First Nations and anti-pipeline groups rally outside the TD bank in downtown Vancouver, Friday, March 10, 2017. Federal lawyers want closed-door hearings in a high-profile court case about allegations of Canadian Security Intelligence Service spying on anti-pipeline activists. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Feds want closed door hearing for pipeline spy allegations

Case gets underway today on allegations of CSIS spying on anti-pipeline activists

Federal lawyers want closed-door hearings in a high-profile court case about allegations of Canadian Security Intelligence Service spying on anti-pipeline activists.

The civil liberties group behind a complaint about the purported CSIS wrongdoing opposes the federal secrecy request, saying it blatantly violates the principle that justice must be seen to be done.

The matter is slated to be heard today in an open session of the Federal Court of Canada.

The judge’s decision will determine how much the public gets to see and hear in the coming months when the court looks at the central issue: whether Canada’s spy agency overstepped the law in monitoring environmental activists.

RELATED: Appeal pipeline decision but consult Indigenous communities, Scheer says

The ruling could also set a precedent that dictates whether future court challenges of CSIS activities are held openly or in secret.

It all began four years ago when the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association complained to the CSIS watchdog after media reports suggested the spy service and other government agencies considered opposition to the petroleum industry as a threat to national security.

The association’s complaint to the Security Intelligence Review Committee also cited reports that CSIS shared information with the National Energy Board about so-called “radicalized environmentalist” groups seeking to participate in the board’s hearings on Enbridge’s now-defunct Northern Gateway pipeline project.

In addition, the association alleged CSIS passed information to oil companies and held secret conferences with these petroleum industry players at its headquarters.

The complaint cited records, released through the Access to Information Act, that suggested certain organizations were viewed as potential security risks simply because they pushed for environmental protections.

RELATED: Ottawa looks at having retired judge help guide renewed pipeline review process

The association argued CSIS’s intelligence gathering violated the law governing the spy service, which forbids CSIS from collecting information about Canadians unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect they constitute a threat to national security.

The review committee held closed-door hearings in Vancouver in August 2015. The association called witnesses from environmental and public-interest organizations including LeadNow, ForestEthics Advocacy Association, the Dogwood Initiative and the Sierra Club of British Columbia.

Last year, the review committee rejected the civil liberties association’s complaint.

That prompted the rights group to ask the Federal Court to toss out the decision and order the committee to take a fresh look.

Meanwhile, the committee — citing confidentiality provisions in the law governing CSIS — placed a sweeping seal of secrecy on evidence it heard in the original probe, including the transcript of the hearing and all documents created or obtained by the committee during its investigation.

In anticipation of the Federal Court review of the committee findings, the government is preparing an unclassified version of the committee’s records.

However, government lawyers argue even this version — stripped of national security information and other privileged details — should be sealed and excluded from the public Federal Court record. In addition, they want any hearings that mention such details to be held behind closed doors.

In a written submission in advance of today’s hearing, the government says the traditional notion that courts should be open is of vital importance to the fair administration of justice, and confidentiality orders are granted only in special circumstances.

However, in this case, “the public interest in confidentiality outweighs the public interest in openness.”

In its submission, the civil liberties association says there is no evidence of any risk in making the unclassified materials public, or hearing arguments in open court about the committee’s probe of alleged spying.

The open-court principle is fundamental to democracies based on the rule of law, said Paul Champ, lawyer for the civil liberties association and its vice-president.

“When the court hearing deals with allegations of government misconduct, it is more important than ever for the public and the press to be allowed to see and hear what is said,” he added.

“One needs to wonder why the hearing needs to be secret if the government’s position is that no spying on environmentalists occurred.”

If the government motion for confidentiality is successful, then all future court challenges to intelligence review committee decisions will also have to be in secret, Champ said.

“In our view, that would have a detrimental impact on public accountability of CSIS.”

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Comments are closed

Just Posted

Undercover operation exposes prominent human trafficking problem in Greater Victoria

VicPD’s Operation No More took place in mid-June at a local hotel

Stelly’s grads shocked after ‘anonymous friend’ pays for dinner

Friends took limo to Deep Cove Chalet to celebrate after graduation festivities cancelled

Saanich serves up virtual Strawberry Festival

Residents invited to look back on 54 years of festivals

PHOTOS: Dual rallies take over Legislature lawn on Canada Day

Resist Canada 153 highlighted colonization and genocide, Unify the People called COVID a hoax

VicPD investigating possible hate crime on BC Transit bus

A young Black man was randomly struck by a Caucasian man who he did not know

‘This year is unlike any other’: Trudeau delivers Canada day address

Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and the Prime Minister release video celebrating the national holiday

Gov. General honours Canadians for bravery, volunteer service

Five categories of winners presented on Canada Day

COVID-19: Should non-medical masks be mandatory in Canada?

New poll shows Canadians are divided on the rules around mandatory masks

‘A little bit scary for everybody’: Air passengers wary as new rules take effect

Masks or face coverings have been mandatory on flights since April 20

Library’s Summer Reading Club goes virtual

This literacy program is usually offered in person

VIDEO: Prince William and Kate chat with B.C. hospital staff about COVID-19

Seven-minute video posted to Youtube on Canada Day

River centre says heavy rains could bring flooding to central, northeastern B.C.

Water levels are already unusually high and river banks can be extremely unstable

Campbell River’s defunct cruise ship terminal to undergo evaluation for future plans

With no cruise ship coming through, the $16million terminal has been a white elephant for over 13 years

Most Read