When public safety minister Vic Toews introduced his new anti-terrorism strategy last month, many were stunned to discover the feds were targeting groups – enviro, native and others – as sources of extremism.
The announcement was tellingly made just as the Tories revved up their attempts to discredit foes of the Northern Gateway pipeline. But for those who’ve been making their way through the thousands of pages of RCMP and OPP documents pertaining to the G20 released under freedom of information, this shadowing of dissenting orgs didn’t come as a major surprise.
It appears the Toews approach has been policy since at least 2009 and underlies a campaign of surveillance and infiltration of groups. Climaxing with the G20 mass arrests, the year-long police operation was, according to the RCMP, “likely the largest joint intelligence ever assembled in Canada.”
The papers also explain the backdrop to G20 “conspiracy” charges and the basis of an operation that saw 12 undercover agents directed by the RCMP-led Joint Intelligence Group (JIG) fan out to spy on political organizers.
But much to the chagrin of civil rights lawyers, the conspiracy charges never proceeded to trial. Consequently, the legality of the spying and infiltration effort couldn’t be tested against Charter Of Rights arguments. In November 2011, conspiracy defendants – most of whom had been arrested before the black bloc mayhem of June 25, 2010 – agreed to a plea bargain that saw six plead guilty to counselling to commit an indictable offence and 11 walk free.
“When things don’t go to trial, we don’t get a precedent on the books,” says the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Abby Deshman ruefully. “It doesn’t constrain the actors from doing what they did again,” she adds, a reference to police.
The papers that surfaced via a freedom of info request by independent journalists connected to the Media Co-op tell a strange tale of the policing mindset. Under the headline The Terrorist Threat in a June 2009 report, the authors discuss threats from al-Qaeda and then comment that “global economic malaise has fostered considerable frustration and anger with the world leaders…. This anger has led most analysts to predict an escalation in lawful dissent and, most importantly, legitimized (to some) the need for more radical/criminal action.”
The grievances of such groups, the report says, “are based upon notions/expectations regarding the environment, animal rights, First Nations’ resource-based grievances, gender/racial equality and distribution of wealth, etc.”
It is this quick shift from legal protests to violent criminality that has the CCLA’s Deshman brandishing the Charter. “The fact that they are even discussing lawful dissent under the heading of terrorist activity is obviously of immediate concern,” she says across the table in the organization’s board room.
If conspiracy protesters had gone to trial, she continues, “there would have been Charter challenges and serious concerns raised about whether criminal law was appropriately applied. Obviously, people should not be regularly subject to covert surveillance because they have dissenting opinions.”
Lawyer Peter Rosenthal, who represented three of the conspiracy defendants, has similar concerns. “I think there is a fundamental problem with undercover officers infiltrating activist groups, period.” For authorities to engage in “this kind of operation based on some notion that someone may break a few windows is not at all justified,” he says.
He also warns that counselling charges have too far a reach. “If you wrote an article in NOW saying that the inequities of this society are so intolerable that we should take strong measures and the next day someone trashed City Hall, you could be guilty of counselling.”
(Crown prosecutors of the case turned down repeated requests for interviews.)
JIG officers, it appears, infiltrated a wide array of groups, including the Toronto Community Mobilization Network, Guelph and Kitchener/Waterloo anarchist orgs, the Movement Defence Committee (MDC), which provided legal observers and lawyers for protesters, and the Alternative Media Centre.
“I think they were fishing for any information they could get,” says lawyer and former MDC member Jeff Carolin, who described undercover police officers Brenda Carey and Kevin Reid (identified in court proceedings) as pleasant and enthusiastic G20 volunteers.
Nonetheless, in the streets doing legal observation, Carolin and eight volunteer observers were arrested during the G20 weekend.
It appears even Greenpeace was treated as a national security threat. Says Greenpeace Canada exec director Bruce Cox, “We were aware that in the lead-up to the G20, [undercover police] took photographs and video outside our building. We understand that at our Climate Camp, a woman attended who was later identified as a police officer.”
So how did this surveillance escape Charter courtroom scrutiny? Basically because co-defendants, assessing what lay before them if their cases proceeded to trial, chose to bargain rather than challenge.
Alex Hundert, a native rights activist and member of the anarchist network in Kitchener/Waterloo who is facing a two-year sentence in June (minus time served), says, “I’m pleading guilty to this to get 11 people off charges and because one of them was going to get deported.”
His mischief over $5,000 conviction rests on a protest “target list” in which, according to his plea statement, “he provided the names and locations of places deemed appropriate for direct action by protesters,” such as banks and corporations, though the nature of the acts was unspecified. He admitted he was aware there could be property damage.
It’s not clear where the line should be drawn between legitimate political organizing and criminal counselling. Rosenthal believes that while a lot of things were said at grassroots planning meetings, he’s “not aware of any statements that would constitute counselling.”
Like most of the convicted activists, Hundert was already in jail by the time the G20 weekend protests were under way, arrested at gunpoint in a predawn police raid on June 26, 2010. He spent five months in pretrial custody and another five under house arrest, mostly for perceived bail breaches like speaking on a panel at Ryerson and talking to the media.
The debilitating pretrial conditions and restrictions placed on defendants led many of those facing the courts to feel they would be unable to muster a strong defence. Says Hundert of the atmosphere that fed the instinct to plead instead of fight, “Seeing me silenced every time I tried to speak out scared everyone else into shutting up, [so we couldn’t] build the kind of political support we could have had.”