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Privacy Commissioner Says Ottawa Went Too Far In Monitoring First Nations Activist
May 30, 2013
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Federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart

Here's a story that raises questions about who the federal government is watching and what kind of information it's collecting.

It's about Cindy Blackstock, a First Nations activist who was being monitored by two government departments - Aboriginal Affairs and the Justice department.

Well now, Canada's Privacy Commissioner has found that those departments went too far in keeping an eye on Blackstock, saying they violated the spirit (if not the intent) of the Privacy Act.

In her report, Jennifer Stoddart said officials crossed the line by going through Blackstock's personal Facebook page, and collecting information.

Stoddart was looking into a complaint from Blackstock, who runs an organization fighting the government in court over First Nations child welfare programs.

The commissioner said officials knew they were getting into personal info, and not just her thoughts on child welfare policy.

Government officials told Stoddart they had to monitor Blackstock because she had posted some court-related material that had been deemed privileged.

However, Stoddart found that officials were monitoring Blackstock's personal information before she had posted that material.

privacy-commissioner-says-ottawa-went-too-far-in-monitoring-first-nations-activist-feature2.jpg"It is not obviously clear what relevance the personal information available on the complainant's personal Facebook page could have had to (Aboriginal Affairs') policy development, or the government's defence of the Caring Society's human rights claim," Stoddart said in her report.

The Aboriginal Affairs and Justice departments have agreed to stop this kind of monitoring, and to destroy any personal info not directly linked to federal policy. They've also agreed to set up a new system to ensure this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

"The fact of the matter is that we take Canadians' right to privacy very seriously," Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said.

"Most of the recommendations, if not all, were already being implemented. We shall fully implement the recommendations of the commissioner."

In an interview with the Canadian Press, Blackstock said the report shows how far the government will go to quiet dissent.

"It makes me wonder how systematic this is," she said. "All I do is, I speak up for kids."

Cindy Blackstock, Exec. Director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada

NDP aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder echoed that. "It raises the question: who else?," she said.

Stoddart's report points out that the government is within its rights to do a certain amount of monitoring, such as keeping tabs on speeches and professional Facebook pages. But digging up personal contacts, interests and comments, as well as info related to family and friends crosses a line.

"In our view, such information is not obviously relevant to either policy development or the litigation in question," the report said.

Blackstock filed two other complaints but Stoddart found no merit to them.

Blackstock's organization has been in a legal battle with Ottawa since 2007, arguing the government is discriminating against aboriginal children because it won't provide support at the same level as provincial governments.

The dispute is now before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

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