I should confess: I talk to lamp fixtures.
I wink at ceiling vents, sing to the dashboard in my car, apologize to the people eavesdropping on my phone calls for how boring my conversations are.
I can’t pinpoint when this running joke began, but it was sometime after I left television journalism and began to publicly criticize the government. Now that I work at Dogwood Initiative – where we’ve actually been the target of homeland surveillance – the joke is less funny.
This week Dogwood organizers will testify at a secret hearing of the Security Intelligence Review Committee – the “watchdog” tasked with keeping CSIS on a leash. We allege not only that Canada’s spy service broke the law by gathering information on peaceful civilians inside Canada, but that government spying has put a chill on democratic participation.
Do you know that feeling, that you’re being watched? It’s like when you park your vehicle in a bad spot and have to walk there after dark. Or you come home after a trip and the door is unlocked. Or you peer into the webcam on your phone or computer and wonder, is anyone there?
This spring I couldn’t shake that creepy sensation. I told myself I was being silly, that I had nothing to hide, that all my interesting consumer data is swept up by marketers already. But the feeling wouldn’t go away, so I sent CSIS a request under the Privacy Act to see if they had a file on me.
A few weeks later a brown envelope arrived from Ottawa with my address hand-written on the front. Inside was a single, watermarked page with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service logo at the top.
“Dear Mr. Nagata,” it began. “The personal information bank listed below was searched on your behalf with the following results:
(CSIS PPU 045) – Canadian Security Intelligence Service Investigational Records – The Governor-in-Council has designated this information bank an exempt bank pursuant to section 18 of the Privacy Act. If the type of information described in the bank did exist, it would qualify for exemption under section 21 (as it relates to the efforts of Canada towards detecting, preventing, or suppressing subversive or hostile activities), or 22(1)(a) and/or (b) of the Act.”
I looked up the exemptions in the Privacy Act. It says agencies can refuse to release information about “activities suspected of constituting threats to the security of Canada,” including details “that would reveal the identity of a confidential source of information”.
In other words, I may be under investigation by CSIS. If I am, they can’t tell me – because it might blow the identity of a source. Other friends and organizers have received the same letter. So we’re going before a secret tribunal this week to try and find out more.
Let’s rewind to January 2013 when along with allied groups, Dogwood helped organize an unprecedented number of people to participate in a public review of the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. Most governments would view that as a good thing. Our government sent federal agents after us.
Thanks to U.S. intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden, security researchers at Queen’s University and journalists at the Guardian, Vancouver Observer and other outlets, the picture has slowly become clear: CSIS and other agencies in Canada see peaceful opposition to private oil company projects as a threat to national security.
We found out long after the fact that a Dogwood-organized meeting in a church basement in Kelowna came under federal surveillance. Later, it appears CSIS agents shared intelligence they had gathered with oil patch executives at a secret briefing sponsored by Enbridge.
Let me try to explain why this makes me so angry.
My dad’s parents were born in Vancouver and grew up speaking English. But because their folks had emigrated from Japan, in 1942 the whole family was reclassified as a threat to Canada. Everything they couldn’t fit in a suitcase – land, houses, shops, boats, farm tools – was seized and auctioned off. More than 25,000 men, women and children were rounded up and deported, put in prison camps or on remote work sites for the next four years.
It emerged after the war that the RCMP had never actually considered Japanese-Canadians a threat. It was the politicians who wanted a scapegoat. Our community has had a wary relationship with the Canadian government ever since. It’s hard to fully identify with a country that has shown you just how fragile your rights are as a citizen.
Still, I tried. After university I volunteered for the infantry reserve. I wanted to be proud of my Canadian identity, to wear the flag on my shoulder, to defend our values at home and overseas. Ironically, they tried to recruit me to do intelligence work in Afghanistan.
Instead I got a job doing radio journalism, ending my army career before it really began. I was disappointed to leave my regiment, but glad to be defending Canada and the public interest in a different way.
What I’m saying is, I work with Dogwood Initiative because I’m a patriot.
I believe in a country where power comes from the people. Where politicians are held accountable to their constituents. Where decisions are made together, not forced down our throats. And yes, where you need consent from First Nations and British Columbians if you want to build a pipeline to an oil tanker port on our coast.
I believe citizenship means thinking for yourself, not just blindly repeating what some politician wants you to say. I believe there’s a difference between our national interest and the interests of state-owned oil companies in China, or pipeline executives sitting in Houston. And I believe that Canada needs to plan for the threats to our economy and security created by climate change – not make them worse.
If you agree with any of that, then I guess we’re both enemies of the state.
The language is ridiculous, but don’t forget – it always starts with language. At a recent event in Vancouver South a Mandarin-speaking woman wanted to sign our Let BC Vote pledge, but explained that she was about to write her citizenship exam. She didn’t want to anger the government.
I laughed it off as paranoia. Sure, there are countries around the world where politically inconvenient people disappear. Secret agents torment families. Peoples’ careers and reputations are ruined. But we tell ourselves that’s not supposed to happen in Canada.
Well, here’s the ugly truth: she’s not wrong to harbour those fears. This country was built on cultural genocide. We invaded territory, stole children, wiped out languages – all of this was official government policy. Canada really did impose a racist head tax on immigrants. And in the First and Second World Wars thousands of citizens were stripped of their rights and property and interned for years in prison camps. These are difficult events to come to terms with, but they’re part of our history.
The only thing protecting us from such abuses today are limits on state power. These checks and balances are not given to us – they had to be fought for. Our job is to guard them vigilantly from the political and corporate interests that would weaken our democratic institutions to their own advantage.
This is one of those moments.
It’s becoming clear that oversight of spy agencies in Canada is dangerously weak. Dogwood only found out about the Kelowna incident long afterwards, by fluke. We have no way of knowing what other events or communications CSIS or other agencies have monitored. But we do know one thing: the situation is about to get worse.
Bill C-51, the government’s so-called antiterrorism law, beefs up the powers of Canada’s clandestine agencies to violate our constitutional rights – with no improvement in transparency or accountability. The violations we allege happened long before C-51 was on the books. Our spy agencies are already breaking the law, because there are no real consequences.
This week’s hearing is far from perfect. The contents are secret, closed to media and the public. The adjudicator hearing our case is a former director of the TransCanada pipeline company. But it’s a good thing we have this opportunity, however fleeting, to hold Canada’s spies to some degree of accountability. It’s also a reminder of what’s at stake in the current election.
We can go in one of two directions as a country. We can vote to give even greater powers to spy agencies to violate our rights and freedoms. Or we can vote for rational civilian oversight: measures that balance the need to keep our population safe with the need to know how spy agencies are spending public money – and whether they’re obeying Canadian law.
The choice is yours. I invite you to sign the BC Civil Liberties Association “don’t spy on me” petition at SecretSpyHearings.ca. Follow the testimony of brave organizers at the SIRC hearings this week. Ask your local candidates where they stand on government surveillance. Make sure they understand it’s an election issue.
Above all, please get out and vote. It’s still the most dangerous act of defiance you can possibly undertake.
Watch this moving speech by Dogwood organizer Terry Dance-Bennink at a press conference just before testifying in the #SecretSpyHearings in Vancouver August 13. (Can’t see the video? Try refreshing your browser).