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Watchdog reported on RCMP surveillance of Indigenous-led action in 2017. Mounties never responded

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WATCH: No response from RCMP on watchdog report into spying

Jasmine Thomas can provide a simple description of how her community started forming new alliances nearly a decade ago.

“Most of our matriarchs (were) sitting in a home, talking around a kitchen table and planning future community meetings and community engagement,” said Thomas, a councillor of the Saik’uz First Nation.

Members of her First Nation helped organize public rallies and events to raise awareness about issues such as resource development, human rights, climate change and sovereignty over their territory, she explained.

But what they didn’t know at the time was how closely Canada’s national police force was tracking what they were doing in private.

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RCMP have yet to respond to 3-year-old watchdog report into Mounties surveillance of Indigenous-led action

Read more: Indigenous Canadians and police — A look at recent incidents sparking questions, criticism

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The RCMP produced an intelligence report about the activities of the Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of six nations, including the Saik’uz, which is located in central British Columbia about 100 kilometres west of Prince George.

In a copy of that report, released through access-to-information legislation, the police force provided a description of a private meeting at a community hall organized by Indigenous leaders. At the time, details of that meeting were not public.

“On Nov. 25th, 2011, a meeting was held at Nadleh Whut’en (Fraser Lake) between the YINKA DENE ALLIANCE (YDA), and various environmental groups,” read the intelligence report. “The purpose of the meeting was to strengthen the alliance between First Nations and environmental groups opposing ENBRIDGE.”

The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project was ultimately rejected by the federal government in November 2016, a few months after the Federal Court of Appeal concluded that the Crown had failed to adequately consult First Nations affected by the project.

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But Thomas said the monitoring activity has left scars and a legacy of mental health issues on the targeted Indigenous communities who felt intimidated by the RCMP’s actions.

At times, they would see police and security agents watching them at public events, Thomas said. Sometimes, she said they were publicly criticized by members of government and industry proponents, including then-Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who described pipeline project opponents as foreign-funded radicals in a 2012 open letter.

When Thomas and other allies first started organizing, Northern Gateway, a major West Coast pipeline proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge, was a contentious industrial project that inspired both fierce support and opposition.

There have long been high political stakes surrounding oil and gas projects like these, with both the future of multibillion-dollar investments and the fate of natural ecosystems up for debate and on the line.

Thomas explained that her own community invited several B.C.-based environmental groups to be their allies and planned strategy in private gatherings as they worked to build political momentum against Northern Gateway.

Jackie Thomas, a Saik’uz councillor who was chief at the time of the meeting in Nadleh Whut’en, said she learned about the RCMP intelligence-gathering efforts after getting a phone call from Martin Lukacs, a freelance journalist. Lukacs and another journalist, Tim Groves, had obtained the document through access-to-information legislation.

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“That (meeting) wasn’t on Facebook. That wasn’t on social media. It wasn’t on anything,” said Jackie Thomas, who is also Jasmine’s cousin. “How the hell did they know (about) that?”

Read more: Complaints about RCMP conduct are mounting. But who holds them accountable?

Nearly nine years later, the answer to her question still isn’t clear. But new documents are emerging that indicate a federal watchdog put the RCMP on notice three years ago and recommended that it correct or improve how it treats First Nations like the Saik’uz and their allies in the environmental movement.

The latest documents include a heavily censored 88-page interim report released to Global News by the RCMP watchdog, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, through access-to-information legislation.

The commission produced the interim report in response to a 2014 complaint by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). The advocacy group had alleged in its complaint that the RCMP was illegally monitoring and spying on peaceful and democratic activities of community groups and First Nations opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway oil pipeline project.

The watchdog’s investigation included an examination of how the RCMP interacted with members of the Idle No More movement that emerged in 2012 to promote Indigenous rights and protest changes to federal laws that it believed would interfere with existing treaties.

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The commission also spoke to RCMP officials and reviewed thousands of pages of records released by the police force’s headquarters and regional offices in British Columbia as part of the investigation, according to the report.

The commission delivered the findings to former RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson on June 23, 2017, a few days before he retired from the force. Three years later, Paulson’s successor, Brenda Lucki, has yet to respond.

Read more: First Nations policing in Canada needs to be made an essential service, Blair says

But in a new letter sent on July 8 to the BCCLA’s lawyer, Paul Champ, the commission offered new details about its findings.

“In that interim report, the commission made 18 findings and seven recommendations to the RCMP concerning the RCMP’s activities with respect to the events, protests, and demonstrations surrounding the National Energy Board joint review panel hearings into the Northern Gateway project, as well as the larger Idle No More movement,” Jason Tree, the commission’s acting director and general counsel, wrote in the letter to Champ.

Tree’s letter was sent in response to a followup note from Champ in June that noted the RCMP had still not responded to the interim report after three years.

Details about those 18 findings and seven recommendations remain a secret since the commission completely censored 77 out of the 88 pages prior to releasing the document. The commission justified its redactions by citing provisions of the Access to Information Act that allow government organizations to withhold details of matters under investigation.

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The commission told Champ in the letter that the RCMP had recently indicated it anticipated providing its response to the report in fall 2020 and that the commission’s chairperson, Michelaine Lahaie, was considering whether to release its interim findings sooner.

“The commission shares your concerns about the delays in receiving the RCMP commissioner’s response in this and other cases,” Tree told Champ in the letter. “The present three-year delay has the potential to undermine public confidence in the public complaints process, serves to frustrate the commission’s role in providing civilian oversight to the RCMP, and may dilute the effectiveness of the associated findings and recommendations.”

In an interview, Champ told Global News that the watchdog’s letter indicates that it is frustrated about not having enough power to provide adequate oversight.

Champ argued that the delay also prevents his clients from speaking out about what the RCMP did since they have not been told about what’s in the report. This is equivalent to an infringement on their constitutional right to freedom of speech, he said.

“It’s a bit of a joke, really,” Champ said. “Here we are, six years later (after the 2014 complaint), and we still don’t know what the findings are of the commission, and the RCMP has been sitting on those findings for three years. I really think it’s a disgrace and it’s showing a lot of disrespect to those Canadian citizens as well as the process itself, in my view.”

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Read more: Trudeau’s government has a plan to tackle racism in the RCMP. Experts say it won’t work

Lucki, the RCMP commissioner, wrote to Champ in summer 2019 and indicated that she understood why he wanted the findings made public as soon as possible but did not commit to meeting any deadline.

“Given the volume and complexity of the relevant material, it is difficult to provide a timeline for completion of my response,” Lucki wrote in an Aug. 16, 2019 letter to Champ. “Despite other challenges and pressures, the completion of the analyses of public interest investigation interim reports have been prioritized. I will provide my responses as soon as feasible.”

When asked by Global News whether it had an update, the RCMP said it was still “difficult to predict” how long it would take it to provide a well-founded response to the watchdog’s report, reiterating Lucki’s statements in her letter about the volume of material as well as the number of outstanding reports it needed to review.

“Any recommendation regarding the operation or administration of the RCMP can have far-reaching and significant impacts to the organization and the public,” the RCMP said in a statement. “As a result, there are many factors that need to be considered in preparing a response. These include existing case law, our legal authorities, our budget, and potential impacts on our service to the public amongst others.”

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The new details are coming to light in the wake of a series of serious incidents involving the RCMP and Indigenous people, including confrontations with anti-pipeline activists on Wet’suwet’en territory in B.C. at the beginning of the year, a violent altercation with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in Alberta over an expired licence plate in March and the fatal shooting in New Brunswick of Rodney Levi in June.

Read more: First Nations chiefs call for changes to police system after New Brunswick shooting

After initially dismissing suggestions there was systemic racism within the RCMP in a series of media interviews, Lucki later acknowledged that the problem exists within the police force and that it is working hard to overcome it.

“There is no one answer, no single solution, no one approach,” Lucki said in a statement released on June 12. “It is the ongoing commitment to work and continue to learn that will help us make real progress, and I am motivated and determined to make change.

“I appreciate the frank discussions that have been taking place and I have encouraged all employees to have the conversations that some may find uncomfortable. But I have been told that struggles and discomfort are one of the hallmarks of addressing racism.”

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The police force also told Global News that it is committed to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples based on a recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.

It said it continues to consult on ways to support that commitment and assess its performance, including strengthening cultural awareness training, communications with families, an expansion of its engagement with Indigenous groups and efforts to increase Indigenous representation within its workforce.

This also includes numerous initiatives at local, provincial/territorial and national levels in partnership with Indigenous groups, as well as new exercises for cadet training to enhance cultural awareness and humility using a trauma-informed approach, the RCMP said.

The RCMP also said it was still considering changes to strengthen practices related to the recent national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

In terms of protests, the RCMP said it encouraged its officers “to take a measured approach that prioritizes proactive engagement, communication, mitigation and facilitation” in order to maintain or restore the peace.

The RCMP also recently reached an agreement with the commission that will now require the commissioner to provide a response to public interest reports within six months. But this only applies to new complaints, and it’s not retroactive.

The BCCLA complaint about the RCMP was submitted alongside a similar complaint about the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), although the latter complaint was dismissed in May 2019 by a separate federal watchdog, the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

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The CSIS watchdog found that the service had collected some information but that this “was done incidentally, in respect of lawful targeting authorities in place at the time.”

The committee reviewing the CSIS complaint also said in its report that the BCCLA “failed to differentiate the actions of the NEB and of the RCMP and those of CSIS.”

Read more: Resistance to reform — Is civilian oversight the magic bullet the Mounties need? (2019)

Jackie Thomas, the former Saik’uz First Nation chief, said the whole situation and her own personal experiences with the RCMP make her skeptical about whether there will be change, no matter how many times people complain.

“Usually, nothing has happened,” she said. “Even when you make a formal complaint, nothing comes of it.”

She said she has always known that it’s best for her to avoid the RCMP, to hide from them or run, whenever she sees them.

The December 2011 RCMP intelligence report that singled out the private Yinka Dene Alliance meeting also noted that Oliver, then the natural resources minister, had recently proposed to expedite the federal review of the Enbridge project and complete it by 2013, one year ahead of schedule.

Jasmine Thomas said she believes this demonstrates a link between political considerations and the RCMP’s monitoring activity, which raises further questions about the police force’s credibility.

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“We were dealing also with other crises in our communities, like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and other issues at the community level,” she said. “So it was disturbing in the sense of where the priority was in terms of resources.”

She also said there was a bright side to the partnerships that First Nations were inspired to form with other Canadians — including groups such as Friends of Wild Salmon, the Dogwood Initiative and Forest Ethics.

“I believe once we started to put a spotlight on the issue, we were able to make connections with the broad group of Canadians — people First Nations never worked with before — including these environmental organizations… And Idle No More came after we started to build up this momentum,” she said.

“We woke up the country.”