CSIS agents visit, harass Barriere Lake solidarity activist

Jun 13, 2010

CSIS agents visit, harass Barriere Lake solidarity activist

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There’s an evocative poem by Bertolt Brecht about truth-telling in dark times. In it, a crusading writer is scanning a list of books a tyrannical regime has burned for their heresies, only to discover that his works have been passed over. Burn my books, he cries out in a letter to the regime’s rulers. Haven’t my books always reported the truth? And here you are treating me like a liar! Burn me!

Our times aren’t so dark, but we have our own forces whose forbidding attention is an affirmation, however unintended, of decency and justness and truth spoken to power. The Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS), this country’s spy agency, is one such force. In recent years it has acquired a reputation for targeting innocent Muslims and Arabs, aiding and abetting the rendition of a few to torture. But it also has a longer history of spying on, interrogating, and harassing social justice activists, separatists, progressive unionists, gays and lesbians, Indigenous peoples and others. I'd always figured that sooner or later my activities would warrant the imprimatur of CSIS. Hadn’t I worked hard enough, in activist and journalistic roles, to try to end certain injustices and advance Indigenous rights? Visit me!

Two CSIS agents paid me their respects the afternoon of April 13, 2010. Levity aside, I wanted to share a description with friends, activists, and the public, because I think the intent and often the consequence of such operations is to isolate and scare individuals, and ultimately to chill dissent and suppress organizing that challenges the state and the powerful interests it protects. Collective awareness about the behaviour of the government, leading eventually to collective action, is the only way to combat the insidious effects of such surveillance and harassment. [The People's Commission Network has a helpful and educational community advisory and how-to-videos on their website.]

Around 4pm on that day, a male and female, both white, short and well-dressed in dark blue suits, rung my doorbell and introduced themselves as CSIS agents, gave me their names, and asked if I’d be willing to have a conversation with them.

The man was tense, excited, almost bug-eyed, so bent did he seem on my speaking with them. He was wearing a thin tight-knit skullcap, kind of like a qubbah (I couldn’t help but think that this was some earnest attempt to shed their reputation for Islamophobia). The woman was a bit more relaxed. I asked them how they got my address. They laughed, emphatically and awkwardly, telling me “the phone book of course.” They immediately tried to reassure me that they were not “a sneaky and shady organization." Such assurances would be a common theme of our brief conversation.

I wasn’t going to say it aloud, but they must not have searched the phonebook very hard. They had first gone looking for me at my old apartment, perhaps because they had information on me in an old database. My ex-roommate had usefully sent me an email about it an hour earlier. Not such an intelligent agency, apparently.

He wrote me that some “sketchy people” had rung his doorbell and asked for me. Since they hadn’t introduced themselves, he suggested they were parole officers or collection agents. But I’m not on probation, and in my experience collection agencies hire burly men to haul off the goods. So I assumed it was CSIS and wasn’t entirely surprised when they rung my doorbell about an hour later.

“We're interested because you have an informed opinion, and your media reports and statements,” they told me when I asked why they were approaching me.

“Any media statements of mine in particular?” I asked. My goal for the conversation was to discern as much as possible about their motivations, and then to bring it to an end.

“About Barriere Lake and the recent reports that the government is not recognizing either the Matchewan or Ratt factions.”

The government's refusal to recognize the customary leadership of Barriere Lake dated to the fall of 2009, and I hadn't ever made any personal statements on this particular political development. So I knew this was a lie. Clearly they’ve just been keeping tabs on the work of the Barriere Lake solidarity collective, and would probably draw the conversation to more pressing matters.

In fact, little more than a week before their visit, the Department of Indian Affairs had escalated their efforts to crush Barriere Lake. Indian Affairs Minister Strahl had invoked an article in an archaic piece of federal legislation in order to obliterate the community’s traditional governance system – an attempt to bring them to heel politically.

I doubted the timing was coincidental. With such a governmental assault on the community in process, CSIS was likely been mandated to assess the community’s intentions to resist, and the nature of their potential responses.

They cut to the chase. “We want to know about the possibilities of violence,” they told me. “We're concerned about the possibility of violence.”

I told them that only one party to the conflict had ever acted violently, the party that they worked for. The community, on the other hand, had only ever engaged in non-violent tactics. I was a little surprised that they would ask such questions. Was the federal government, and CSIS in particular, really so obtuse? It was not difficult to understand that in over twenty-five years of fierce contention with two levels of government and multinational industry, the community had consistently relied on the same tactics – public campaigning, civil protests, non-violent direct action. Not just on moral grounds, but because these were the only tactics likely to be effective, being an isolated, rural Indigenous community surrounded by resource-dependent non-native communities.

It’s true that agencies like CSIS, just like the rest of government and mainstream media, claim that peaceful actions like highway and logging blockades constitute violence (though clear-cutting a way of life out of existence, or brutalizing families peacefully protesting, don't qualify).

However flexible their definition (I wasn't going to get into a debate), what was clear was that CSIS wanted to understand the chances of non-violent direct action or armed resistance on the part of the community. I wondered if my saying that the community subscribed to non-violence was an admission of information they didn’t have. But I don’t believe the unknown threat of violence – actual violence – would serve as a political advantage to the community. It would likely only invite further government repression.

When I mentioned the history of non-violence, the male agent remarked that this was the kind of thing they wanted to talk about, so they could “validate” their information.
By this point, I realized I was getting inadvertently drawn into a conversation I didn't want to have. I told the agents I would take their card and number and call them if I wanted to (one gave me a card: Dominique Mills, 514-393-7902).

They were reluctant to see me go, and continued to try to disarm me, reassuring me that they were friendly, well-meaning people. They tried pandering, telling me how important it would be if an “expert” like me would talk with them.

They encouraged me not to tell others about their visit, because some people would try to fill my head with scary ideas about their work. Crazy thought, eh? They also stressed that any information I give them would be “confidential.” I wasn’t going to ask for clarification, but I found this logic absolutely bizarre: was it confidential in the sense that they wouldn’t tell their superiors, who had sent them to find out whatever it is they wanted? That was obviously false. Or was it confidential in the sense that they wouldn’t let other activists or my peers know about the visit? But clearly they wouldn't contradict their own advice to me to remain silent, or hinder their chances of speaking with others.

I told them goodbye, and closed my door.

Later that night around 11pm, my roommate, who I hadn’t yet told about the visit, was returning home and came across a man poking through the recycling bins on the sidewalk in front of our house. He made some effort to read – or pretend to read – a newspaper he had scavenged. She stood for some time at our second floor entrance, and he turned her back to her, making no attempt to seem like what he was doing was natural. Finally, he walked off. Her description of him to me the next morning – short, well-dressed, tight-fitting cap – perfectly matched the agent who had visited earlier.

Being spies, I can only imagine they know how to sneak about at least a little more deftly. So I would hazard that there were only a few reasons for him to snoop in such a blatant manner: to try to get into my apartment, something I found highly unlikely; to try to catch me leaving my house, and attempt to rope me into a conversation; or simply as a form of intimidation.

He wouldn’t have found anything useful in the recycling bins. They weren’t mine. I always forget to take mine out.

The next day I called the number I had been given to tell CSIS to stay away from my home, at all hours. The female agent insisted that it could not have been her colleague the night before. She said it was against protocol, for one thing, and CSIS also respected people’s rights (if she had just stuck to the first line, I might have considered believing her).

Apart from Barriere Lake's community struggle, the visit may also have had something to do with the Defenders of the Land call-out for a national day of action for Indigenous rights on June 24th, targeting the G8/G20 meetings in Ontario. Barriere Lake is one of the signatory communities to the call, which had also just been made public a week and a half before the visit.

The visit left me nervous for a few days after, and I briefly picked up the habit of locking my door – something I never do in the placid Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. Sharing the experience with others helped overcome my anxieties. Joining others in publicizing and collectively denouncing CSIS's broader strategy to undermine movements for justice and equality has steeled me for any future visits. In the end, CSIS's visit was a reminder that we are doing good work, work that needs to continue being done.