Activists, advocates criticize CSIS for weighing if rail blockades could be classed as terrorism

Protesters blocked a rail line in in Toronto in Nov.ember 2021 in support of Wet'suwet'en land defenders who were arrested by the RCMP in northern British Columbia. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Protesters blocked a rail line in in Toronto in Nov.ember 2021 in support of Wet'suwet'en land defenders who were arrested by the RCMP in northern British Columbia. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Activists and advocates who've been targeted for government snooping in the past are denouncing what they see as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service's "vilification" of First Nations activism.

They say they know the state is watching, but it still came as a surprise to learn CSIS secretly weighed whether rail blockades could qualify as "acts of terrorism" in reports beginning in November 2020.

"It is an absolutely ridiculous sentiment to me that in 2022 when Indigenous people make a stand for their lands and their water, we get called terrorists," said Skyler Williams, a prominent Mohawk activist from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario.

"It's a real struggle for me to understand how you could be called a terrorist for that, or a violent extremist."

Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre
Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre

Williams is the spokesperson for a group of Six Nations members who occupied a housing development in July 2020 in Caledonia, Ont. They renamed the site 1492 Land Back Lane and continue to hold it.

In September 2020, Caledonia's municipal police services board called them "terrorists."

But the CSIS intelligence assessments, produced shortly after that and released this year through access-to-information law, show the spy service believed the label to be inaccurate.

CSIS concluded "unsophisticated acts of unlawful interference," like blockades and vandalism, "do not cross the terrorism threshold."

CSIS added, however, that it believed rail disruptions could still be linked to "extremist elements" within the Indigenous rights and environmental movements and other "ideologically motivated violent extremist" groups, like anarchists.

Hereditary chief concerned about continued surveillance

Na'moks, a Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief who opposes construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia, is glad CSIS backed off from the terrorist label.

But he worries that by branding elements of First Nations rights movements as "extremist," CSIS leaves the door open to continued surveillance.

"We know we've been under constant surveillance for decades," said Na'moks, whose English name is John Ridsdale.

"I'm very glad that they said it can't be done, but in public opinion if they label us extremists, then they get to do as they wish."

Dan Mesec
Dan Mesec

Hereditary chiefs have been pushing to have Wet'suwet'en jurisdiction recognized over the nation's unceded, off-reserve territory for decades. While they oppose the Coastal GasLink project, five of six Wet'suwet'en bands have signed on in support.

There have been two separate incidents of sabotage and vandalism in the area this year. One targeted Coastal GasLink construction equipment while the other saw emergency response vehicles, including RCMP cruisers tasked with policing resistance to the pipeline, torched.

Police have yet to name suspects.

Na'moks said the chiefs condemn such tactics but he does wonder whether these events represent the sort of thing CSIS will cite to justify ongoing surveillance.

"As hereditary chiefs, we would never condone any sort of violence. The violence comes at us," he said.

"We will continue to do what we do non-violently, peacefully, and I know we're doing the right thing."

'They need to look in the mirror'

The CSIS assessments show these two standoffs in southern Ontario and northern B.C. respectively were the primary drivers of the spy service's concerns.

In February 2020, protests targeting railways popped up to show support after B.C. Mounties executed a raid on blockades preventing Coastal GasLink pipeline construction. In Caledonia, activists twice shut down CN tracks in response to Ontario Provincial Police attempts to clear the 1492 Land Back Lane occupation.

Andrew Brant, who is Mohawk, Turtle Clan from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, supported the solidarity demonstrations in his community in 2020.

He said turning blockades into national security issues of extremism and terrrorism ignores centuries of treaty-making and alliances between the Mohawk Nation and the Crown.

Michelle Allan/CBC
Michelle Allan/CBC

He believes CSIS's monitoring of Wet'suwet'en and Mohawk activism is "all about villainizing people" who resist resource extraction and oppose colonial policies.

"They have extracted so much from us: our women, our children, our land, our resources, our languages, our cultures. Everything. And then they want to turn around and call us extreme for wanting to exist," said Brant.

"To label us as extremists? I think they need to look in the mirror."

Surveillance 'a terrible thing' to get used to

CSIS said it doesn't investigate lawful protest or democratic dissent, or comment on any of its operations.

The spy service said people with concerns about CSIS's activities have the ability to lodge complaints with the watchdog National Security Intelligence Review Agency.

For Williams, life under surveillance is "a terrible thing" to get used to.

He was charged criminally and will stand trial for his role in the Caledonia occupation. He recently pleaded guilty to criminal contempt of court in connection to another round of blockades in support of the Wet'suwet'en chiefs in northern B.C. in November 2021.

At the time, officials at Crown-Indigenous Relations were tracking Williams's movements via social media to brief senior bureaucrats, internal documents show.

He said it's the Canadian state that uses violent and extreme tactics to repress Indigenous people.

Submitted by Skyler Williams
Submitted by Skyler Williams

Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaw lawyer and professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, agrees.

She has filed federal access-to-information requests for her own security file, only to receive documents censored for national security reasons.

She said colonial authorities in Canada have a history of labelling First Nations people as irrational and potentially violent.

"It's racist stereotyping that started since contact, always portraying us as dangerous, villains, violent, savage — you name it," said Palmater.

"Now the modern terminology, if it's not zealot or militant or domestic terrorist, it's extremist."

But First Nations-led activism, even via blockades and occupations, poses no real national security threat, Palmater said. Rather, like Brant, she feels this surveillance comes from politically motivated desires to clamp down on resistance.

"If we are threats to national security, think about how deeply ingrained this vilification of Indigenous peoples is," said Palmater.

"I think this is about trying to silence people."