Documents released last year through Access to Information requests show the RCMP and CSIS took direction from the National Energy Board to monitor and report on "threats" to the project's federal review panel by pipeline opponents — including advocacy groups Idle No More and ForestEthics.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has lodged two complaints with the organizations responsible for overseeing the RCMP and CSIS, claiming the surveillance was unconstitutional and possibly illegal.
"The RCMP and CSIS have absolutely no business gathering information on people who are engaged in peaceful democratic activity," said BCCLA executive director Josh Paterson.
A senior RCMP official involved in the operation found "no direct or specific criminal threat," but the spying continued anyway. The documents indicate the RCMP relied on sources inside some of the groups.
Possible police infiltration
One of the documents includes details of a seminar held in a Kelowna church basement on how to paint signs and tell stories.
"Somebody from CSIS or the RCMP went into that room and wrote a report about what happened in that meeting. We don't know exactly how that was, we don't know who it was, but it's disturbing," said Will Horter, executive director of the advocacy group Dogwood Initiative.
The BCCLA said this kind of detail points to possible infiltration and could be illegal, since CSIS is prohibited from gathering information on the peaceful democratic activities of Canadians.
"It strongly suggests that they have placed sources within the Idle No More movement, that they may have sources elsewhere, that they may have sources in the volunteer bodies of organizations who are also being spied on — environmental organizations," said Paterson.
"Police should be focusing on crime and law enforcement and public safety, and not scouring through everyone's Twitter feeds and websites to figure out who's having a meeting in what basement to paint which signs with which grandmothers," he said.
'Unfair collusion,' says advocate
Surveillance details were apparently shared with Enbridge — the company that owns Northern Gateway — and the wider petroleum industry at a meeting facilitated by Natural Resources Canada.
Ben West with ForestEthics, one of the groups allegedly spied on, called the government's surveillance activities "outrageous."
"It's hard to look at this and not feel like there's an unfair collusion that is underway between the federal government and industry," said West.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver would not discuss his department's involvement in the meeting because it was classified. In a statement, however, he insisted neither he "nor any member of his department gave instructions to any federal agency in this matter."
The complaints filed against the RCMP and CSIS allege the agencies interfered with the Charter right to freedom of expression.
The RCMP said it has not received official notification of the complaint made by the BCCLA, and therefore would not comment. However, it said in a statement it takes "all public complaints seriously and will fully co-operate with the [Commissioner for Public Complaints] if necessary."
CSIS, meanwhile, denied the allegations.
"While I cannot comment on specific complaints, what I can say is that CSIS investigates — and advises government on — threats to national security, and that does not include peaceful protest and dissent," said CSIS spokesperson Tahera Mufti in a statement.