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CSIS agents visit, harass Barriere Lake solidarity activist

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

 

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.

 


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Comments

Why, why, why?

 Why would you talk to CSIS, especially about a community you don't belong to????

You might be smart, but you are not smarter than CSIS, you won't get information from them, and it disgusts me that you would do this in the face of repeated counsel from the activist community in Montreal.

If CSIS comes a knocking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yx2BO2Wj1dc

  I exchanged words with the

 

I exchanged words with the CSIS agents for about  4 or 5 minutes, mostly to tell them that I wouldn't have a conversation with them.  Everything I said they could just as easily have read on any number of public statements and press releases the community has put out over the years.

By briefly questioning them, we learned that CSIS was interested in the current situation in Barriere Lake, something we wouldn't have known if I had just shut the door after they announced their identity ( they might have some motivation to lie about their interest, but I find that hard to believe ).

This information has been useful to the community, in understanding the forces arrayed against them, and it has also attracted some media attention to the community's struggle.

 

 

 

 

  Ten reasons not to talk --

 

Ten reasons not to talk -- or listen -- to CSIS

| June 15, 2010

 

Over past months, reports have multiplied of Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) visits to the homes and even workplaces of people working for social justice. In addition to its longstanding and ongoing harassment and intimidation of indigenous peoples, immigrant communities, and others, the spy agency has become much more visible in its surveillance of movements for social justice. 

The People's Commission is aware of dozens of such visits in the Montreal area alone. People visited range from writers and artists to staff at advocacy organizations and anarchists living in collective houses. Unannounced, in the morning, the middle of the day or the evening, CSIS agents knock at the door of private homes. Their interest is far ranging: from the tar sands, to the G8, to indigenous organizing, Palestine solidarity, Afghanistan; who you know and what you think. Their very presence is disruptive, their tone can be intimidating, and their questions intrusive, manipulative and inappropriate. They guarantee confidentiality -- "just like in security certificate cases" -- and invariably ask people to keep quiet about the visit.

The People's Commission Network advocates total non-collaboration with CSIS. That means refusing to answer questions from CSIS agents, refusing to listen to whatever CSIS may want to tell you, and breaking the silence by speaking out whenever CSIS comes knocking.

If you are in immigration proceedings, or in a vulnerable situation, we strongly advise you to insist that any interview with CSIS be conducted in the presence of a lawyer of your own choosing.

Here are 10 good reasons not to talk -- or listen -- to CSIS:

1. Talking with CSIS can be dangerous for your health

Even though CSIS agents do not have powers of arrest and detention, CSIS can and does use information it gathers in seemingly innocuous conversations to write security assessments for immigration applications, detention and deportation under security certificates, various blacklists (the no-fly list, border watch lists, etc.) and other purposes. Innocent comments you make can be taken out of context and misinterpreted, but you will have no opportunity to correct errors, because intelligence information remains secret. This can have a serious impact on your life.

2. Talking with -- and listening to -- CSIS can be dangerous to others

Just as CSIS can use your words against you, they can use innocuous things you say against others. In extreme cases, this can lead to situations where people's lives are at risk. For example, in the case of Maher Arar, security agencies passed on hearsay information to the Americans that not only proved baseless but led to his rendition to Syria. CSIS later led efforts aimed at preventing Mr. Arar's return to Canada. Hearsay information relied on by CSIS certainly contributed to Adil Charkaoui's six-and-a-half year struggle against arbitrary detention and deportation to torture under a security certificate.

Moreover, CSIS is known to spread false information about others. Listening to CSIS creates doubt and can make people afraid to associate with the targets of rumour-mongering, effectively isolating them.

3. Uphold your privacy and that of those around you

You have the right to privacy, to be free from surveillance, harassment and intimidation. Refusing to speak with CSIS is one way of asserting those basic rights; talking with CSIS gives the green light to further intrusion and control. Moreover, the more you tell them, the greater material they have to justify further surveillance.

4. The more you talk, the more they come back

Many people are tempted to believe that, if they cooperate with CSIS, they will be left alone because they "have nothing to hide." Evidence shows that the contrary is true. Once you have been identified as a collaborator, CSIS will continue to come back whenever they think you can provide information. The best way to get CSIS to leave you alone is to refuse to collaborate.

5. There is nothing to gain from an encounter with CSIS

People are often tempted to sit down with CSIS out of sheer curiosity. However, CSIS agents are well trained. What they will let you know is what they want you to know; it is deliberate. They may also deliberately spread misinformation either directly or through innuendo and implication. You have no way of knowing if what they're telling you or leading you to believe is true.

6. CSIS cannot be trusted

Over the years, CSIS has demonstrated time and again that they lack competence and may act in bad faith. CSIS played a key role in bungling the Air India investigation (and, according to the Globe and Mail, a CSIS mole may have actually played a role in the bombing); they destroyed evidence in the Charkaoui security certificate case; they suppressed the fact that a key informant had failed a lie detector in the Harkat and Almrei security certificate cases; and they lied to their own oversight body (the Security Intelligence Review Committee -- SIRC) in the Bhupinder Liddar case (also here).

CSIS also routinely engages in unethical tactics of intimidation and harassment in their efforts to recruit informers: visiting people at home and at work unannounced, offering money and favours for information, intimidating those with precarious immigration status, intrusive and irrelevant questioning, improper identification, discouraging people from contacting lawyers or suggesting that they contact a lawyer chosen by CSIS.

7. CSIS shares information with untrustworthy and brutal partners

Information provided to CSIS will not stay with CSIS. The agency admits to having intelligence-sharing agreements with the spy agencies of 147 other countries; its contemporary colleagues include the CIA, Mossad, the mukhabarats of Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Egypt, Turkey's MIT and many more. Information sharing continues, despite SIRC's finding that CSIS "is rarely in a position to determine how information that went to a foreign agency is used, or how information it receives was obtained." Anything you tell CSIS could be shared with one of those other agencies, potentially affecting your travels and family abroad.

8. Solidarity against racism and racial profiling

CSIS targets entire communities based on profiling, association and racist conceptualizations of "threat" and "national security."[1] Although indigenous peoples, queer[2] and racialized communities and immigrants have long been in the sights of colonial Canada's security agencies, Muslims and Arabs have been the most heavily targetted groups in recent years. Total non-co-operation with CSIS is the best way to oppose racist "threat assessments" and uphold the freedom, rights and security of communities who are being profiled and targeted. Collective non-collaboration will decrease the pressure on more vulnerable persons and groups who might otherwise be too afraid to assert their rights to privacy and silence.

9. CSIS is the ‘political police'

The stated purpose of CSIS is to gather intelligence on any person or group who, in their opinion, might constitute a threat to the security of Canada or to Canadian interests. The highly political question of how CSIS defines "threat", "security" and "Canadian interests" is rarely, if ever, subject to public debate.[3] According to SIRC, for example, CSIS has "displayed a ‘regrettable' attitude that supporting Arab causes can be suspicious."

CSIS surveillance is by no means limited to groups and individuals who are thought to pose a risk of violence. CSIS is explicitly mandated to provide "security assessments" to the government. Security assessments are "an appraisal of the loyalty to Canada and, so far as it relates thereto, the reliability of an individual." This clearly gives CSIS wide ranging authority to collect intelligence and report on anyone whose activities may challenge -- or may be perceived to challenge -- the status quo in Canada or elsewhere. In practice, we have seen numerous examples of CSIS targeting unions, social justice groups and activists.

In short, collaboration with CSIS means participation in the repression of dissent. Over the past 10 years, CSIS's budget has increased by 140 per cent and its number of employees by almost 40 per cent. Political police have no place in our society, and we should not allow them any further legitimacy or room to grow.

10. Talking to CSIS can jeopardize collective social justice work and community organizing

By intimidating and harassing individuals, casting fear, spreading rumours, isolating leaders, using manipulation based on psychological profiling and recruiting informers or even provocateurs, CSIS can create or exploit divisions between activists and community members and disrupt community organizing and social justice work. [4]

Complete non-co-operation with CSIS is the best way to maintain unity and solidarity and continue our work for social justice and supporting members of our various communities in their struggles for justice and against repression.

The People's Commission Network is a Montreal network monitoring and opposing the "national security agenda". The network is a space for individuals and groups who face oppression in the name of "national security" -- such as indigenous people, immigrants, racialized communities, radical groups, social justice organizations, labour unions -- and their allies, to form alliances, share information, and co-ordinate strategies to defend their full rights and dignity. 

[1] See Sherene Razack, Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Policics (University of Toronto Press, 2008) for an excellent analysis of racist ideas of national security in the war on terror.

[2] See Gary Kinsman, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation (UBC Press, 2010).

[3] See Gary Kinsman, Dieter K. Buse, Mercedes Steedman, eds. "Whose Security? Canadian State Surveillance and the Creation of Enemies" (Between the Lines, 2000).

[4] There are numerous historical examples of policing and intelligence agencies engaging in such activities. The RCMP issued a fake communiqué denouncing a high profile member of the organization in 1971. The subterfuge was designed to create divisions in the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec). See Mounties can't recall details of FLQ fakes, Montreal Gazette, February 21 1979, page 3. The FBI in the U.S. famously engaged in such tactics against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. See Glick, Brian (1989). War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It, (1989) South End Press and the U.S. Senate document Supplemental Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book III, Final Report, of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operation With Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate, April 23 (under the authority of the order of April 14), 1976.

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