Canadian Mining Races to the Bottom

A new book provides a shocking analysis of environmental destruction and human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies abroad—and how we help them do it. (Originally published in Focus Magazine, February 2013.)

Chandu Claver was born in the small town of Tabuk in the mountainous Cordillera region of the Philippines, near a large copper mine at various times partially owned by Canadian interests. This is where he became a surgeon, got married, and wanted to raise his family.

He never planned on being a refugee in Victoria.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Claver was running a one-man surgical hospital in Tabuk, while every two months he’d spend a couple of weeks voluntarily bringing health care to remote indigenous villages of the area. Claver himself is indigenous, of the Igorot tribes of the Cordillera. But he was also the son of a loyal mining company doctor, so it was during these sojourns, he says, that his “consciousness” first began developing into that of an activist for human rights.

“I started to see the effects of mining,” says Claver, whose calm, warm demeanour belies the intensity of his feelings. “When you’re working in situations like that, you get to see the poverty, you get to see the oppression, you get to see the state militarization, you get to see the effect on the people. You start to see that people are getting sick because of that, because of the poverty that they are forced to undergo because their lands are being denied them.”

To those familiar with British Columbia aboriginal rights issues, Claver’s explanation of the fundamentally conflicting views in the Philippines is recognizable. “They see that everything around them is connected,” says Claver, who shifts between using “we” or “they” in relation to indigenous peoples. “So the land, the sea, the water, the skies, the minerals, the trees, animals, fauna, all these are connected and comprehensively linked to support life, including people. So they cannot understand how you can actually compartmentalize things, like mine out the minerals without affecting the rest…And when you start saying that this land is for a mining company and nobody else, that’s not something we can grasp. And that’s where it all starts; that’s where the violations of rights start.”

As Tabuk grew and surgeon specialists began arriving, Claver turned to general medical practice. He also increased his volunteering as a leader with the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (cpaphils.org), a multi-sectoral organization of 150 grassroots groups that advocate for indigenous people’s rights. The organization “became very influential and strong,” says Claver.

But in the late 90s, new, even more permissive mining and land expropriation laws were passed. There was also a push towards “free trade” and “globalization,” and, after 9/11, a tightening relationship between the Filipino and US governments. All these factors led to dramatically worsening conditions and tensions around the country. The Philippine military, says Claver, even set up a specialized “Investment Defense Force” to help protect mining companies from the growing protest movements. Worse, “extrajudicial” assassinations became rampant: Since 2001, over 1,500 activists and members of social justice organizations have been killed or “disappeared,” says Claver. None of the attackers have ever been convicted, but, according to Claver, a damning secret document obtained by Philippine media revealed that military intelligence seemed to have begun regarding many legitimate political and non-profit organizations as merely branches of known terrorist and armed rebel groups.

One day, without warning, Dr Chandu Claver became a target for assassination.

It was July 31, 2006. “It was a Monday, early morning,” says Claver. “I’d just dropped off my youngest daughter at her school.” He manoeuvred away from the busy curb in the heart of Tabuk and began to head towards the school of his other girls, aged 7 and 11.

“As I was making a turn, a van cut me off,” says Claver. Next, two people stepped out of the van, raised automatic rifles and unloaded 38 rounds into the Claver family car. One daughter was never hit. Claver’s other daughter took a bullet to the head but, miraculously, it only scraped her scalp. Claver himself took three bullets in the shoulder and one in his abdomen. Claver’s wife of 15 years, Alice, took seven bullets near her heart, and would die on the operating table.

“[The gunmen] got back into the van and escaped,” he says. Though police were on the scene almost immediately from the nearby police station, adds Claver, “the [gunmen’s] van actually passed through three military and police checkpoints and never got stopped.”

For the next six months, Claver only visited his children surreptitiously and continued to speak out for indigenous rights and for justice for his wife and other victims of extrajudicial killings. But when a medical colleague relayed to Claver a warning about another planned attack on Claver and his children, from a patient who was a sympathetic soldier, Claver decided he couldn’t stay. He and his three daughters landed in Canada in 2007.

Claver felt Canada was a safer place to continue to speak out, although the US would have recognized his medical credentials. “My objectives were twofold: to raise my kids and to continue working for justice,” explains Claver. “Nowhere in those goals said that I have to be a doctor.”

So he’s found a small, affordable rental home and employment as a caregiver and support worker at a Victoria shelter. And he’s begun liaising with church and non-profit groups on behalf of the Victoria Philippine Support Group and Cordillera Peoples Alliance as he tries to raise public awareness about the impacts of mining.

Claver has also been learning about his new homeland—how destructive a role Canadian mining companies and the Canadian government have been playing in BC, in the Philippines, and around the world, and how few Canadians realize the extent of it. So educating Canadians, says Claver, has become an important part of the process towards getting justice for his wife.

A powerful new book may help his efforts.

 

Daring to ask why

According to the Canadian federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 75 percent of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. It’s an astonishing statistic that obviously raises the question, “Why?”

Two Quebec-based academic researchers, Alain Deneault and William Sacher, set out to answer that question in a searing and disturbing new book: Imperial Canada Inc.–Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries. Along the way, the authors examine a parallel troubling question, “Why do so few Canadians know?”

Tellingly, two major Canadian mining corporations have been trying to prevent Canadians from ever seeing this book.

In early 2010, tiny Vancouver publisher Talonbooks announced on its website that Imperial Canada Inc. was being developed with Deneault and other collaborators. Within days, lawyers for the world’s biggest gold mining company, Canadian transnational Barrick, faxed Talonbooks a “demand” for copies of any parts of the manuscript-in-progress that made “direct or indirect reference to Barrick, Sutton Resources Ltd, or to any of their past or present subsidiaries, affiliates, directors or officers.” Barrick also sent the letter to all the authors, collaborators and translators, and threatened to sue everyone if they didn’t like what they saw.

Many promptly quit the project. Talonbooks announced Imperial Canada Inc. was “cancelled.”

“We were scared and we were intimidated,” explains Talonbooks President Kevin Williams. “We were also somewhat outraged by the fact, ‘We haven’t even published the book!’ It felt like an infringement of our civil liberties and our ability to have free speech.”

It wasn’t a complete surprise, though. Barrick had similarly threatened lawsuits in 2008 ahead of publication of Deneault and Sacher’s previous book about Canadian companies in Africa, Noir Canada. Small Quebec publisher Écosociété pushed ahead and, even though less than a couple hundred copies of the French academic book were ever sold, Barrick sued for $6 million and another Canadian mining giant, Banro, sued for $5 million.

From 2008 through 2010, public concern about these threats and developing legal cases spread. Montreal independent daily Le Devoir reported the story. Academics and lawyers posted a petition at freespeechatrisk.ca, where Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein expressed support. Some alternative media covered the story, including The Tyee, Watershed Sentinel, The Walrus and CBC radio.

Most observers criticized the legal actions as “SLAPPs”—Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. SLAPPs are typically libel lawsuits that corporations use to shut down public criticism by dragging shoestring-budget watchdog groups or small publishers through expensive, time-consuming court processes. Many US states and European countries have crafted anti-SLAPP laws to allow judges to more quickly dismiss cases where libel laws are obviously being abused in this way. Canadian governments, however, have been reluctant to pass anti-SLAPP laws.

Though the Banro lawsuit continues, an out-of-court settlement was reached with Barrick that Noir Canada would be withdrawn from print. “It was a way for Écosociété and for ourselves to continue the fight in another forum than the legal one,” says Deneault on the phone from Montreal, explaining that he’d rather see the evidence he’s gathered debated freely in public than at mammoth expense in a small courtroom between lawyers. He says the years he’s spent battling has taught him how much the Canadian court system is corrupted by money: “Do you have the money to continue? No? Well, then you have to settle with the conditions of the party that has money to continue.” Continuing, Deneault says, “It’s totally undemocratic. Taxpayers are subsidizing a structure that’s only accessible to wealthy people. It’s not a question of rights, it’s a question of means.”

Talonbooks never did show Barrick Imperial Canada Inc. However, Williams says the book’s content was refocused more on structural, overarching problems than on specific cases and companies.

“The book was extremely carefully written,” says Williams. “But aside from the fact that it took us two years longer than we would have liked, and we had to pay for the cost of a legal review, in the end we got a very good book…It’s allowing people to have a look at this issue and consider perhaps what we need to do.”

And though mainstream media have so far ignored it, Imperial Canada Inc. is provocative. It’s essentially a 189-page argument, buttressed comprehensively with reference footnotes, that provides an overview of reams of damning research about Canada’s pre-eminent role in mining’s devastating global impacts on both the environment and human rights.

 

Canada the haven

Deneault says he first became interested in the mining industry while studying offshore tax havens. “A haven is a country that allows a wealthy individual, corporation or a bank somewhere in the world to circumvent some kind of constraints,” says Deneault. “There are about 80 or 90 havens in the world. And why is it so? They all have their specific vocation.” Havens like the Cayman Islands, Jamaica or Liechtenstein each offer specialized legal bypasses, he explains, such as 100 percent tax-free revenues, non-existent minimum-wage laws, or ship registration without safety standards.

And Canada, Deneault discovered, has become the top haven for transnational mining companies. Deneault points to the company running the infamous Katanga mine. “It’s a Belgian corporation in the province of Katanga in the Congo. [The senior officers] are all Belgian,” says Deneault. “They registered their company in Toronto. Why? Why did a Belgian company register itself in Toronto to operate in Southern Congo?”

Indeed, the significant, dubious involvement of Canadian-based mining companies and the Canadian government in the war-ravaged Congo will be one of the more disconcerting revelations in the book for most Canadians. Deneault writes about an “avalanche of public documents,” including UN reports, that explicitly criticize Canadian citizens and companies for their roles in the Congo war.

But for Deneault, that was only the beginning. “We started to discover all sorts of cases, in a lot of countries, involving a lot of corporations,” he says. “And [they were] cases about very important issues. Not about anthropological civilities, but corruption, bribery, arms dealing, collusion with warlords or rebels, partnerships with dictatorships or kleptocrats, and so on.” And these came from many different sources, he says, including UN reports, parliamentary commissions, independent documentaries, academic studies, and organizations such as Mining Watch Canada, Amnesty International and Global Witness.

Another UN report points to abuses of indigenous peoples around the world and implores the Canadian government to “explore ways to hold transnational corporations registered in Canada accountable for these acts.” Yet instead, as Imperial Canada Inc. lays out in detail, our governments have been actively assisting these corporations with enormous tax breaks and subsidies, lax stock market regulations, diplomatic support, and immunity from prosecution for environmental destruction and human rights abuses overseas.

 

Canadian government support

Imperial Canada Inc. provides evidence showing how our governments help the mining industry with diplomatic support and funding, particularly exploring how Export Development Canada and the Canadian International Development Agency regularly pump millions into mining operations in notoriously troubled areas where mining wealth, civilian poverty and resulting armed conflict are virtually synonymous—like Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia and the Congo.

“The money [our government] will put into a project is related to the interests Canadian corporations have in that specific project,” says Deneault. He points to two dams on the Senegal River which Canadian International Development Agency aid helped build in the 1980s. “It was a catastrophe,” says Deneault, describing soaked arable lands, collapsed fisheries, new diseases blooming in the stagnant water, and violence erupting amidst diminishing food supplies.

“And why,” Deneault asks, “were those dams built?” First, he explains, Canadian companies made money building them, and then the dams provided electricity for a Canadian company’s nearby open-pit gold mine, which itself spread streams of deadly arsenic and turned into an environmental and health disaster for local populations. “And they called that a successful project on the web site of the Department of External Affairs,” says Deneault. “It’s a pure contradiction, what [Canada] claims to be and what they do abroad.”

Canada also has a legal framework that makes it impossible to hold these corporations to account in court, says Deneault. Imperial Canada Inc. reviews how over 23,000 Guyanese citizens filed suit against Canadian mining company Cambior after a catastrophic tailings pond accident, but in 1998 Quebec courts simply threw the case out. Just last November, Canada’s Supreme Court summarily dismissed attempts by a coalition of organizations and families of victims to sue Canada’s Anvil Mining for its involvement in a massacre in the Congo.

One supposes that at least these companies must be golden-milk cows for our own government coffers. But a study by Quebec’s auditor general, for example, found that 14 mining companies with $4.2 billion in revenues from 2002-2008 paid no tax at all, while other mining companies paid a tax rate of about 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, Quebec tax breaks and credits cost taxpayers from 1.5 to 7 times more than mining royalties brought in.

Investors are also being handsomely compensated, with tax credits of up to 150 percent for investing in companies doing mining exploration. Such figures almost stretch credulity but, commendably, the ImperialCanada.ca website has links for many of the book’s references. That footnote clicks through to a Quebec government tax advisory for mining investors: “…which gives a total possible deduction of 150 percent of the amount invested.”

So why are our governments so supportive of mining companies?

Deneault shows that our mining industry magnates and political leaders are in many cases the same people, including Brian Mulroney, Paul Desmarais Sr, Jean Chretien, Joe Clark and Brian Tobin. However, the book also presents a more variegated history to how Canada became so mining-friendly.

 

Corrupt stock exchanges and uninformed investors

“Canada is a former colony,” says Deneault. “The public institutions that we created in Canada historically were dedicated to monopolies exploiting natural resources…Canada is fashioned a little like Leopold the Second fashioned the Congo.”

Further, both the Toronto and Montreal stock exchanges developed during Canada’s late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century goldrush eras, establishing their niche as speculative mining markets. Imperial Canada Inc. examines how the two exchanges then competitively raced each other to the bottom to attract companies, including making most regulatory compliance obligations “voluntary.” Today, many of those lax practices remain in place at Vancouver (home to nearly half of Canadian mining companies), Toronto and Montreal’s stock exchanges. For example, unlike in most other countries, Canadian publicly-registered companies are allowed to mislead ordinary investors by blurring the lines between “reserves,” which are precisely calculated estimates of a mine’s geology, and “resources,” which are speculative assertions about how much ore might be there. It’s a practice that became infamous during the $6 billion stock market collapse of Calgary’s Bre-X in 1997.

Canada also only requires publicly-traded companies to report to shareholders on issues that a “reasonable investor” would care about—and that’s deemed to be only issues directly affecting market value, not affecting broader society, human rights or the environment. “When we’re reading the documentation related to the [legally required] disclosure of information,” comments Deneault, “it’s always about this ‘reasonable investor’ and what he should know…It’s like a sociological character, defined so. A reasonable investor in that fiction is an investor who only cares about what he has to know with respect to his own private interests.”

Even more unnerving: Most Canadian financial institutions, mutual funds, and major private, public and union pension funds, including the Canada Pension Plan, are heavily invested in this cloaked ethical miasma. “All Canadians are mining shareholders, but they don’t have any control of that, they don’t even choose to be shareholders or not,” says Deneault. Meanwhile most of us, he adds, don’t realize that mining companies and government officials often rationalize many exploitative and abusive acts overseas by claiming they’re protecting average Canadians’ investments and pensions.

 

Change needed here first

In many respects in the globalized economy, concludes Deneault, it’s Canada that’s the “lowest common denominator” dragging the rest of the world’s ethical and environmental mining standards down. That’s why it seems backhanded flattery that, in a 2008 survey, mining executives ranked 7 Canadian provinces amongst the top 10 jurisdictions on Earth for their pro-mining policies—BC ranked 24th, well below Botswana, but far above Ghana and Zambia. And it’s therefore perhaps even more unnerving that, this year, UBC and SFU received millions in Canadian International Development Agency money to host a new institute that will work with mining companies to promote Canadian mining “policy, regulations, educational programs and technologies” in developing countries.

Besides suing academics, our mining industry works in other ways to suppress open discussion in Canada about all of this. Deneault draws direct links between directors of mainstream media and the mining industry. But his book reveals other insidious efforts, like an industry group’s “Mining Matters” educational program for elementary schools, implemented by the Ontario government, which warns teachers against being critical of mining, and the University of Toronto agreement allowing Barrick to co-develop curriculum in exchange for donations, which got rewritten only after protests.

Deneault doesn’t claim every Canadian mining company is immoral, but he does believe his book is revealing “only the tip of the iceberg.”

“The mining sector in Canada is totally out of control,” he summarizes. “We don’t have any way to make sure that, on an ethical level, these mining corporations registered in Canada behave properly abroad.”

How can we rectify the situation?

Deneault proposes calling independent commissions to investigate. “There are too many allegations from too many sources on too many very controversial cases to believe that it’s all suppositions,” he says.

He also suggests taking ethical financial action. “Since there’s no way to verify what [mining companies] do, Canadians should try by any way or means to withdraw their money from that sector.”

Deneault believes we’d do well to improve mining practices here in Canada, too, which he feels often aren’t much better than elsewhere. He recently spoke in Kamloops, and heard from the protesters battling the planned open pit mine there. It reminded him “how weak the voice of the population is” even in Canada.

I describe to Deneault the ruckuses that have erupted since the BC Liberal government put up an online tool making it incredibly easy and cheap for mining companies or anyone else to stake previously publicly-reserved mining rights on public and private lands. Though most new claims have been happening in remote locations, so few of us know about them, two men recently staked claims across huge swaths of Pender Island, throwing property owners, law enforcement and local government into confusion about what happens next. The Tyee has reported on a quarrelsome Vernon man who staked claims on his neighbours’ lots and then with impunity began trespassing on their properties at all hours, putting up mining signs, and spray-painting their trees for removal. And of course, the intent of the tool is that real mining operations might ultimately begin in some cases.

“In any other kind of activity, in any other sector, it’s impossible to imagine you could obtain a property in five minutes on the internet,” comments Deneault. “It tells a lot about the jurisdiction that we’re in.”

That’s part of the reason that, here in Victoria, a new group called the Mining Justice Action Committee has begun trying to raise public awareness and build solidarity amongst people affected by the practices of Canadian mining companies in BC and around the world (see event below). Indigenous Filipino refugee Chandu Claver has been working alongside them.

“We identify very well with what First Nations are looking at here,” comments Claver on the BC situation, where he sees controversial oil pipeline proposals as just another example of the power of the “extractive” industries like mining. “The state looks at indigenous peoples’ areas as resource-based areas, meaning a source of raw materials. Period. That’s why the people there are not a priority for social services, they’re not a priority for anything. What’s important for the state are their raw materials.”

Like Deneault, Claver hopes BC activists could help set a better standard for human rights and environmental responsibility that would be exported as a model elsewhere. “If I’m able to work with First Nations in doing what needs to be done here, maybe it’s something that can actually accelerate change in the Philippines.”

Deneault optimistically points out that there have been several federal mining-related bills recently, one each from the Liberals, Bloc and NDP, that variously sought to create a mining ombudsperson with investigative and regulatory powers, require more forthright corporate reporting, and permit Canadian companies to be sued in Canada for human rights abuses. Although he saw flaws in each bill and watched each be defeated or scuttled, Deneault felt encouraged. “Technically, they can change [the laws],” he observes. “We’ve had bills, we can see that it’s possible, we’re not dreaming.”

 

 

So it’s illegal surveillance, so what?

The Privacy Commissioner has ruled on licence plate tracking, but our police and government seem unwilling to obey the law. Who will hold them to account?

(Originally published in Focus, January 2012.)

 

Upon its release in November, the BC Privacy Commissioner’s report on the Victoria Police Department’s use of automatic licence plate recognition surveillance (ALPR) looked like an inspiring example of democratic checks and balances working to perfection. Unfortunately, it rapidly became a siren call for how wantonly our governments and police are ever more often tossing aside any pretences to following democratic principles or rule of law.

The ALPR program involves using cruiser-mounted computerized cameras that read passing licence plates at high speeds and run them against hotlists of stolen vehicles and prohibited and unlicensed drivers. However, BC municipal police forces, working with the RCMP, have secretly expanded the program to gather information about the movements of much wider ranges of innocent people (See “Hidden Surveillance,” Focus March 2012, and “Privacy Commissioner Slams Provincial Surveillance Program,” Focus April 2012). In other countries, ALPR data has been used to risk-profile people based on where they travel and who they meet, or to harass activists driving to protests.

Citing her office’s decision to investigate after receiving a letter from “three individuals”—me, political science PhD student Christopher Parsons, and technology-privacy advocate Kevin McArthur—Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s press release couldn’t have been clearer: “The Victoria Police Department must make changes to its Automated Licence Plate Recognition program to comply with privacy laws”.

Denham’s report identified the key aspects of VicPD’s ALPR program that are not legal under BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA): Tracking the movements of law-abiding people of “special interest” to police, such as those who have obtained legal custody of their children, threatened suicide, or are simply relatives or “associates” of people under investigation “is not authorized by FIPPA.” Tracking the movements of all law-abiding BC citizens “is not authorized by FIPPA.” Collecting information about everyone’s movements and passing it to the RCMP to use in unknown ways “is not authorized by FIPPA.” Denham even had strong words for the federal RCMP who’ve been administering much of the program on behalf of municipal police departments: “I do not have jurisdiction to direct the RCMP in their use of ALPR; however, I am nevertheless deeply concerned about the potential privacy implications of this indiscriminate collection of personal information.”

 

It’s inaccurate, in no particular way

Basically, VicPD’s ALPR program—and by extension the same programs at other BC municipal police departments—was determined by the Commissioner to be in significant respects illegal. Her findings were straightforward, concise and unequivocal. Within the week, citing the Commissioner’s findings, Saanich Mayor and Police Board Chair Frank Leonard announced the Saanich Police Department had suspended their ALPR program pending changes.

Others reacted differently.

VicPD issued a press release in which Chief Jamie Graham said, “the Department respectfully disagrees with certain elements of the Commissioner’s characterization of how the ALPR program functions.”

The RCMP similarly issued a press release stating that the OIPC report “contains inaccurate information in regards to the ALPR system which we will address with the Privacy Commissioner.”

No substantiations were provided; nevertheless, news media across Canada replayed these undermining claims. Yet a month later, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) had still received no indication from the RCMP or VicPD that there was actually anything inaccurate in the report.

And that was all our police did. There were no apologies, no promises to do things differently, no shamefaced announcements of plans to promptly come into compliance with the law.

“It was incredibly heartening to see that the Saanich Police Department is abiding by the law,” commented my co-researcher Christopher Parsons who presents and publishes on privacy and security issues both nationally and internationally. “And I hope that other police departments will similarly decide that they’re going to obey the law with regard to licence plate recognition in the province.”

Nevertheless, it was the same in Vancouver. In response to my questions two weeks after the report came out, VPD media rep Cst. Brian Montague wrote, “I am not sure what you mean when you say the VPD is operating the ALPR system contrary to BC law.”

I suggested Montague read the OIPC report, and then went above his head. Vancouver Mayor and Police Board Chair Gregor Robertson didn’t reply to emails or calls for weeks. Patti Marfleet, executive director of the Vancouver Police Board, emailed me more comments from the Vancouver Police Department. VPD wrote that they were “considering” Denham’s proposed changes, but flatly denied that aspects of their ALPR program were, as I’d termed it, “illegal.” Instead, VPD explained “for clarification” that the Commissioner had merely found the ALPR program was in some aspects “not authorized by FIPPA” and could be “more privacy-compliant.”

I refrained from asking the follow-up question which now appeared in Orwellian fashion to be both eminently logical and senselessly inflammatory: So if I speed, I can successfully exonerate myself by explaining to police that I’m not actually doing anything “illegal,” I’m merely innocently doing something that’s “not authorized by the law” and “could be more in compliance with the law”?

“The police are supposed to be the people that are above reproach. And here they’re just thumbing their noses at the law,” observed Parsons. “Not necessarily surprising, I guess, but how disappointing is it?”

 

Who ensures laws are followed?

I went above their heads. I asked if the BC Minister of Justice intended to ensure police forces operating in BC, including the RCMP, obeyed BC law. In a written statement issued through a media rep, Liberal Justice Minister Shirley Bond wrote that the government would “consider” the Commissioner’s report but, “In the meantime, we expect all agencies deploying ALPR to adhere to approved procedures and polices [sic] presently in place.” Since the present ALPR procedures are illegal, of course, Bond in effect publicly urged all BC police to continue breaking the law.

“If it was some other ministry, it would be disturbing, it would be upsetting, but it wouldn’t have the same level of significance,” commented Parsons. (Yet this same government has recently fired bureaucrats and shut down some of the most renowned health research teams in the country while investigating the mere possibility privacy laws were temporarily breached in the health ministry.)

Not that I think “the law” is in all situations absolutely sacrosanct if there’s a greater moral imperative involved, but what’s the redeeming moral imperative behind huge databases tracking all our movements? Some people dismissively suggest, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.” Why anyone trusts government to always do the right thing, I’m not sure. But the trite phrase also glosses over obvious impacts of even benign surveillance. For instance, most people are anxious and inhibited when public speaking, yet not because they’ve done anything wrong. There’s just something about eyes watching you.

Then, like daylight cresting the horizon, Victoria Mayor and Police Board Chair Dean Fortin wrote to me that, “I believe the Victoria Police are obligated to follow [the Privacy Commissioner’s] recommendations. It is important that our law enforcement tools and operations adhere to privacy regulations at every turn. Now that we have this ruling by the Privacy Commission, I believe we are compelled to act.” Unfortunately, at the Victoria Police Board meeting in December, it took less than 15 seconds and some makeshift muttering from provincial government appointee Lindalee Brougham about how “it deals with operational issues around how we use our manpower” to make them all justify moving the discussion in camera out of public view. The Board finally issued a brief notice directing VicPD “to work constructively with the RCMP to address the [Privacy Commissioner’s] recommendations,” and to report back on progress in three months. How an entire Police Board justifies allowing police to continue breaking the law in the meantime remains a mystery. Fortin receded into darkness, not returning my calls.

Also not surprisingly, then, another key finding by the Commissioner was that neither government authorities nor policing bodies have ever been forthcoming about this surveillance program. Denham wrote, “I recommend that the mandate of ALPR be more accurately described by VicPD and the Ministry of Justice to inform the public of the full scope of the ALPR program.”

Pointedly, and ironically, Liberal MLA John Les was subsequently quoted in The Tyee praising Denham’s report and stating, “Where [the ALPR program] was going was not where it was ever intended to go.” Yet Les was the very Solicitor General who brought the ALPR program into BC in 2006, authorized surveilling all BC citizens, and falsely told news media our privacy commissioners had approved it. So was he now regretful, or was he covering his tracks? Les avoided responding to my emails and calls.

But I soon uncovered how deep the web of deception truly went. Our government and police have even been misleading our privacy commissioners.

For example, police apparently did not clarify to the OIPC that even the ALPR “hit” data is, in fact, mostly information on innocent citizens. Typically about 80 percent of all hits are actually instances where, for example, a spouse or friend is legally and appropriately driving an unlicensed driver’s car. So should all the movements of these law-abiding people still be tracked and stored in databases for years? When I brought this issue to the OIPC’s attention after their report came out, they acknowledged “it may merit a closer look in consultation with law enforcement.”

But I uncovered a much more disturbing deception.

 

Lying to the commissioners

The first clue was the one fact in the OIPC report that completely surprised me: VicPD is indeed currently collecting data on the movements of all citizens and passing that data to the RCMP. The RCMP say they’re deleting the secondary “non-hit” data about innocent citizens, and only keeping the “hit” data. But Commissioner Denham said VicPD officers must by law delete the non-hit data during each police shift before passing anything to the RCMP. VicPD Cst. Mike Russell replied to media as if Denham’s suggestion were utterly novel: “She’s asking us to do something we just can’t do right now.”

But I’d always thought that was exactly what VicPD was already doing.  For the past year, I’d simply been warning the public that police had collected the non-hit data between 2006 and 2009, and wanted to again in the future. And this was, after all, the most important issue with respect to the ALPR system—whether police would or would not collect information on the movements of all innocent British Columbians. So how had I gotten this centrally important fact wrong?

I went back into the documents I’d obtained from VicPD through a Freedom of Information request, and followed a thread of communications that suddenly took on a whole new light.

After criticisms from the federal Privacy Commissioner’s office in 2009 about their “ubiquitous surveillance” of innocent citizens, RCMP Inspector Mike Diack pledged in a March 30, 2010 letter to the federal Assistant Commissioner that police ALPR systems in BC would no longer collect the secondary, or non-hit data. Diack wrote, “I have instructed the manufacturer to reconfigure our ALPR systems to collect only primary hit data. The manufacturer indicates that this will take approximately 4-6 weeks[.]” For those intervening weeks, Diack added, the RCMP themselves would delete the non-hit data as soon as they received it from VicPD.

Several weeks later, VicPD chief information officer Hervey Simard drew up an overview of how VicPD’s ALPR system operated, indicating that the promised technical change had occurred. Simard explained: “When the shift ends, the [VicPD] officer will click on the ‘End Shift’ button on the screen. The process will delete all [non-hit] ‘reads’, which consist of 95 percent of data. The [VicPD] officer will bring back the USB [to the RCMP] which contains only ‘hits’.”

In June 2010, then, in response to similar concerns about non-hit data collection expressed by the BC Privacy Commissioner’s office, VicPD in turn explained this technical update to the OIPC. VicPD Information and Privacy Manager Debra Taylor assured the OIPC, “In March of 2010 the RCMP instructed the manufacturer of the PIPS technology for the ALPR systems to reconfigure the systems to ensure that only primary (hit) data would be collected and stored. I have confirmed with their agency that the technology now has an auto purge feature for all secondary data, thus retaining only primary data.”

Yet a month later, the RCMP’s Diack admitted in an internal police email that the technological change actually had yet to occur. “I anticipate having these issues resolved by Christmas as my resources are committed for the next several months,” he wrote. In a December 2010 email, the manufacturer wrote to police that the non-hit data was still being collected by VicPD and transferred to the RCMP. The paper trail ended there, with no indication police updated either privacy commissioner that this crucial pledge to conform with privacy laws hadn’t actually been fulfilled as promised. And so, two years later in November 2012, the BC Privacy Commissioner discovered VicPD was actually still illegally collecting and transferring all that personal information about innocent BC citizens to the RCMP.

Parsons was shocked. “This is a guarantee they’re offering the commissioners. You can’t just offer a guarantee and then not do it,” he commented. “It calls into question all the other instances where police may have said something similar. Is it now a requirement to go through all the old privacy statements that these organizations have made and say, well, we can’t trust you anymore, so we have to go check?”

Maybe so. Here’s another example of how untrustworthy our police have become with respect to this secretive surveillance system: I’ve long felt RCMP officers were stonewalling my information requests about ALPR—18 months after my first request, they’ve still released next to nothing. Last March, the federal Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) issued a five-page independent investigation report in which they determined that, indeed, RCMP Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) officers “fell remarkably short” of complying with their legal duties in responding to my information requests. RCMP ATIP officials “deliberately ignored” my requests for long spans of time, the OIC wrote, and other times “deliberately acted contrary to [my] wishes” in “unacceptable” ways. The OIC even uncovered that RCMP ATIP officials once copied and pasted parts of an email from me while deleting other key parts, and then forwarded the resulting “misleading” letter to others as if it were my complete letter.

So can anyone make our police obey the law in how they use ALPR? BC’s OIPC answered in writing: “The Commissioner’s expectation is that public bodies found to be in non-compliance will do what is necessary to come into compliance. The Commissioner has order-making power which she could use to compel a public body to comply with FIPPA.”

However, Denham has no jurisdiction over the RCMP, and the federal privacy commissioner doesn’t have Denham’s order-making powers, so the RCMP can continue breaking BC and Canadian privacy laws unless the provincial or federal government intervenes. This is significant, because most of the ALPR cruisers in BC, including in the capital region, are run by the RCMP or Integrated Road Safety Units that combine members from municipal police forces under RCMP authority.

Parsons called this ever-expanding legal loophole in BC policing “insane,” and asked, “What other laws can you do an end-run around?”

From Despair to Action

I’ve been receiving more emails lately from people saying one of my articles made them feel despairing. One asked, “How do you keep going?”

Let’s see: In recent months, I’ve written about government corruption, genocide, toxic waste, police chiefs breaking laws, forced electroshock of our elderly… All right, I get the point.

As I was formulating my response, I realized that this is an important question for all of us. How are we grappling with our society’s converging environmental, social and financial crises? So I decided to probe a few local people whom I’d seen doing a lot of volunteer community activism that I valued. Don’t they ever despair? What pulls them out of it?

Lyne England described one of the worst moments she experiences: “Getting a call from a resident, housed in residential care, crying and saying, ‘Help me! Help me get out of here!’” Read the rest at Focus online.

The Case for Electroshocking Mia

An elderly woman, with the support of her family, has been struggling to avoid forced psychiatric treatment at the hands of Vancouver Island Health Authority doctors.

When I arrived at the prearranged location, Michelle met me at the door. “Sorry, I didn’t want to tell you on the phone,” she said. “Now we’re going to go to where Mia really is.”

We drove through the winding suburban roadways, and it felt like I was being taken into remote mountains of Central America for a secret meeting with el Comandante of the guerrilleros. I was actually on my way to interview an 82-year-old Victoria woman named Mia, described by friends and family as quiet, sophisticated and loving. Mia hadn’t threatened anyone or broken any laws, but she was on the run—from her doctor and the Vancouver Island Health Authority. And this tense drama had come to epitomize the challenges, and frightening dangers, of enforcing powerful mental health laws that are guided by woefully weak science. Read the rest at Focus online.

Are BC Police Chiefs Evading the Law?

At the same time as their associations channel public resources into private political lobbying, they claim immunity from BC’s laws governing public access to their records.

They’re the two most prominent and influential policing organizations in British Columbia, appearing frequently in public promoting their strong positions on criminal justice reform, use of tasers, drug laws, or expanding police powers. But little else is widely known about the BC Association of Chiefs of Police (BCACP) and its smaller sister, the BC Association of Municipal Chiefs of Police (BCAMCP).

I became more aware of these associations in July, after the BC Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner launched an investigation into the Victoria Police Department’s use of automatic licence plate recognition in the wake of Focus’ investigations (see “Hidden Surveillance” Feb 2012). Extensive media coverage ensued, and the BC Ministry of Justice issued a statement in which they assured the public that they “recently wrote a letter to the BC Association of Chiefs of Police” to re-emphasize the program’s proper “terms of use.” I’d been investigating the RCMP and VicPD’s licence plate tracking system for 18 months, and had never come across this group—and now suddenly I learn that they are the ones actually in charge of it? Read more at Focus online.