Criminalization of Indigenous Communities

RCMP cougar attack 1Voices-Voix, August 1, 2017

In January 2017, Public Safety Canada (PS) disclosed that the Government Operations Centre (GOC) gathers information on Indigenous rallies for the purpose of “maintaining awareness” of events that may impact the safety and security of Canadians and events effecting the national interest. According to PS, the information gathered consisted generally of the date, location and purpose of the protests and rallies, including in relation to missing and murdered Indigenous women. Natural Resources Canada also reported that they monitor publicly available information such as Twitter, Facebook and media reports regarding protest activities that may impact the department, its employees or facilities.

“Monitoring” under Trudeau

Canadians and especially Indigenous Canadians are concerned to know whether or not the Trudeau government has continued with the Harper-era surveillance of Indigenous communities, especially following the passage of Bill C-51.  As of yet, there are no reports on this issue based on documents obtained through access to information requests.  However, on November 21, 2016, NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus submitted a question to the House of Commons requesting information with respect to the Trudeau government’s policing and surveillance activities related to journalists and Indigenous activists since coming into power in November 2015.

Angus’ submission included a large number of specific and general questions. For example, he asked which security agencies or other governmental bodies have been involved in tracking Indigenous protest activities relating to Idle No More, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, and a number of other controversial industrial or resource development projects. He also asked how many Indigenous individuals had been identified as potential threats to public safety or security.

Among the government departments that responded to Angus’ questions, Public Safety Canada (PS) explained that its Government Operations Centre (GOC) leads and supports the “coordination of the federal response to events affecting the national interest.” PS also reported that the GOC “maintains knowledge and awareness” of many issues that could be potentially threatening to the safety and security of Canadians. However, PS denied that the GOC’s activities rise to the level of surveillance operations or intelligence gathering.

According to PS, the GOC “maintains awareness” of the protest activities of the following groups: Idle No More, the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the Energy East and Eastern Mainline Projects, the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Generation Project, and other industrial or resource development projects.

NRCan responded as well indicating that it monitors publicly available information such as Twitter, Facebook and media reports regarding protest activities that may impact the department, its employees or facilities. However, it asserted that the department does not produce reports related to protest activities or share information on protest activities with private sector companies.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) responded to Angus’ question by stating that it fulfils its mandate by collecting and analyzing information related to criminal activity to inform RCMP management of potential threats. The RCMP asserted that it does not collect information related to the question brought forth by Angus. However, it disclosed that RCMP officials in British Columbia and Alberta have met with Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project officials on nine occasions.

Although it is unclear whether the RCMP is currently engaged in the surveillance of Indigenous activists, in mid November 2016 an ATI request revealed that as of 2014 the RCMP had compiled profiles of 89 Indigenous activists who potentially posed a “criminal threat to Aboriginal public order events.”  The information was compiled as part of Project SITKA based on monitoring of Indigenous protest events and involved the identification of many Indigenous organizations and their allies.  Through SITKA, 313 activists were deemed “individual threats” of which 89 were individually named and profiled.  Although the RCMP states that it decided against defining Indigenous protest as terrorism, it did not explain why databases of information relating to Indigenous protestors were required  and what their purpose would be in the future.

In December 2016, in a meeting with representatives of the oil and gas industry, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr stated that the federal government was prepared to respond with military and police forces if pipeline opponents engage in civil disobedience.  When a delegation of Indigenous leaders threatened to walk out of high-level meetings with Prime Minister Trudeau over the comments, Carr later apologized, saying that he regretted his words and that “civil disobedience and peaceful protest is very much a part of [Canadian] history”.  However, for Indigenous activists these comments served as a stark reminder of a history of government policies and actions that have criminalized Indigenous and environment activists.  They also underscore the importance of Angus’ question about the extent to which the surveillance of these groups continues.

Advocates express concerns

Pamela Palmater, an indigenous lawyer, university professor and activist who has been under surveillance by the government of Canada, argued that there is no justification for the government to monitor peaceful rallies and vigils calling for an Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW). She stated, “I’m pretty shocked … that they were following all of the rallies and events around murdered and missing Indigenous women, because all of them to date have really been about raising awareness, demanding a national inquiry. You didn’t see anybody doing anything violent. There were no threats to do anything violent.”

What Happened

According to documents obtained through Access to Information requests in 2010 and 2014, soon after the election of a Conservative government in 2006, several state agencies initiated new and/or intensified methods of surveillance of Indigenous communities and their leaders. The former Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) was given the lead role in monitoring Indigenous communities and leaders. It shared the results among government departments and with private actors in the oil industry in an effort to undermine communities that oppose resource development projects, such as the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Requests filed by journalists and advocacy groups under the Access to Information Act reveal that soon after the election of a Conservative government in 2006, several state agencies initiated new and/or intensified methods of surveillance of Indigenous communities and their leaders. The documents obtained under the Act reveal that the information collected was disseminated throughout government departments, as well as to private sector actors. Evidence suggests that this monitoring has included the surveillance of individual activists.
Recent reports in 2017 from Public Safety Canada (PS) confirmed that it continues to gather information about Indigenous protests, while Natural Resources Canada reported that it monitors protest activities more generally.
INAC and the “Hotspot Reporting System”
In May 2006, shortly after Stephen Harper took office as Prime Minister, he issued a directive to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) to spy on Indigenous communities (this includes First Nations, Innu and Métis). The goal was to identify the leaders, participants, and outside supporters of Indigenous organizations and to closely monitor their actions. Specifically, the intention was to monitor political action, notably but not only protests over land claims and resource development.
To do this, INAC established a “Hotspot Reporting System.” The term “hotspot” denoted Indigenous communities that the deputy ministers of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC) and INAC considered “sources of potential unrest” and made them the object of weekly reports on “militant” or “extremist” political activity. These reports were in turn summarized in a “Hotspot binder” that highlighted community demographics, as well as issues and events that might lead to direct action protests or occupations. The high-level of surveillance of Indigenous peoples evidenced by these hotspot reports suggests a closely monitored Indigenous population, whose internal organization and political activities were treated with suspicion and hostility by Ottawa.
In order to disseminate the information gleaned from this surveillance, INAC also created a “Standing Information Sharing Forum.” Chaired by the RCMP, it consisted of weekly conference calls involving several government departments and agencies, including INAC, CSIS, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources Canada, and Transportation Canada. These departments subsequently used the information to undermine and prevent protests, a policy depoliticized by INAC in internal ‘state-speak’ as “mitigating.”
One document obtained through the Access to Information requests was a report from March 2007, in which INAC reflected on the first year of surveillance and intelligence gathering. According to their statistics, the majority of hotspot “unrest” (66 per cent) related to lands and resources, and was incited by development activities on traditional territories. Further, the report discusses the role of “splinter groups” in leading protests and speculates on the presence of “multiple competing power groups” and so-called “illicit agendas.” Such terminology, together with phrases like “splinter groups” and “extremists” operates to delegitimize protest.
Indigenous communities named as “hotspots”
These Access to Information documents covering a period between 2007 and 2010 demonstrate the deep concern of federal officials over growing Indigenous activism.  The use of terminology such as “militancy” and “extremism” to describe this activism has the undeniable effect of criminalizing Indigenous protestors and dissent.  A particular issue for Ottawa was the so-called “unpredictability” of community agitation and leadership by so-called “splinter groups” of Indigenous “extremists.” The following protests were labelled as “unpredictable protests…led by splinter groups” in a 2007 INAC Report:
  • Caledonia, Ontario: (Douglas Creek Estates occupation)
  • Belleville, Ontario: (Montreal/Toronto Rail Blockade in sympathy to Caledonia)
  • Brantford, Ontario: (Grand River Conservation Authority Lands)
  • Desoronto, Ontario: (Occupation of Quarry)
  • Grassy Narrows: (Blockade of Trans Canada Hwy by environmentalists)
  • Maniwaki, Quebec: (Blockade of Route 117)
Communities under surveillance have included bands from the coast of Vancouver Island to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, such as: Tobique First Nation, Tsartlip First Nation, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) First Nation, Six Nations, Grassy Narrows, Stz’uminous First Nation, the Likhts’amsiyu Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Gitxaala First Nation, Wagmatcook First Nation, Innu of Labrador, Pikangikum First Nation.
As many have noted, it is telling that the INAC statement identifies such protests as “outside of negotiation processes” with elected First Nations councils. The protests threaten the status quo, which is that the Crown will negotiate self-determination only with Indian Act bands, and refuses to recognize First Nations leaders who have not accepted the power dynamics of the Indian Act system.
RCMP and the “Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group” (JIG)
In addition to the hotspot reports and information-sharing forums, the Access to Information requests also revealed that between 2007 and 2010 the RCMP intelligence unit known as the “Aboriginal Joint Intelligence Group” (JIG) investigated Indigenous groups engaging in lawful protest. The JIG billed itself as a “central repository” of information about First Nations protest activities, boasting an undisclosed number of field operatives acting as its “eyes and ears,” as well as an “extensive network of contacts throughout Canada and internationally” able to “provide information on activist groups who are promoting Aboriginal issues within your area.”
The JIG had a similar mandate to INAC’s hotspot reporting – it kept tabs on certain Indigenous groups and reported on specific activities. Its mandate was to “collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence on tensions and conflicts occurring within Aboriginal communities (…) as they may escalate to civil disobedience and unrest.” It focused on “critical infrastructure,” blockades, and “demonstrations, protests or gatherings concerning energy sector development.” As explained in a June 2009 JIG report, the JIG was to “identify current trends, groups and individuals of concern, and geographic areas where conflict and issues are anticipated…and assist with priority-setting and decision-making for provincial and national events.”
According to a slideshow, dated March 2009, the Aboriginal JIG included members from the RCMP National Security Criminal Investigations branch, which investigates threats to national security and criminal extremism or terrorism. Like INAC, the JIG circulated weekly summary reports to various agencies, including law enforcement, government, and private industry. Information was gathered through JIG surveillance was circulated to approximately 450 recipients, including several oil companies with financial stakes in the development of the oil sands.
CSIS and Idle No More
In 2014, a different Access to Information request showed that Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was involved in preparing an all-government approach to dealing with First Nations protests during the Idle No More movement (INM).
The National Post reported that CSIS began monitoring INM protests in 2012 in preparation to suppress “subversive or hostile activities” within the movement.  Professor Jeffry Monaghan at Carelton University described the intensity of CSIS monitory of INM, saying that “as far as I know, [INM] was the most completely surveilled social movement in Canadian history”.
This monitoring occurred despite CSIS being barred by law at the time from spying on civilians without a specific justification (it is worth noting that, under Bill C-51, CSIS’ monitoring powers have been significantly expanded to enable this type of activity). Indeed, CSIS had previously denied any role in monitoring INM, with an agency spokesperson saying in no uncertain terms “ITAC [Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre]  does not monitor Idle No More, as they do not meet the definition of terrorism from the Criminal Code of Canada.”
RCMP and the Northern Gateway Pipeline
Government surveillance of Indigenous communities has not been limited to Idle No More; it has also encompassed opposition to the economic development of the oil sands. In 2012, newspapers began reporting surveillance of vocal Indigenous opponents of Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. According to the Toronto Star, documents suggest that the RCMP gathered intelligence from unspecified “industry reports,” newspapers and websites, as well as Facebook and Flickr. The paper also reported RCMP monitoring private meetings between First Nations and allied groups.
In 2014, British newspaper The Guardian reported that the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (INAC’s successor) had a ‘risk-management program’, operational since 2008, to respond to “significant risks” to the then Conservative government’s agenda. These “risks” include the assertion of Treaty rights, as well as the emergence of new legal precedents at odds with the government’s policies of private sector land and resource development. One INAC report stated that “there is a risk that the legal landscape can undermine the ability of the department to move forward in its policy agenda” – namely, attracting several billions of dollars in foreign investment to mining, forestry, gas, and oil projects. Such so-called ‘risk management’ initiatives aim to delegitimize Indigenous land claims and circumvent potential legal barriers to lucrative development ventures. Treating Indigenous rights claims as “risks” is inconsistent with the government’s duty to conduct itself honorably with respect to these rights, which are protected by the Canadian Constitution.
Also in 2014, Indigenous groups opposed to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline reported that federal law enforcement agencies had been spying on them in an effort to intimidate and undermine their advocacy efforts. In February 2014, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) filed complaints against the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to their respective oversight bodies, the RCMP Commission for Public Complaints and the Security Intelligence Review Committee. BCCLA alleged that the two government agencies were sending covert agents to monitor meetings and other activities of pipeline opponents, and sharing findings with the National Energy Board and private actors in the oil industry. According to Josh Paterson, the executive director of the BCCLA, the documents suggest that covert means were being used to obtain data on Indigenous groups.  CSIS contends that information sharing with government partners relating to threat assessments is typical; however, the BCCLA argues that such sharing is unlawful.  More than three and a half years after the BCCLA complaints were filed, lawyers described the process as “bogged down” and ridiculously slow, unresponsive and obviously lacking in transparency with no end in sight.
Activists and academics under surveillance
Several Indigenous activists have personally found themselves under surveillance as a result of their opposition to government policies. For instance, Pamela Palmater, an Indigenous lawyer, university professor, and activist learned that she was being monitored following Access to Information requests filed on behalf of another activist in 2011. The surveillance increased after she became more prominent in the Idle No More movement. Similarly, Cindy Blackstock, the head of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, had her personal and professional life monitored by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AADC) after her organization filed a discrimination complaint against them. In 2013, the Privacy Commissioner found that the government’s surveillance of Dr. Blackstock violated the Privacy Act. In 2015, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that a government official retaliated against her for filing a human rights complaint against the government.
Indigenous leaders express outrage
The intimate relationship between the RCMP and the INAC under the Harper government was particularly troubling. In response to these revelations, Gord Elliot of Tsartlip First Nation stated:
Obviously trust and good faith are expected when working with INAC, the RCMP and other agencies of the government. We are outraged to discover these same ministries are spying on us. We were identified as a ‘hot spot’ because we had a roadblock demonstration to voice our concerns about the treaty process and non-acknowledgment of Section 35 Constitutional Rights and Title. We felt we had no choice [than to demonstrate] because the Canadian government won’t acknowledge our constitutionally protected Aboriginal Rights and Title.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission: unfulfilled promises
It is important to note that the surveillance described above between 2006 and 2014 occurred while the federal government was pledging to improve collaboration and cooperation with Indigenous communities. In June 2008, then Prime Minister Harper issued an apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system. Part of the Settlement Agreement with survivors of the schools was the establishment of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In his apology, the prime minister made the following promise [URL not active]:
This Commission presents a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian Residential Schools system.  It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.
In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released their final report, documenting six years of hearings and testimony from over 6,000 survivors. Based on their testimony, the TRC concluded that the residential school system amounted to a program of “cultural genocide” spanning over seven generations. The report included 94 calls to action for the Government of Canada in the areas of child welfare, education, culture, commemoration, development, outreach, and more. Following its release, the provincial and territorial premieres met with Indigenous leaders, pledging action and support in implementing the recommendations.
The federal government initially failed to endorse any of the TRC’s recommendations. Indeed, as one newspaper reported, silence was largely the Harper government’s official response to the Commission’s recommendations. Rather than fulfilling his promise of a new relationship built on “respect for each other and a desire to move forward together,” during his years in power former Prime Minister Harper instead treated Indigenous people as suspects requiring sustained surveillance and suspicion.
When Trudeau’s Liberal government came to power in November 2015 it promised to implement all of the 94 calls to action that fall within federal jurisdiction, and its first budget proposed investments of $8.4 billion over five years to improve the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous peoples.  In a March 2017 interview with The Globe and Mail Senator Murray Sinclair, the former head of the TRC, acknowledge that there have been some concrete advances in 20 months since the release of the TRC report. Some examples include: municipal governments renamed streets and erected monuments to honour victims, courts have cited TRC recommendations that led to the change or striking down of laws, and corporations have implemented reconciliation strategies in the workplace. However, Sinclair stated that “there hasn’t been a lot of progress on the federal end of things…It’s very hard to change an insitution the size of the federal government because there are so many built-in protocols.”
Relevant Dates
  • 2006: INAC received a directive from the new Conservative government to spy on First Nations groups and begins weekly “hotspot” reports documenting politically active Indigenous communities.
  • 2007: RCMP JIG is formed to monitor Indigenous communities. It remains operational until 2010.
  • 2007: The former Conservative government votes against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
  • 2008: Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issues a formal apology on behalf of Canadians for the Residential Schools system.
  • 2008: Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs begins a “risk management” program to prepare for threats to the Conservative government’s policy agenda, specifically as it pertains to economic development of the oil sands.
  • 2012: Idle No More, a grassroots protest movement starts in reaction to legislative abuses of Indigenous treaty rights by the Conservative government.
  • 2012: In conjunction with other government agencies, CSIS begins close monitoring the Idle No More movement.
  • 2012: The RCMP begins close surveillance of Indigenous opponents of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
  • 2013: The Privacy Commissioner of Canada finds that government monitoring violated Indigenous Cindy Blackstock’s privacy rights.
  • 2014: INAC confirms that they are surveilling Indigenous leader Pamela Palmater.
  • 2014: BCCLA files a complaint against the RCMP and CSIS for covertly monitoring anti-pipeline activities.
  • 2015: The TRC releases final report of the six-year inquiry into the residential school system, calling Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples “cultural genocide.”
  • 2016: NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus makes a submission to the House of Commons asking for information about government surveillance of journalists and Indigenous activists since October 31st, 2015.
  • 2017: Various governmental departments respond to Angus’ submission.  Public Safety Canada admits that the Government Operations Centre maintains awareness of numerous Indigenous and natural resources related protest activities. Natural Resources reports that it monitors publicly available information such as Twitter, Facebook and media reports regarding protest activities that may impact the department, its employees or facilities.


Role or Position

Indigenous communities that have been targeted by the government and placed under surveillance include: Tobique First Nation, Tsartlip First Nation, the Algonquins of Barriere LakeTeztan Biny (Fish Lake) First NationSix NationsGrassy NarrowsStz’uminous First Nation, the Likhts’amsiyu Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First NationGitxaala First NationWagmatcook First NationInnu of Labrador, Pikangikum First Nation, and the Yinka Dene Alliance.

Indigenous protests with respect to the following issues have been monitored: Idle No More, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the Energy East and Eastern Mainline Projects, and the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Generation Project.

Individual Indigenous leaders and activists that have been monitored include Pamela Palmater and Cindy Blackstock.

Implications and Consequences

  • Democracy: The secret surveillance of Indigenous groups that do not present a credible threat to national security or a strong likelihood of committing violent acts threatens legitimate protest regarding government policies. The participation of diverse voices is essential to democratic debate about the public interest of long-term resource development.
  • Democracy & Freedom of Speech: The Trudeau government has failed to explain the distinction between surveillance and “maintaining awareness”. Government monitoring of publically available information raises concerns as to who and what they are monitoring and may create a chilling effect for the expression rights of targeted groups. Evidence that Public Safety Canada, a government agency that works with the RCMP and CSIS, has monitored the peaceful vigils and protests related to Indigenous missing and murdered women, raises serious questions about whether or not the Harper government’s surveillance and criminalization polices have continued with the Trudeau government. These questions, which demand a clear and transparent response from the Trudeau government, are particularly pressing given the broad surveillance powers granted to security agencies under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 (Bill C-51).
  • Freedom of Speech and opinion: The federal government appears to be targeting Indigenous groups based on their political opposition to certain resource extraction projects and other policies. Where there is no credible threat of criminal activity, selecting individuals or groups for surveillance simply on the basis of their opinion violates the constitutional right to free expression and generates a widespread chill on dissent and free expression.
  • Equality: By making a commitment to a certain model of resource extraction, designed to favour corporate interests, Ottawa’s actions threaten Indigenous communities that have a special relationship to the affected land and environment. This adherence to a single resource model disproportionately injures Indigenous peoples.

Published: August 1, 2017

(This is a fully updated version of the study originally titled: Indigenous communities, and was posted under the url:, which was first published as part of: Aboriginal communities and environmental groups on March 4, 2013 and was updated on October 6, 2015)



(This is a fully updated version of the study originally titled: Indigenous communities, and was posted under the url:, which was first published as part of: Aboriginal communities and environmental groups on March 4, 2013 and was updated on October 6, 2015)


Posted on August 4, 2017, in State Security Forces and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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