Watchdog dismisses complaint about CSIS spying on environmentalists and indigenous people


OCTOBER 4, 2017 - A federal watchdog has dismissed a complaint from a civil liberties group alleging Canada's spy agency overstepped the law while monitoring environmental activists.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association is now asking the Federal Court to toss out the Security Intelligence Review Committee's decision.

The association filed a complaint with the review committee in 2014 after media reports suggested the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other government agencies considered opposition to the petroleum industry as a threat to national security.

The complaint letter also cited reports that CSIS had shared information with the National Energy Board about so-called "radicalized environmentalist" groups seeking to participate in the board's hearings on Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline project, which would have seen Alberta crude flow westward to Kitimat, B.C.

In addition, the association alleged that CSIS had shared information with oil companies and held secret conferences with these petroleum industry players at its headquarters.

The complaint cited records, released through the Access to Information Act, that suggested certain organizations were viewed as potential security risks simply because they pushed for environmental protections.

The association argued CSIS's intelligence gathering violated the law governing the spy service, which forbids CSIS from collecting information about Canadians unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect they constitute a threat to national security.

The review committee held closed-door hearings in Vancouver in August 2015. The association called witnesses from environmental and public-interest organizations including LeadNow, ForestEthics Advocacy Association, the Dogwood Initiative and the Sierra Club of British Columbia.

In the newly filed application to the Federal Court, the civil liberties association says the review committee's decision to dismiss the complaint — a copy of which was received by the association Sept. 1 — contains errors of law and should be set aside. It wants the court to order the committee to take a fresh look at the complaint.

The B.C. association is also challenging the committee's decision to prohibit the association from publicly disclosing or speaking about the evidence of its own witnesses or its final submissions.

The prohibition means the association is uncertain as to whether it can make public the review committee's 58-page decision, since it includes summaries of evidence.

Paul Champ, a lawyer for the association, recently asked the review committee for clarity on this point. The committee said in a Sept. 25 letter that it had nothing further to add.

The review committee is the only real tool of oversight that Canadians have to ensure that CSIS is using its powers reasonably and within the bounds of the law, Champ said Wednesday.

"This decision is deeply troubling because it keeps individual complaints and decisions essentially secret and inhibits public dialogue and debate about national security matters."