Federal Court rules on Edgar Schmidt’s whistleblower case

Former Justice Department lawyer and whistleblower Edgar Schmidt
Edgar Schmidt, former Justice Department lawyer and whistleblower. Dennis Gruending photo.

The Federal Court of Canada will provide a ruling on Wednesday March 2 regarding the case of Edgar Schmidt, a former Justice Department lawyer who took his employer to court for failing to do it duty. I have posted several pieces on Schmidt’s case and am providing this edited version as a backgrounder to the court’s ruling. Continue reading Federal Court rules on Edgar Schmidt’s whistleblower case

Harper’s hit list, Voices-Voix says Conservatives dismantling democracy

Former Justice Department lawyer and whistleblower Edgar Schmidt is suing his old employer.
Former Justice Department lawyer and whistleblower Edgar Schmidt is suing his old employer.

In March 2011 I posted an article to my Pulpit and Politics blog called Harper’s Hit List. The piece contained a list of organizations whose staff had either been fired, forced out, publicly maligned, or who had resigned in protest.  I did not do the original research but rather published what others had already assembled. That piece received thousands of hits and is by far the most popular item that I have ever posted. Clearly a raw public nerve had been touched, and that was while Stephen Harper was still leading a minority government.

Harassed and bullied

The coalition Voices-Voix has done a systematic job of documenting how organizations and individuals have been harassed and bullied by the Conservative regime, and has published an updated hit list.  It contains more than 110 case studies which the organization says, “’connect the dots,’ showing a pattern of actions by the federal government to silence critics, stifle debate, diminish knowledge, and dodge accountability.”

I will deal briefly here with just two of those cases but Voices has provided many others. Edgar Schmidt and Cindy Blackstock have both blown whistles on the Canadian government and received harsh treatment for daring to do so. Continue reading Harper’s hit list, Voices-Voix says Conservatives dismantling democracy

Security versus civil rights Debating anti-terrorism Bill C-51

Stephen Harper announces anti-terrorism measures. PMO photo.
Stephen Harper announces anti-terrorism measures. PMO photo.

There’s an intense debate happening in Parliament and now in the streets over Bill C-51, which the Harper government says is needed to prevent terrorism on Canadian soil. The legislation provides sweeping new powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which collects information covertly on security threats and forwards that information to the RCMP. Bill C-51 proposes that CSIS be allowed not only to monitor individuals who the agency thinks pose a threat, but also to disrupt their activities in a variety of ways, including seizing passports and cancelling travel reservations. Bill C-51 would also provide the RCMP with new powers to make preventative arrest or detention of suspected terrorists and lower the legal threshold under which such arrests occur.

Caught in the web

What’s more, Bill C-51 would allow 17 government departments and agencies to share amongst themselves — and with security agencies — information that they collect about Canadians, including tax records and details of travel for business or pleasure. It’s something Daniel Therrien, the federal Privacy Commissioner, objects to, saying “All Canadians — not only terrorism suspects — will be caught in this web.”

The bill would also allow CSIS to counter any activity that “undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada.” That list includes “terrorism,” obviously, but also “interference with the capability of the government of Canada in relation to … the economic or financial stability of Canada.” Does this mean that CSIS can disrupt aboriginal protests against pipelines or mining on their lands, or target trade union members engaged in a rail or postal strike? Government ministers insist that legitimate protest is exempted but critics remain skeptical.

“So-called experts”

In defence of the legislation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that “the international jihadist movement has declared war” and Bill C-51 is needed to keep Canadians safe. The context here involves two domestic fatal attacks on Canadian soldiers by disturbed and lone-wolf individuals, as well other attacks in Paris, Australia and elsewhere. These acts, as deplorable as they are, can hardly be accurately described as a war.

The Conservatives accuse those who question Bill C-51 as being soft on terrorism and they mock as “so-called experts” those scholars, government privacy commissioners and ombudsmen who say that the bill goes too far in offending the privacy and civil rights of Canadians.

Harassing  Zunera Ishaqa

Meanwhile, the Conservatives continue to defend the prohibition of Muslim women from wearing the niqab, a face covering, during oath-taking at citizenship ceremonies. Zunera Ishaqa, a new Canadian, had agreed to unveil in private before an official prior to taking the oath but not in the public ceremony but she was refused. She fought the ban in court and won, but now, the government is appealing the ruling.

The Conservative Party at one point even used Ishaqa’s case as the basis of a fundraising letter to its supporters. More recently, Harper responded to questions about the government’s appeal by asking, “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice that … frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”

Election prism

This must be seen through the prism of a coming federal election. The Conservatives laud themselves as good managers, but the economic news has been bad as of late: lacklustre job creation, an oil industry meltdown, growing inequality among Canadians and mounting consumer debt. As a result, the Conservatives’ new narrative is that only Harper can keep us safe from Muslim terrorists.

So what are we to do? For one thing, we can start treating rhetoric out of Ottawa with some scepticism. We can make our views known. We can also reach out to our Muslim neighbours. After all, this cannot be a pleasant time for them.

A shorter version of this post appeared on the United Church Observer blog on March 12, 2015.           

Physician assisted death

May Court Hospice provides palliative care
May Court Hospice provides        palliative care

The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down a law that makes it a crime for physicians to assist in the death of individuals who are grievously ill. The court’s unanimous decision pleases many Canadians, alarms others and leaves religious leaders and politicians in a most delicate position. An Angus Reid poll in November 2014 indicted that 80 per cent of respondents in Canada support allowing a doctor, at the request of a competent, fully informed, terminally ill patient, to assist that person to die.

The court has ruled that the existing law leaves people suffering from an irredeemable illness with a cruel choice. “[They] cannot seek a physician’s assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering,” the court said. The judges added that the law violates the charter rights and is therefore unconstitutional. As such, the court gave the federal government one year to draft a new law, and if Ottawa does not do so, there will be no law in place to regulate physician-assisted death.

Faith groups have long argued that life is a gift from God and that neither people who are ill nor those around them have the right to decide when life should end. They also warn lawmakers of a “slippery slope,” arguing that vulnerable people will come under pressure to choose death rather than burden their loved ones or society at large.

But the trial judge in the initial challenge to the law examined other jurisdictions where assisted death was available and concluded that the risks to vulnerable people were minimal. The Supreme Court judges agreed: “[The evidence] also supports her finding that a properly administered regulatory regime is capable of protecting the vulnerable from abuse or error.”

Judges in Canada don’t look at laws based on the interpretation of religious texts, but the court in this case obviously considered moral and ethical dimensions. “An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy,” they said. “The prohibition [on physician-assisted death] denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty.”

Various religious groups have responded to the Supreme Court’s judgment. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada expressed “deep” disappointment with the judgment and said that the court had decided that in some circumstances, “the killing of a person will be legal.” The Catholic bishops also expressed their dismay, saying that “helping someone to commit suicide is neither an act of justice or mercy, nor it is part of palliative care.”

Although the United Church of Canada made no formal statement, Moderator Gary Paterson wrote that “[the law] should change in order to allow physician-assisted dying in circumstances that meet carefully defined criteria.” The Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Fred Hilz, announced that his church is appointing a task force to guide its discussions on physician-assisted death.

All of these faith groups stressed the importance of improved palliative care. No doubt the Supreme Court judges would agree, although that was not the focus of the appeal that they heard. Better palliative care will not eliminate the requests for physician-assisted death by some people who are gravely ill, but the consensus is that it makes all the difference in the quality of life during one’s final stages.

This piece appeared in a somewhat more abbreviated form on my blog with the United Church Observer on February 12, 2015.


Global cry of the people

Jennifer Henry, KAIROS, says partners asking about Canadian mining
Jennifer Henry, KAIROS, says partners asking about Canadian mining

Recently, I attended a Saint Paul University symposium dealing with environmental and human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies — with the knowledge and complicity of the federal government. The Ottawa symposium was called the Global Cry of the People: Mining Extraction and Justice, and the presenters included a range of church-based and other civil society advocates from Canada, Latin America and Asia.

Jennifer Henry, the executive director of the Canadian inter-church justice group, KAIROS, told the audience that there is a discrepancy between the rhetoric and action of Canadian mining companies. “Our partners and neighbours are pleading with us to respond to this, and they wonder why nothing in changing,” she said. “Surely, we can take concrete steps to change the way in which Canadian mining companies do business.”

Meanwhile, Development and Peace, a Canadian Catholic aid organization, distributed  literature about the deleterious effects of mining on various communities. In it were comments from bishops in Latin America, Asia and the Philippines. Said the Philippines’ Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo: “Mining is not helping our people, and it is destroying our environment.”

Canada’s investment and activity in foreign mining has increased exponentially in recent decades — in tandem with mounting abuses. Many groups at the Ottawa symposium belong to a 29-member coalition called the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA). They want the government to take measures compelling the industry to act more responsibly. They have even taken their concerns to the Organization of American States, of which Canada is a member.

In October 2014, the CNCA submitted a brief to the organization’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington D.C. The CNCA says that there are more large mining companies domiciled in Canada than any other country. In fact, 41 percent of the large companies present in Latin America and the Caribbean are Canadian. As of December 2013, Canada had 1,500 mining projects in the region.

The CNCA says this concentration of mining companies in Canada is partly the result of Canada’s low rate of corporate taxation, a securities industry designed to promote mining, and enthusiastic support from the Canadian government. Export Development Canada, for example, provided financing and insurance worth $25 billion to the extractive sector in 2013, which represented 29% of the corporation’s exposure.

The CNCA brief also referred to a systematic pattern of Indigenous and human rights abuses that have accompanied increased Canadian mining activity. It cited a report presented to the IACHR Commission last year by the Working Group on Mining and Human Rights in Latin America. In ten of the 22 Canadian mining projects reviewed by the group, 23 violent deaths and 25 cases of injury were found.

So what does the CNCA and others want done? For starters, it wants the government to appoint an independent extractive sector ombudsperson to provide redress whenever Canadian companies are involved in abuses. Secondly, it wants the government to provide access to Canadian courts for people who have been seriously harmed by the international operations of Canadian companies.

The Conservative government has responded with a project for Corporate Social Responsibility, a purely voluntary endeavour in which Canadian extractive companies agree to abide by certain guidelines. But the government has shown no enthusiasm for the proposals by civil society, and any attempts to introduce regulation have been met with opposition by the mining industry lobby.

Still, despite the lack of response from the government or industry, attendees at the November symposium agreed that the campaign must — and will — continue.This piece appeared in slightly different form recently in my blog for the United Church Observer.   


2014 Peoples’ Social Forum comes to Ottawa

2014 Peoples' Social Forum, Ottawa
2014 Peoples’ Social Forum, Ottawa

A Peoples’ Social Forum (PSF) which has been several years in the planning will occur at the University of Ottawa on August 21-24 and organizers are expecting thousands of people to attend. There will be more than 500 workshops and presentations, as well as assemblies and cultural activities. In a statement of purpose, which introduces the four-day program, organizers say this: “We will weave our collective movements together to face the crises of our times head-on, and counter the government’s attacks on our rights, our jobs, our environment, our services, and our future. We will honour the unceded Algonquin territory on which we will stand, and honour each other’s struggles for dignity and justice.”

The forum is incredibly diverse and as such its planned activities are difficult to summarize and describe. I talked to Gustavo Frederico, one of the Ottawa-based volunteers, to better understand why the PSF is occurring, what it will involve and what it hopes to accomplish.

Where did the PSF come from, can you provide some context?

The first World Social Forum (WSF) was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001 and there have been a number of others since, the last one in Tunis in 2013. These events present a citizens and grassroots alternative to the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos, Switzerland. Unlike the WSF, Davos promotes a neo-liberal agenda, including privatization, free trade, open markets, deregulation, and government cutbacks in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.

Most national social forums adhere to the charter of principles drawn up initially by the WSF. The goal is to allow for a large number of people to engage in an open forum atmosphere. The WSF has led to the organizing of other regional social forums in the U.S., Europe Asia, Southern Africa and elsewhere.

The PSF in Ottawa is the first pan-Canadian forum and it comes with the same motivation as those in Porto Alegre and elsewhere – to propose and envision an alternative social and political agenda. It is diverse, non-governmental and non-partisan, aimed at stimulating debate and exchange, proposing alternatives to the existing economic order and building alliances to effect change.

Who is organizing this and how?

There are a number of streams or organizing bodies. One of them is labour and the list of acknowledged PSF supporters and sponsors includes a good representation from unions, from Quebec and the rest of Canada. Another key group arises from Indigenous organizations from the grassroots to the national level. A third grouping which appears well organized is social movements from Quebec, particularly the student movement.

What will be talked about?

The three main organizing groups and their concerns are foundational but the Ottawa event will be diverse. There are more than 500 workshops on a wide variety of themes: the environment and related issues about resource extraction and Indigenous rights are important, as are issues related to labour and the government’s austerity agenda. Others deal with youth, solidarity and LGBT issues and much more. Many of the workshops are related in one way or another to media and communications and there is a strong cultural component including the presentation of films and documentaries.

Will there be much of a presence from religious groups?

There are a number of religiously-based groups involved although they aren’t there to talk about religion per se. Ecumenical groups such as Citizens for Public Justice and Kairos are involved with the PSF but mainly through their work on issues related to the environment, poverty or human rights. Some of the workshops could be described as primarily spiritual in their orientation and there is one workshop on Christ as a revolutionary. However, there is not much apparent involvement from local Ottawa churches or from large religious denominations. Unfortunately, the outreach to religious organizations has not generated much response.

Is there a concern about infiltration and possibly provocation by the state security apparatus?

Organizers are aware that there is always the possibility of infiltration by state security actors but there has been no discussion about this at the level of volunteers. The PSF has adopted a non-violent approach within its charter. It is diverse, offers much cultural content and is also child friendly.

The primary concern is that people within the forum act in a respectful way toward one another because among those who will attend there are conflicting points of view. There is also the possibility that individuals from the community who are contrary to what the PSF is doing will attend and cause problems at the assemblies and workshops. Organizers of the PSF have had discussions with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) about how to maintain a peaceful assembly. CPT is involved in promoting non-violence in many of the world’s trouble spots and has valuable advice to offer in this area.

Will all of this go anywhere or is it just meant to equip those attending with more information?

On the last days (Saturday and Sunday) there will be a number of movement assemblies where key facilitators will assist people in a process of how they might best address the issues raised. The record of the federal government is a concern. The Conservatives’ policies don’t resonate with many people so this is a chance to talk in strategic terms about what to do together. The focus will be partly about how to change the current government but it is wider and deeper than this. It is meant to energize and build community among the movements involved.

Edward Snowden’s future

Whistleblower Edward Snowden, Wikipedia photo
Whistleblower Edward Snowden, Wikipedia photo

Some people believe that Edward Snowden is a traitor and would haul him into a U.S. court if they could get their hands on him. However, countless others believe that Snowden, a young technician who exited the National Security Agency (NSA) with a mountain of data, is a hero in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg, who a generation ago blew the whistle on how the Pentagon and American presidents lied to their people about the war they were conducting in Vietnam. After blowing the whistle on the NSA in June 2013, Snowden fled from the U.S. and was eventually granted temporary asylum in Russia.  Snowden, then 29, had been working as a NSA contractor in Hawaii. He had access to a myriad of sensitive documents and what he saw disturbed him deeply. As quoted recently  in the New York Review of Books, he said: “You realize that’s the world you helped create and it’s gonna get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression.”

Spying and cover ups

Snowden’s revelations have exposed a massive campaign of spying and subsequent cover ups by NSA. He reveals, for example, that the NSA intercepted the cell phone calls of German chancellor Angela Merkel and spied on Brazil, both considered to be nations friendly to the U.S. Other of Snowden’s material indicates that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) cooperates closely with the NSA. For example, CSEC helped the NSA to spy on leaders of a number of countries during the G20 meetings in Toronto in 2010.

President Obama was forced to apologize to Germans, Brazilians and other nations, and in January 2013 he announced that he was ordering changes to the way in which NSA operates and how it is overseen. There has been no such candour from the Conservative government in Ottawa regarding CSEC.

Cold rage and warm praise

Snowden’s exposés have prompted a cold rage among the offending agencies and some politicians. Snowden may yet pay a heavy price for doing what he believes is right but he has also won much support. Two Norwegian politicians have nominated Snowden for the Nobel peace prize, saying that his actions have led to a “more stable and peaceful world order.”

Closer to home, Brian Stewart, the former CBC TV correspondent and expert in security, has expressed a cautious admiration for Snowden. Stewart, who is now a fellow at the Munk Centre for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, wrote, “For some of us, the great shock of the past year was the revelations that whistleblowers like Edward Snowden were not, after all, wildly exaggerating the dangers of intelligence agencies run amok.”

The NSA is authorized to gather foreign intelligence that relates to threats to national security but it is not allowed to collect information on Americans. The information leaked by Snowden, however, shows that NSA has indeed run programs that collected detailed information on hundreds of millions of Americans.

“Vacuuming” data

Alan Rushbridger is editor of The Guardian newspaper in England, which has published articles based on Snowden’s revelations. He says this: “The apparent aim is to store all of the signals all of the time – that means all digital life, including Internet searches and all the phone calls, texts and emails we make and send to each other.” Matthew Aid, a U.S. military historian, says, “The NSA is intercepting the [information] equivalent of four Library of Congresses every hour.”

It is difficult to believe that the “vacuuming” of all of this data is possible, but apparently it is — and it likely could not be collected without the cooperation of phone companies and internet providers. For example, the American giant Verizon, which was planning to expand into Canada until it changed its mind last year, admitted that it cooperated with the NSA in providing information about its customers.

In Canada, a group of academics has sent a public letter to Canada’s leading telecommunications companies, asking them to reveal the extent to which they have handed customer data over to our police and security services. So far, they have received no reply.

Spy agencies and many politicians justify this electronic snooping in the name of national security and protecting our countries against terrorist attacks. Most people would agree that the state does have to undertake surveillance in certain circumstances, but in the aftermath  of attacks on America in September 2001 and other attacks elsewhere security agencies have demanded and received ever more resources. Some have also broken their country’s laws and subverted the democratic oversight of their operations. They are looking for a terrorist needle in a haystack of electronic data – and we are that haystack.

Much of this information is called metadata, which includes, for example, information about who you called on your smart phone and when, or to whom and when, you sent an email. The data could also include information about what websites you visit in searches for information or to purchase books, music and tickets. One knowledgeable former NSA official says, “If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content … ”

CSEC’s spying

In Canada, CSEC also has a mandate to collect foreign intelligence, but not to spy on Canadians – that job is left to CSIS and is supposed to occur only under exceptional circumstances.  The Snowden information revealed that CSEC had spied on Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy. This has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with industrial espionage of the kind that countries in the West accuse the Chinese or the Russians of doing. One must conclude that CSEC’s information on Brazil was to be shared with Canada’s mining sector.

The latest scandal, based on more of Snowden’s material and reported by the CBC’s Greg Weston, indicates that CSEC used the free Wi-Fi services provided at two unnamed Canadian airports to collect information from the wireless devices of thousands of airline passengers. The exercise did not collect the content, but rather metadata from the wireless devices of unwitting airline passengers.

Shocking revelations

This revelation came as a shock to those who follow security matters. Ron Diebert, a professor at the Munk school in Toronto and the author of a well-received book on internet surveillance and privacy, told the CBC: “I can’t see any circumstances in which this would not be unlawful, under current Canadian law, under our Charter, under CESC’s mandates.”

When questioned about CSEC in the House of Commons, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson repeats the mantra that CSEC is not allowed to break the law. That evades the question of whether the agency did, nonetheless, break the law. And If CSEC’s actions did not break the law, then perhaps the law should be changed to better protect the privacy of Canadians.

No oversight

While the Americans have standing Congressional committees that oversee the NSA (albeit poorly), there is no such committee in Canada. CSEC is overseen by a single commissioner, a retired judge with a small staff, and his after-the-fact reports are only submitted to parliament after they have been vetted by the same defence minister who is in charge of approving CSEC’s intelligence gathering  activities in the first place.

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, is outspoken in her criticism. “While our U.S. neighbours are debating the future of phone and Internet surveillance programs,” she wrote in The Globe and Mail, “our government is maintaining a wall of silence around the activities of [CSEC]. This silence is putting our freedoms at risk.”

Asylum for Snowden

Meanwhile Edward Snowden remains in Russia. The U.S. wants him back to put him on trial and his future is uncertain. The group Avaaz.org has launched an online petition aimed at having Brazil grant asylum to Snowden. Avaaz wants 1.5 million people to sign the petition to the Brazilian president and to date more than one million people have signed on. You can, too, by clicking here.


Big Brother and spying on Tommy Douglas

RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas
RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas, Photo courtesy Canadian Health Coalition

In 2011, the Canadian Press reported that the RCMP security service spied on CCF-NDP icon Tommy Douglas from the 1930s until shortly before he died in 1986. But the file on Douglas represented just a tip of the proverbial iceberg, as the McDonald Commission into RCMP misbehaviour revealed that in the 1970s, the security service maintained files on 800,000 individuals. Those files represented information on one of every 27 Canadians, Professor Reg Whitaker and his co-researchers estimate in the 2012 book, Secret Service.

This spying was driven by the state’s fear of and obsession with communism, which was the lens through which the RCMP perceived any progressive activity. No doubt that there were many who believed that if one had done nothing wrong, there was nothing to fear — a position that is either naïve or disingenuous. After all, the RCMP spied on communists, trade unionists, students, professors, civil servants, women’s groups, separatists, anti-apartheid and aboriginal activists. We don’t know, for example, how many careers may have been affected by information shared by police and security officials with government departments or university presidents.

Being described as a “communist” then was akin to being called a “terrorist” today. And there are consequences. Mahar Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was detained and questioned by American officials at a New York airport in 2002 before being flown by private jet to Syria to be interrogated and tortured. Fortunately for Arar, there was a loud outcry — led by his courageous wife Monia Mazigh — for his release. It became clear in the ensuing public inquiry, headed by Justice Dennis O’Connor, that Arar was innocent of the claims made against him; that he and acquaintances had been spied upon by the RCMP; and that the police had shared erroneous information about Arar with their American counterparts.

In the wake of information made available by Edward Snowden, a whistleblower who once worked for the National Security Agency in the U.S., we are discovering the extent of spying activity by the Canadian government, including that of Communications Security Establishment Canada. In fact, the country helped Americans to spy upon world leaders attending the 2010 G20 meetings in Toronto and the Ministry of Mining and Energy in Brazil, likely sharing this information with Canadian mining interests. As well, our security agencies are reportedly watching the movements of Canadian environmental and aboriginal activistsconcerned about pipeline and energy developments. The government has developed increasingly close relationships with the carbon industry in order to share information on what they perceive to be terrorist threats.

Today, practices and technology involved in spying are exponentially more sophisticated than they were when flat-footed plainclothes police trailed Tommy Douglas, eavesdropping on his conversations.  It is now technically possible for security agencies to trap all of our email and telephone conversations. Yet our mechanisms for oversight by Parliament remain woefully inadequate. Indeed, these are perilous times for our treasured democratic rights to privacy and dissent.

This piece appeared, under a slightly different title, on the United Church Observer blog of January 9, 2014.