RCMP spying could chill freedom of expression: review

RCMP delays in responding to allegations ‘incomprehensible’

The RCMP watching people based on their political beliefs could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Canada, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) said in an investigation report released Dec. 15.

“They may only come to the police's attention because they have exercised their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association,” the report from chair Michelaine Lahaie said. “This is extremely concerning. Canadians have the right to expect that the police will not retain their personal information simply for engaging in peaceful protest.”

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But, while the commissioner made eight recommendations around police information retention and destruction, the report acknowledged the RCMP’s need for surveillance activities.

And, that’s infuriated civil society groups already enraged at the delays in investigations into the society’s 2014 complaint.

“It is unconscionable that the CRCC is telling Canadians that they have to accept being spied on if they are going to exercise their democratic right to protest,” B.C. Civil Liberties Association lawyer Paul Champ said. “RCMP spying on people who are exercising their right to dissent is an attack on freedom of expression. It creates a climate of fear that chills free expression and stifles public participation. This report is telling us to accept a police state.”

The association complained of RCMP monitoring, gathering intelligence and sharing information about people seeking to participate in National Energy Board hearings about a proposed pipeline.

The association said RCMP officers improperly monitored activities of people and groups seeking hearing participation in board hearings; improperly engaged in covert intelligence gathering and/or infiltration of peaceful organizations; and improperly disclosed information about those people and groups.

The issue of how long the national police force retains information on people also arose.

The commission acknowledged that rigid, blanket rules with fixed timelines could interfere with legitimate law enforcement and criminal intelligence or national security intelligence objectives, and that some flexibility for the RCMP is needed.

“The commission is concerned that the RCMP is maintaining its original position—that is, that the RCMP would retain the personal information of peaceful protesters, demonstrators and activists for as long as the existing policies require. In other words, for as long as the RCMP sees fit.”

For association executive director Harsha Walia, the CRCC has sanctioned racial profiling.

“The profiles of those they deem to be dangerous through intelligence-gathering will be overwhelmingly Indigenous, black and racialized people,” Walia said. “This is how systemic racism in policing operates. In this case, the dragnet of police surveillance against climate advocates is being used to most severely target Indigenous land defenders. Police profiling maintains the criminalization of Indigenous peoples on their lands.”

Dogwood environmental group spokesman Kai Nagata said his group’s members were spied on.

 “We cannot accept the idea that anyone who criticizes the government or the oil industry becomes a target for surveillance,” he said. “In Canada, evidence is coming out about the creepy tools used by the RCMP, like facial recognition or unlocking privacy features on social media. It’s up to citizens to expose and push back on this erosion of our democracy.”

The recommendations include:

• developing policy for video-recording protests and demonstrations, setting out criteria and video retention periods;
• destroying all recordings and images of peaceful protests and demonstrations as soon as is practicable.
• developing policy for collection of personal information from open sources such as social media sites, the uses that can be made of it, and what steps should be taken to ensure its reliability;
• RCMP creating policy to treat personal information and supporting documents obtained from social media sources containing personal information (such as screen captures of social media sites) as a separate category of records;
• where an intelligence assessment or other product generated from open sources is to be retained, RCMP policy should require the anonymization or destruction of any personal information within that assessment where there is no connection to criminal activity or to the RCMP's national security mandate, and;
• when a licence plate number and any associated personal information has no nexus to criminal activity, the information should not be retained.

The commissioner also took issue with the three and a half years the RCMP took to respond to its initial report.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s response arrived after the association sought an order for such a response to be made.

“A three-and-a-half-year delay would be egregious and unacceptable in any case In the case of a matter of national public interest that recommended significant changes to the RCMP's policies, it is incomprehensible.”

Lahaie said a public complaints system must be timely to be effective.

“Years of routine delays diminish or destroy public confidence in the RCMP and in its civilian oversight,” the decision said. “The outrageous delays in this and the many other cases still awaiting the commissioner's response cannot continue.”



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