OTTAWA—Ottawa has kept tabs on hundreds of demonstrations across Canada and around the world over the last eight years, from peaceful protests to public university lectures to riots.
Newly released documents show about 800 public demonstrations and events were observed and reported on by government departments and law enforcement agencies since 2006.
Reports were collected centrally by the Government Operations Centre, an agency tasked with preparing the federal government’s response to emergencies. Some were collected by Foreign Affairs on international protests, but the majority focused on domestic events — especially First Nations protests and environmental activism.
Some appear to be media reports detailing the events, but others were prepared by Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, and the RCMP.
The Conservative government has defended the practice, saying even peaceful protests can go bad and the public’s safety must be protected. But the documents, tabled in Parliament, reveal the Government Operations Centre was interested in much more than protests.
Reports in the agency’s possession detail:
• A panel discussion at Concordia University last September, discussing historical colonialism and race relations in Quebec. The RCMP prepared the report.
• A rally in Ottawa by the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Union of Public Employees in May 2012.
• Protests against a Canadian mining company in Brazil last September.
• A Montreal march and vigil for missing and murdered aboriginal women in September 2013.
• A public discussion in Toronto on the oilsands in August 2013.
• A workshop in non-violent protest methods in Montreal in October 2013.
• Public Safety reported a protest of “lobster fishers” in New Brunswick in May 2013, while a shrimp allocations protest in Newfoundland was reported by Fisheries and Oceans a year later.
Larger events that made national news — the Idle No More movement, Occupy groups, various student protests in Montreal — were also included in the list.
But the Government Operations Centre received information on much smaller events, like an account of the occupation of a band administration office on the Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation in 2011. The southern Saskatchewan community has a population of 383 people, according to government records.
Numerous departments have contributed to the Government Operations Centre’s intelligence collection, including Aboriginal Affairs, the RCMP, CSIS, and the Privy Council Office — the bureaucrats that support the prime minister and cabinet.
Protest Reports collected by Government Operations Centre
Foreign Affairs provided details from across the globe, including the Middle East, Africa, and the United States. Foreign Affairs officials tracked U.S. opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline proposal for Ottawa. The American Department of Homeland Security reported back on a demonstration involving Canadians of Sri Lankan heritage in Washington.
The documents give no detail beyond the date and location of the event, a brief description, and the department or agency responsible for the report.
“The government has frozen out and refused to meet with indigenous peoples and environmental groups, yet devotes disproportionate resources to spying on them,” Liberal MP Scott Brison, whose office requested the data from Public Safety, said Wednesday.
“It would be much better to engage these groups meaningfully than to skulk around their meetings to hear what they’re thinking.”
New Democrat MP and public safety critic Randall Garrison said the surveillance casts a “chill” on groups that have run up against the Conservative government.
“Seeing the scope and the resources they’re devoting to (the Government Operations Centre) is quite disturbing,” Garrison said.
The reports are not only focused on groups that have opposed the Conservatives, however. church groups have also been monitored, most notably the annual March for Life in Ottawa. The Privy Council Office’s “Crisis Management Centre” monitored the pro-life rally on Parliament Hill last May.
The Star requested an interview with Public Safety, which the department “respectfully declined” Wednesday evening. In a written response, a spokesperson wrote that the Government Operations Centre requires an “awareness of a wide range of issues that could affect the safety and security of Canadians.”
“The GOC does not conduct surveillance operations, does not conduct intelligence gathering and does not obtain or hold any private or personal information pertaining to Canadian citizens,” wrote Josée Picard.
“The Government of Canada respects the privacy of Canadians and their right to peaceful protest.”