Plains clothes RCMP officers collected licence plate numbers of United Church attendees in Kelowna, B.C. as part of a covert intelligence investigation into the anti-pipeline movement, says a federal watchdog in a new report released on Tuesday.
The revelation was part of a long-overdue report from the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission into allegations that the RCMP used illegitimate tactics — including covert surveillance — to monitor Indigenous and environmental protest groups opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline project, a 1,100-kilometre pipeline that would have stretched from the oil sands of northern Alberta to the deepwater port of Kitimat, B.C.
The complaint was originally filed in 2014 by the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), and the watchdog submitted its preliminary report to the RCMP in June 2017, but its public release was delayed by three and a half years as the watchdog waited for the Mounties to respond to its 18 findings and seven recommendations.
The watchdog concluded that the covert surveillance and other monitoring techniques were reasonable. But it expressed concerns about the collection and storage of personal information through video recordings of peaceful people at demonstrations, licence plate numbers and social media posts belonging to law-abiding citizens.
According to the commission report, two plain clothes officers attended a Jan. 27, 2013 meeting at the United Church to “gauge” what type of people were involved in an anti-pipeline protest planned for the following day in Kelowna.
The report said the officers went to the meeting and did not identify themselves as police.
“(The officers) observed several vehicles arrive and noted their licence plate numbers and described the occupants, all of whom appeared to be in their 60s,” the commission report said.
The officers then entered the meeting inside the church, where they made “passive observations” of what took place, the commission report said.
The officers observed attendees putting on name tags and organizing petitions. They also noted that there was “no overt talk of violence” and “no particular radicals obvious.” One participant reportedly expressed concerns government spies could be at the meeting.
The officers left the meeting when attendees “arranged their chairs into a circle to begin dialogue.” The officers then recorded 18 licence plate numbers in the parking lot of the church, the commission report said.
“We found that incident shocking,” said Paul Champ, a lawyer who represented the BCCLA in the case.
“People now have to be concerned or fearful that RCMP officers might be skulking into their meetings to write down their names and write down information about them or take notes about their bumper stickers on their car in the parking lot.”
The civilian oversight body is calling on the RCMP to create stricter rules for how it collects and stores personal information, including video recordings, licence plate details and social media posts, of peaceful protesters and demonstrators who do not engage in criminal activity, which the RCMP has agreed to do.
RCMP response to the report
In a letter dated Nov. 20, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki responded to the report, saying she agreed with nearly all of the findings and recommendations, excluding specific recommendations about rules about how the police force retains some information gathered from social media platforms.
Lucki also said she would either implement or review the oversight body’s recommendations contained in the report.
The commission report said it welcomed Lucki’s response, but added that it was concerned that the RCMP response didn’t provide enough specifics in terms of how it planned to implement some of the recommendations.
Lucki’s response indicated that she agreed video recordings of peaceful protests should be destroyed “as soon as is practicable,” but she didn’t make this same commitment when it comes to personal information collected through social media, the commission report said.
The report noted that the lack of clarity on this point is concerning and that it suggests the RCMP may want to retain some information longer, even when no known criminal activity is involved.
Watchdog recommends change to social media rules
The report also recommended that the RCMP provide annual updates on its progress toward fulfilling these recommendations.
And while the commission’s report concluded that the RCMP’s monitoring and surveillance of protesters was reasonable, it said the force lacks adequate rules for disposing of information it collects about peaceful protesters who do not engage in criminal activity, including personal details gathered from “open source intelligence” found on social media platforms, such as Facebook.
“(Demonstrators) may only come to the police’s attention because they have exercised their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association. This is extremely concerning,” the commission report said.
“Canadians have the right to expect that the police will not retain their personal information simply for engaging in peaceful protest.”
The commission report said the RCMP needs to balance the individual rights to privacy and peaceful protest with the force’s responsibility to gather intelligence about possible criminal activity. When a protest occurs and it is peaceful, police should destroy any personal information they collected about demonstrators “as soon as is practicable,” the report said.
The commission also recommended the RCMP create clearer policies and guidance for officers on how to collect and retain licence plate details, especially in cases where no criminal activity is involved.
It’s unclear from the commission report what happened to the licence plate details collected by the plain clothes RCMP officers who attended the 2013 workshop in Kelowna, and whether the RCMP still has this information on file.
Report findings are ‘disappointing’
Champ, the BCCLA’s lawyer, said the organization disagrees with the commission’s findings that the RCMP acted reasonably.
Champ believes — and the commission agreed — that widespread collection of personal information of peaceful protesters has the potential to discourage Canadians from participating in peaceful protest.
“We obviously are disappointed about those findings because we think, on the facts here, the RCMP is clearly engaging in activities that should disturb and upset all Canadians,” he said.
Meanwhile, Jasmine Thomas, a councillor of the Saik’uz First Nation who helped organize Indigenous-led opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, said she’s also disappointed by the report’s findings.
She thinks the time, energy and effort police spent surveilling people who were doing nothing other than exercising their constitutional right to demonstrate and organize could have been spent investigating actual criminal activity, such as the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in B.C. and elsewhere.
“A lot of resources were going into monitoring and surveilling the activities of peaceful, non-violent, protesters, as you want to call it, who were opposed to this project,” she said.
“So it’s very unfortunate that a very big amount of resources were wasted.”
Thomas also said that when the Northern Gateway proposal was being considered, members of the government and those in favour of the project tried to characterize those opposed to the pipeline as “foreign funded radicals,” citing a 2012 open letter written by then-Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.
This couldn’t have been further from the truth, she said.
“Through the campaign and the movement that was built in opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, a lot of Canadians, a broad spectrum of Canadians, non-Indigenous, Indigenous, found their voice through that process and wanted to engage in matters that affect them,” she said.
Thomas is also concerned that it took more than six years for the commission to complete its report into the allegations against the RCMP. She said this delay — which is mostly due to the fact that the RCMP took three and a half years to respond to the commission’s interim report — shows where the RCMP’s priorities lie.
Going forward, she said, the priority for the RCMP and the government should be to create meaningful dialogue and engagement with Indigenous and First Nations communities when considering large infrastructure projects, rather than monitoring groups who are opposed to them.
“The legal, social and political landscapes have shifted, where projects cannot proceed as they have in the past,” she said.
“First Nations, Indigenous communities aren’t going to stand by. And I think Canada is starting to recognize that, whether they like it or not.”