Top spy agency tracked Caledonia land dispute as possible threat to national security: secret document

CSIS laid out ‘notable concerns regarding critical infrastructure’ in internal intelligence report

Spy Agency CSIS

This analytical brief labeled "SECRET//CSIS EYES ONLY" was released in redacted form after APTN requested internal records. Photo: APTN

Canada’s top spy agency monitored a Six Nations-led land occupation in Caledonia, Ont., as a potential threat to national security and gathered intelligence on it during road blockades last winter, according to an internal document obtained by APTN News under the Access to Information Act.

An intelligence brief labeled as “secret” and prepared for “domain awareness” on Nov. 26, 2020 indicates the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) kept close tabs on the land dispute, citing “notable concerns regarding critical infrastructure.”

Titled “‘1492 Land Back Lane’ Camp: Caledonia Land Dispute and the Potential for Violence,” the report was prepared a month after the group and its supporters shut down roads, train tracks and damaged hydroelectric equipment following a skirmish with police.

“Critical infrastructure near the camp has been damaged, vandalized or disrupted during the protest,” the spy agency reported. “The damage to critical infrastructure and the potential disruption to services have implications not only for Caledonia, but southern Ontario as a whole.”

The spy agency reported the camp was erected last summer on the site of a proposed 25-acre subdivision called McKenzie Meadows, noting the development sits on a portion of disputed Six Nations land known as the Haldimand Tract.

“According to activists, the development infringes on Indigenous sovereignty,” said CSIS in a line accompanied by a redacted footnote.

Spy Agency CSIS
Land back supporters blocked roads with rubble following a rumble with police on Oct. 22, 2020. Photo: APTN

The brief also stated, incorrectly, “Six Nations is one of nine Mohawk Nations that are part of the broader Haudenosaunee Confederacy.”

The confederacy actually consists of the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora. Each nation once had its own village on the Grand River tract prior to an influx of settlers, hence the name.

The spy agency reported the occupation and blockades “are not a community initiative” and don’t have approval from the traditional chiefs or the elected chief.

CSIS contradicted itself a few paragraphs later saying the occupation has “broader support” from the traditional chiefs, who released a statement opposing the development in August 2020.

The elected chief and council signed an agreement with the builder to “publicly support” the development in 2019.

Critical infrastructure central to CSIS mandate

Though significantly redacted, the document indicates interest in the standoff at the highest level of the national security bureaucracy, said one researcher.

“The invocation of critical infrastructure, for them, really, like in terms of their mandate, gives them an authority to be more active in investigating and engaging in surveillance,” said Jeffrey Monaghan, an associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Monaghan co-authored a book called Policing Indigenous Movements about how federal agencies have ramped up mass surveillance of domestic activism over the last decade under the broadening auspices of the war on terror.

“The inclusion of critical infrastructure immediately makes this a national security problem in their eyes,” he said. “There’s a language around violence, and there’s also a language around the sovereignty claim — and seeing sovereignty claims as a threat to the Canadian state.”

Monaghan said the hand wringing over sovereignty claims, factual inaccuracies and contradictions reveal a “culture of racism” and colonialism that’s implicit in the way the national security establishment sees Indigenous resistance.

Spy Agency Caledonia
A uniformed OPP surveillance officer, left, holds a camera outside the camp on Sept. 24, 2020. Photo: APTN

“That’s a very deep, deep racial discourse that is being used in a very casual way in the language of this report,” Monaghan said.

He said it’s a long-standing tradition within the bureaucracy to label certain groups as legitimate and illegitimate then portray the illegitimate group as unreasonable and potentially violent.

“It justifies the scrutiny, it justifies the surveillance, it justifies the criminalization later and it doesn’t need to be factually accurate. It’s just part of this pattern that they need to present. This narrative that they almost present themselves to justify their actions.”

Monaghan said the concept of critical infrastructure was born from the fear terrorist organizations would attack things like nuclear power plants but has become a more flexible category over the years.

“It’s gradually morphed, and kind of morphed around the interests of business and company and resource extraction interests to focus on domestic forms of protest, and especially Indigenous protest,” he explained.

The book argued that this surveillance is often opaque and may have a “chilling effect” on activism by creating a culture of suspicion and paranoia among those who start to assume state spying on them is normal.

“In terms of CSIS, the top spy agency, collecting information on protests like this, I think it is a serious civil liberties threat,” he said. “We’re years and years behind being able to adequately oversee and govern these institutions.”

Spy agency responds

CSIS has a broad mandate to investigate espionage, foreign interference, terrorism and subversion, but the extent to which it invoked this mandate in Caledonia is unclear due to redactions.

The government withheld internal records under section 15(1) of the Access to Information Act “as it relates to the efforts of Canada towards detecting, preventing or suppressing subversive or hostile activities,” according to a letter.

The act defines subversive or hostile or activities as espionage, sabotage, trying to accomplish government change or threatening Canadian public safety.

The government also exempted records using section 16(1)(a), which protects information obtained or prepared during legal investigations. It used 16(1)(c) to exempt records that could be harmful to law enforcement, and section 19(1) to exempt records containing personal information.

CSIS Caledonia
Train tracks were closed and damaged after police used a riot control gun and stun gun attempting to arrest someone who was not at the camp. Photo: APTN

CSIS declined an interview request for this story and supplied a statement saying it does not confirm, deny or publicly comment on specifics of any investigations.

Spokesperson John Townsend said “it would be incorrect” to interpret the decision to compile information for domain awareness as “indicative of CSIS investigations.” He said the exemption definitions under the act are broad to ensure privileged information is not unduly disclosed.

The spy agency said it would be “incorrect” to suggest CSIS views Indigenous resistance movements as challenging Canadian sovereignty, saying there is nothing to corroborate this allegation in the released version of the intelligence report.

APTN asked under what circumstances the agency does spy on and investigate Indigenous-led movements.

“The definition of threats to the security of Canada in the CSIS Act specifically excludes lawful protest and dissent,” replied Townsend via email. 

“I would like to make it very clear that CSIS must perform its duties and functions in accordance with the rule of law and in a manner that respects the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he added.

“Robust oversight and accountability mechanisms are fundamental and provide assurance to Canadians that CSIS’s activities continue to respect the law.”

‘There’s nothing to hide’

Courtney Skye is a community member and research fellow at the First Nations-led Yellowhead Institute think tank who was arrested and charged for allegedly violating an injunction in Caledonia.

She said Canada has always interpreted Indigenous dissent as threatening.

“We’ve known for a long time that Indigenous people living their lives on their own terms is a threat to the Canadian state, that stabilizing Indigenous communities almost by default means destabilizing the colonial state,” said Skye in a phone interview.

“It is upsetting the status quo in Canada, because the status quo in Canada is a racist regime that needs to feed off of the disempowerment of Indigenous people to exist.”

She said it was frustrating to see reports like this prepared at a very high level containing “underpinning racism” and “laughable inaccuracies” — misunderstanding basic things like what constitutes support or what nations form the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

The confederacy chiefs doubled down on support in April, demanding a moratorium on all development of disputed land. Photo: APTN

“There’s nothing to hide, and I don’t think anyone has had anything to hide here in our community. Everyone is trying to be focused on how do we make our people safer. What do we do for our future generations that’s going to stabilize them?” she said.

“It’s a very honest struggle that I think many Indigenous people are engaged in across the country. There’s nothing behind the curtain. We’re just trying to live our lives in accordance to our laws as a distinct people.”

Skye also pointed out the infrastructure was only targeted in response to police raiding and arresting as they enforced two injunctions obtained by the municipality and the builder, which the spy agency noted.

In November 2020 alone, the same month the CSIS brief was compiled, provincial police spent $3.8 million on the McKenzie Meadows operation, APTN previously reported.

That’s more than $125,000 per day. Police spent $16.3 million on the operation in six months, which works out to roughly $90,000 per day.

Skye said these vast expenditures of policing and surveillance resources indicate the extent to which the state will go to preserve the status quo.

“I can see them spending millions and millions more to surveil and criminalize our communities because we’re trying to assert sovereignty and live on our own terms,” she said.

Read the brief:

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