Surveillance of the Environmental Movement: When Counter-Terrorism Becomes Political Policing

By Jeffrey Monaghan, researcher with the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University and Kevin Walby, Assistant Professor, Sociology, University of Victoria.

A recent example of RCMP surveillance of environmental activists was reported last month by the Montreal Gazette.  According to documents released under the Access to Information Act, it appears that a branch of the expansive RCMP national security apparatus – the Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Team – has been monitoring a group of Quebec residents opposed to shale gas development.  The group under surveillance – la Regroupement Interrégional sur le gaz de schiste de la Vallée du St-Laurent – represents more than 100 anti-shale gas citizen committees in Quebec. 

Surveillance practices targeting the environmental movement should not be surprising given recent trends toward an increasing allocation of resources to counter-terrorism programs across the country.

The RCMP’s rationale behind their surveillance of shale gas opponents relies on the potential threat of ‘homegrown extremism.’ As an increasingly visible ploy (particular since Minister Joe Oliver’s polemic regarding opponents of the Northern Gateway pipeline), references to domestic extremism represents a shift in the working definition of terrorism where groups like al-Qaida or the Taliban are no longer the central antagonists.

Instead, national security agencies have presented a conflated threat of terrorism and extremism to castigate a host of groups and causes, including pacifists that organize petitions against shale gas development.

While troubling, these practices have become the norm within national security agencies.

We have recently published an academic report on security preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics using access to information requests with the RCMP and CSIS. Examining threat assessments from 2005 and 2010, our findings show how terminology of ‘extremism’ was used as a code word to describe critics of the Games.

As the Games approached, the category of ‘extremism’ was used to refer to a surprising range of actors but mostly as a catch-all for a host of left wing groups, particularly those associated with the global justice movement, environmentalists, anti-capitalists, and animal rights activists. Groups like Greenpeace, PETA, and Sea Shepherd were frequently mentioned in these threat assessments.

Groups that are catalogued in these surveillance campaigns cannot challenge such accusations, nor can they see the substantive materials that gathered by state surveillance practices. Labels like ‘extremist’ cannot be challenged.

What is important to understand about the category of ‘extremism’ is that almost any activity or communication contrary to the government can get you labeled this way.

Looking at primary documents from the RCMP and CSIS, it appears that a range of innocuous low-level political activities (i.e. riding on a bus to a protest, attending an environmental rally, advocating maple syrup boycotts) can get you lumped under this label. Further, there is a troubling association between this category and threats of violence.

RCMP and CSIS view a number of activist activities – particularly civil disobedience – as forms of attack.  Blocking access to roads or buildings are framed as violence, depicting pacifists as national security threats. In the lead up to the Olympics in Vancouver, national security agencies also used the label in association with private property destruction, specifically the property of corporate sponsors. During this time period, the label of extremism allowed national security resources to be mobilized for the protection of tarsands companies and other sponsors. 

Expanded categories for policing and surveillance practices can have a number of ripple effects. Namely, these practices can lead to the criminalization of public advocates and a broad ‘chilling effect’ on participatory democratic practices.

This is entirely consistent with the Conservative agenda on security and crime that aims to neutralize and invalidate those who challenge their policy positions. This approach is troubling given their support for controversial projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline and the groundswell of political opposition that it has garnered.

This all begs a larger question: what exactly does the government mean when it conflates ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ in their counter-terrorism policies?

It is no longer clear whom the RCMP, Stephen Harper or Vic Toews count as terrorists. If almost any dissent can get one’s actions classified as ‘extremism’ how much more does it take to be labeled and prosecuted as a terrorist in Harper’s Canada? 

Notably, one shale gas opponent has been charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act because of allegations concerning threatening letters. Likewise, student activists from Quebec are facing terrorism-related criminal charges for allegedly releasing smoke bombs during last year’s student strike.

These prosecutions point to a significant expansion of criminal liability for ‘terrorism activities.’ Coupled with efforts to include damage to, or disruption of, private property as acts of terrorism, the environmental movement should take note of the changing field of struggle – and the resources that are being amassed against it.  

Expanding the definition of terrorism allows for national security agencies to broaden their scope of operations and cast their surveillance net upon a larger spectrum of groups and activities. In an era where Canada increasingly resembles a petro-state, surveillance agencies are regularly caricaturizing activists as threats to national security. With an appetite for larger budgets and greater resources, Canada’s counter-terrorism strategies seem to be making up new threats that are used to justify further surveillance.

But what the RCMP will rarely disclose is that the threat of terrorism attacks in Canada is very low and Canadian spending on national security issues is completely incommensurate with these risks.

A much larger threat – the RCMP won’t mention – are the impacts of these surveillance campaigns on social movements: suspicion, paranoia, stress, internal divisiveness, and the potential for significant ‘chilling effects’ on supposedly protected activities like speech, association, and rights to organize. Part of contesting these mega environmental catastrophes in-the-making must also be ongoing critique of state attempts to categorize, frame, slander and maim dissent.

Looking at the flipside to these surveillance projects reveals another important dynamic at-play: the strength of ecological movements is being acknowledged.

While government would like to dismiss opposition to the current growth-at-any-cost model as a threat to national security, the PR-games associated with labeling environmental groups as terrorists might just backfire. This is likely only the beginning of a long standoff. 

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