Watchdog finds RCMP's policing of anti-pipeline protesters reasonable — but sees gaps in surveillance policies

The RCMP's monitoring of Northern Gateway pipeline protesters was for the most part reasonable, says a new report from the force's watchdog. But it said it was concerned about the possibility of police creating profiles of peaceful demonstrators and urged the Mounties to draft better policies on data retention.

Civilian commission says Mounties need better rules for collecting data when there are no criminal ties

Pipeline protesters are silhouetted while carrying cutouts of salmon during a demonstration in Vancouver, B.C. Protests were held in cities across Canada in opposition to the proposed pipeline that would carry oil 1,200 kilometres across Alberta and British Columbia to the northwest coast community of Kitimat, where the oil would be shipped overseas by oil tankers (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government will review a recent watchdog investigation that flagged concerns about how the RCMP stores data on peaceful protesters.

The investigation report, published on Tuesday by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC), concluded that the RCMP's monitoring of Northern Gateway pipeline protesters in 2012 and 2013 was for the most part reasonable. The independent body also said it was concerned about the possibility of police creating profiles of peaceful demonstrators, and it urged the Mounties to draft better policies on data retention.

"Obviously, this is an important report, and we're going to take a careful look at it and its recommendations as well as conclusions," Trudeau told reporters during a news conference Tuesday morning in Ottawa.

"We know there is much to do to improve the RCMP in terms of systemic discrimination, systemic racism and how it deals with certain groups."

The review stems from a February 2014 complaint from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) alleging officers spied on Indigenous and environmental groups who were opposed to the then-proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and who attended National Energy Board meetings in 2012 and 2013.

The civil liberties group thought the RCMP improperly monitored the activities of various people and groups seeking to participate in the hearings, engaged in covert intelligence gathering and infiltration of peaceful organizations and disclosed information on certain people to Natural Resources Canada and the National Energy Board.

Those actions, said the BCCLA, created a chilling effect for those who might wish to take part in hearings or other public discussions on energy issues.

But the watchdog's investigation said it was reasonable for the RCMP to provide a visible presence at the National Energy Board hearings and to monitor the protests in Prince Rupert, B.C., for the purpose of identifying criminal activity.

It also ruled that it was reasonable for the RCMP to share information about potential threats to energy critical infrastructure with Natural Resources Canada.

It was unreasonable, however, for the RCMP to share the personal information of a protest organizer with the National Energy Board, the report said.

WATCH | Trudeau responds to a report on RCMP actions involving protesters:

Trudeau responds to a report on RCMP actions involving protesters on the Northern Gateway energy project

3 years ago
Duration 1:07
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters during the pandemic briefing on Tuesday.

The BCCLA said it was disappointed by the report.

"It is unacceptable that the CRCC has sanctioned police profiling. The profiles of those they deem to be dangerous through intelligence-gathering will be overwhelmingly Indigenous, Black and racialized people," executive director Harsha 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." 

B.C.-based climate advocacy group Dogwood said some of its volunteers were monitored by the RCMP.

"RCMP was using ... tactics that are more reminiscent of countries with a little bit less of a stellar human rights record," said communications director Kai Nagata.

RCMP needs clearer policies on data retention: CRCC

While the force was largely cleared of wrongdoing, the CRCC flagged multiple concerns with the force's intelligence and surveillance policies and recommended explicit guidelines — most of which the RCMP has agreed to implement. 

For starters, it found the RCMP lacks a clear policy on video-recording public order events, such as demonstrations and protests.

The review agency also renewed its call for better rules on the collection and retention of information where there are no criminal ties.

Canadians have the right to expect that the police will not retain their personal information simply for engaging in peaceful protest.- CRCC report

"The RCMP's current policy on the use of open sources does not provide clear guidance as to the collection, use, and retention of personal information obtained from social media where there is no criminal nexus," the report said.

The CRCC said there should be better guidance around the use and retention of personal information.

"There are legitimate reasons for the police to collect personal information from open sources, including for criminal and national security intelligence gathering and for investigations into offences," the report said.

"However, the police may profile individuals for intelligence purposes without any suspicion that they intend to engage in criminal activity, or even that they have relevant information about a potential offence. They may only come to the police's attention because they have exercised their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association. 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."

To address those gaps, the watchdog recommended the RCMP introduce a policy on video-recording protests and demonstrations, and that all recordings and images of peaceful protests and demonstrations be destroyed as soon as it's practical to do so.

The CRCC also recommended that the force destroy records obtained from social media sources and personal information once it is determined that there are no criminal ties.

In her response, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said she supported most of the watchdog's recommendations, including developing a video policy, destroying recordings and clearing up the open-source policy.

Lucki said the RCMP now has a policy about using the internet for criminal investigations and intelligence-gathering. She added that the policy is not well understood and  compliance is low.

She partially supported the recommendation to destroy social media records, but said once records containing personal information (such as social media screen captures) are added to an operational files, the pre-existing information management policy requires the force to retain information for a set period.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said she supported most of the watchdog's recommendations. (Chris Wattie/Canadian Press)

The commission said it's troubled by that response.

"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," reads the report.

The BCCLA also complained in early 2014 about improper monitoring of anti-pipeline activists by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

The review committee that oversees CSIS dismissed the complaint in 2017, prompting the association to ask the Federal Court to revisit the outcome, a proceeding that is ongoing.


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

With files from the Canadian Press and Anita Sthankiya

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now