Extractive capitalism and the security state

Police surveillance of pipeline protests is chilling democratic debate in Canada
May 1, 2019

Six years ago, documents obtained under the Access to Information Act revealed that federal spy agencies had covertly monitored several groups that had expressed opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project, including Leadnow, Dogwood, the Council of Canadians, ForestEthics (now Stand.earth), the Sierra Club Canada, and Idle No More. The documents show CSIS—Canada’s national spy agency—and the RCMP working to protect the private interests of oil and gas companies while casting the aforementioned advocacy groups as appropriate targets of surveillance. This despite the RCMP’s admission that the groups did not appear to pose a threat, nor did they demonstrate any intent to engage in criminal activity.

It was no isolated incident. In fact, Canadian state surveillance of peaceful dissidents dates back to the nation’s days as an outpost of the British Empire, when anti-colonial activism (targeted at Britain) spurred the development of a police force intended to protect the Dominion and the Empire alike. Since that time, Canadian police authorities have been found keeping close tabs on student activists, unions, suspected communists, immigrants, and many others. Particularly notable, of course, has been the government’s long-standing surveillance of Indigenous groups, including those who “oppose…the perceived oppressive effects of capitalism,” in the words of CSIS, or, as Andrew Crosby and Jeffrey Monaghan point out in their 2018 book Policing Indigenous Movements, “assert a politics of self-determination.”

Why is this important? In addition to having a monopoly on “legitimate” violence and administrative power that can deeply affect residents’ lives, the state also plays a strong role in shaping who is seen as legitimate—who is an insider worthy of protection by the national security apparatus—and who is cast as a deviant threat to the economic, political and/or social order. State surveillance, then, can be understood as a means not only to gather knowledge to inform administrative or police action, either of which may have serious consequences for the surveilled, but also to impose order and regulate social conduct by reinforcing hierarchical relations and insider/outsider statuses.

Through its surveillance activities and discourse, the Canadian security state has aligned itself with extractive industries and has cast those who oppose oil, gas and mining operations as potential criminal threats to be suppressed. This is not surprising given our resource-driven economy, not to mention our historical national identity centred on the conquest of wilderness. It is also a logical consequence of the increased securitization of critical infrastructure—systems and assets the government deems essential to the effective functioning or regulation of society and the economy—to protect against “enemies from within.” This category typically includes infrastructure developed for extractive industries, such as oil and gas pipelines.

Critical infrastructure (CI) came into view as a national security priority during the Second World War, when air warfare began to focus on bombing such targets. Later, in the 1970s and ‘80s, an energy crisis and an increase in terrorist attacks on energy- and mining-related targets internationally refocused CI securitization on threats from within national borders. Following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Canada ramped up CI securitization efforts significantly, entangling policing with national security to an unprecedented extent and pressuring policing authorities to identify and “disrupt” potential threats in advance of any criminal wrongdoing. Together, these developments produced a major shift in how national security is understood; the state has today tasked itself with protecting (largely privately owned) energy infrastructure against threats from resident people and groups, through the monitoring and potential control of those deemed “suspicious” for any of a number of reasons.

This relatively new form of national security policing is highly discretionary and easily results in practices that reinforce biases and existing power relations. Further, the domain of CI protection allows the interests and views of the fossil fuel industry and the state surveillance apparatus to become intertwined as police-corporate collaboration intensifies. The relationship between national security officers and energy sector representatives can deepen through frequent communications and meetings, including catered coffee or lunch receptions, at which friendly alliances develop. These interactions can lead to problematic policing biases: a number of studies of this phenomenon have demonstrated that police and corporate interests tend to converge when they supply information and resources to one another. In this way, the priorities of extractive industries have become deeply embedded in the state’s surveillance priorities and discourses—and have contributed to rationalizing the demonization and surveillance of those critical of fossil capital.


State bias against fossil fuel critics can be clearly seen in the 2013 case mentioned above. The Northern Gateway pipeline project had generated a great degree of legitimate opposition from Indigenous and environmental groups—and for understandable reasons. Opponents worried about spills of diluted bitumen into pristine wilderness and waterways, the climate impacts of the increased oil sands production the pipeline would facilitate, and the potential disruption to communities along the pipeline’s route, among other things. They made their voices heard through online and traditional media, peaceful protests, lectures and panel discussions, conversations with community members, and through attempts to participate in National Energy Board consultations and hearings.

None of these motives or activities are in any way criminal, nor did the organizations involved have any history of encouraging or participating in criminal activity. Nevertheless, Canada’s surveillance agencies treated these pipeline opponents as criminal threats, with the RCMP committing to broadly monitor “all aspects of the anti-petroleum-industry movement” for “suspicious activity, criminal extremism, or other activities which could pose a threat to Canada’s national security.”

Complaints filed by the BC Civil Liberties Association allege that in conducting such surveillance, the RCMP and CSIS impinged upon protected freedoms of expression, assembly and association. The BCCLA also argues that the intelligence sharing that took place between the spy agencies and industry representatives may have compromised the environmental groups’ abilities to advance their positions before the National Energy Board—by giving companies information that could assist them in countering their opponents’ arguments, and by exposing the NEB to “unproven yet highly prejudicial allegations” that could influence its perception of the groups’ arguments.

Also troubling is the storage of vast amounts of information on pipeline opponents in policing databases, which raises questions about how that information could be used against those critical of fossil fuel infrastructure in the future, including if it were to be leaked or if any inaccuracies were to be introduced.

In my own research I have found that state surveillance conducted in secret created a sense of unease among those who publicly oppose fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Interviewees told me they believed it was likely they were being or had been surveilled but admitted to being worried about sounding “paranoid” if they were to discuss or take deliberate actions to address that surveillance. They also said they worried that talk of potential surveillance might deter potential supporters of their cause, not only because of the chilling effect that potential surveillance may have on those potential supporters—who may be concerned about the potential consequences of being surveilled, or who may not want to align themselves with a movement “radical” enough to justify state surveillance—but also because such talk might make pipeline and other “critical infrastructure” opponents sound irrational and therefore undeserving of support.

These concerns about appearing paranoid underscore the tension between the idea of Canada as a thriving liberal democracy, where political repression simply would not take place, and of the Canadian state as a powerful enforcer of a status quo that comprises an ever-expanding extractive capitalist sector. To begin to resolve this tension it is crucial that more information about Canada’s domestic surveillance activities be made public. Demystifying the purposes, likelihood and potential results of state surveillance would go a long way toward destigmatizing discussions of surveillance and allowing the Canadian public to reflect critically on whom it targets and why, with a view to ensuring our policing system is accountable to the democracy it claims to protect.

Facial recognition technology and police surveillance

United Kingdom: “Automated facial recognition technology has been used at a number of crowd events in England and Wales over the past two years to identify suspects and prevent crime. The technology can recognize people by comparing their facial features in real time with an image already stored on a ‘watch list,’ which could be from a police database or social media account.” (The Conversation, Feb. 2019)

China: “China is the laboratory of the future of surveillance, and future test subjects should be frightened. If you try to hide from police in a big city in China, as a BBC journalist tried to do for a story, you can be found in just minutes. In areas where the Chinese government wants to stifle political or religious dissent, police monitor movement and control minority populations with a series of cameras, smartphone scanners, and facial recognition technologies.” (Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, professor at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, Apr. 2018)

Brazil: “Rio de Janeiro plans to test a facial-recognition system during its famed Carnival as part of the city's campaign to fight crime, the head of the regional police force said. Rogerio Figueiredo [announced] that cameras deployed with the technology will scan both faces and car license plates. It will be operational in Rio's tourist hotspot of Copacabana in the beginning of March, when this year's Carnival takes place. ‘If (the cameras) identify an individual under an arrest warrant, or if a stolen vehicle drives through the area, an alert will be sent to the closest police car,’ Figueiredo explained.” (Agence France-Presse, Feb. 2019)

United States: "Officials at the Lockport, New York, school district have purchased face recognition technology as part of a purported effort to prevent school shootings. Starting in September [2018], all 10 of Lockport District’s school buildings, just north of Buffalo, will be outfitted with a surveillance system that can identify faces and objects. The software, known as Aegis, was developed by SN Technologies Corp., a Canadian biometrics firm that specifically advertises to schools. It can be used to alert officials to whenever sex offenders, suspended students, fired employees, suspected gang members, or anyone else placed on a school’s ‘blacklist’ enters the premises. Aegis also sends alerts any time one of the “top 10” most popular guns used in school shootings appears in view of a camera.” (The Intercept, May 2018)

Lindsey Bertrand is a communication specialist at the CCPA, a research assistant with the School of Communication and Culture and the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University, and a member of the board of the BC Civil Liberties Association.