “significant” also isn’t well-defined in the legislation, McPhail said, making it unclear where and when it would take effect.
“Would a non-violent but long-term occupation of a potential mine site be significant?” she asked. “Or the same thing with an occupation of the pipeline site, like a blockade. How long would it have to happen for it to be significant?”
First Nations and environmental groups vowed to continue protesting the 1,150-kilometre pipeline expansion between Edmonton and Burnaby, B.C. immediately after the federal government approved it earlier this month.
In a statement, the RCMP said its liaison officers in Alberta and B.C. are maintaining relationships with Indigenous communities and encourages “open and direct dialogue” between First Nations, industry and government. Trans Mountain Corporation said in its own statement it had “enhanced security” at its facilities.
Walby said the importance of the Trans Mountain pipeline to the federal government means surveillance of protests is almost certainly happening.
“I would be surprised if it wasn’t because this is a critical infrastructure initiative and the government stake in it is huge,” he said.
Through their ATIP requests, Walby and Jeffrey Monaghan, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s institute for criminology and criminal justice, found CSIS and the RCMP take part in semi-annual meetings with energy industry representatives called Utility and Energy Sector Stakeholder briefings. The energy representatives all possessed security clearances allowing them to view classified intelligence.
Trans Mountain Corporation said it did not attend the most recent meeting.
The stakeholder briefings “provide a forum for the private sector to brief the Canadian intelligence and law-enforcement community on issues we would not normally be privy to,” according to the internal RCMP documents obtained by Monaghan and Walby.
In one example of this co-operation, Enbridge surveilled a peaceful protest of no more than 50 people outside Hardisty Terminal during the approval process for the Northern Gateway pipeline.
That information later showed up in a situational awareness report provided to Alberta’s Counter-Terrorism Crisis Management Plan.
Surveillance of activists can also include the use of algorithms or scrapers designed to monitor social media accounts remotely, McPhail explained. Monaghan and Walby’s research suggests the RCMP also conduct their own on-the-ground surveillance, particularly of Indigenous groups.
In one exchange, RCMP officers warned of the “possibility of activities” related to Northern Gateway environmental protests at an all-Indigenous basketball tournament in Prince Rupert, B.C.
Indigenous groups who are peacefully opposed to energy projects have found themselves on the receiving end of conventional, yet aggressive policing tactics. In January, RCMP officers enforcing an injunction against a northern B.C. blockade set up by Wet’suwet’en Nation protesters arrived heavily armed and forcefully arrested 14 people.
Walby said much of the policing around TMX protests will be similar. “There’ll be some armoured personnel carriers, there’ll be riot gear, but it’s the work behind the scenes that’s really scary.”
Monaghan suspects that pre-emptive surveillance may be a way for police forces to out-manoeuvre protesters’ tactics, especially in the face of public scrutiny.
“They’ll never admit that, but I think that part of this information preparedness that they go about trying to get ready for is really about communications, and it’s about controlling tomorrow’s media narratives,” he said.
Brennan Doherty is a work and wealth reporter with Star Calgary. Follow him on Twitter: @bren_doherty