Steven Staples, a prominent Canadian peace activist, is accusing the Canadian military of subtle surveillance after the military sent an officer to take notes on him at a conference at Dalhousie University in 2006. The story came to light a few weeks ago after freedom of information requests finally revealed that briefings had been written for senior military officers.
Staples had been invited to give a presentation at Dalhousie University as a guest of the Halifax Peace Coalition and the Dalhousie Centre for Foreign Policy Studies on the topic of “The Americanisation of the Canadian Military.”
Ironically, the U.S. Pentagon has for years closely monitored peaceful anti-war and counter-military recruitment groups, collecting more than 2,800 reports involving U.S. citizens in an “anti-terrorist threat database”, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It was clear that somebody had been tasked by the Canadian military to sit in on the session,” Staples said in an interview with IPS. “My problem is that the military initially denied it. Governments send staff to attend meetings all the time to prepare briefings — there is nothing wrong with that. It’s when they deny it and hide it that it becomes something more nefarious.”
After repeated information requests, it was revealed that the report was sent to 50 senior military officials, including two brigadier generals.
“It is interesting to understand the motivation of the surveillance, as the officer who wrote the report advised senior leadership to meet the arguments of people like me. When the military bureaucracy is trying to actively influence public opinion, to shift public policy, it is highly inappropriate on the part of a military in a real democracy, said Staples.
“It is inappropriate for the military to become a rogue entity and utilise their resources to monitor those who publicly hold contrary views. The Canadian military has even spied on groups such as the Raging Grannies and the United Church,” said Staples.
“It is my concern for the public to know that the military is behaving irresponsibly, because it places a chill on others. They have to think twice before speaking publicly in a critical way,” said Staples.
He added that General Rick Hillier is an inappropriate choice for head of the military and that Defence Minister O’Connor has also been inappropriate for his position in representing the public interest.
Staples says he will send a request for accountability of behaviour in the Canadian military which is consistent with government policy. Staples added that he has not pursued whether the Canadian Security Intelligence Service or other security agencies currently have anti-war activists under surveillance.
Dr. Michael Byers, research chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, told IPS, “Steve Staples has been attracting this attention because he’s extraordinarily effective in critiquing Canadian policy concerning defence and security. It is not surprising that they pay attention — they should learn to listen to him now and then.”
Byers added that the military sending a representative could be seen as educational — if it was intended that way.
“But if it was surveillance, it could be the beginning of a slippery slope with the military playing an active role in shaping public opinion. Democracy has worked hard to separate military and political roles. The Canadian public should be more concerned about other manifestations of this disturbing trend. The military has been very sophisticated with their media strategy, and there have been far-reaching public relations [campaigns] by General Hillier for the mission in Afghanistan,” said Byers.
Byers added that the trend was disturbing because of where this type of policy could lead if it is not scrutinised. “If he is under surveillance, are his phone conversations being tapped or his e-mails being monitored because he is in an advocacy role?” asked Byers.
“I assume, even I’m being monitored, I’ve made my choice for the sake of freedom of expression. Perhaps whoever is on the other end listening might actually learn something. I don’t have anything to hide,” said Byers.
But military officials see things differently. Lft. Col. Jamie Robertson with the Department of National Defence told IPS, “Steven Staples’ talk was on the Americanisation of the Canadian military. We have public affairs officers and representatives from National Defence, which normally attend conferences and compile information. We will summarise what is happening at conferences, but we don’t engage in monitoring. That is not the job of the Department. As public affairs officers, we need to be aware of factual information and trends in the policy debate. In this instance, the debate has been politicised.”
He added that it is part of their mission to clarify factual information when it is misrepresented. “It is not the job of the military to conduct surveillance. We live in a democracy. It is not within the area of security. There is nothing wrong about debate and differing opinions. We have a robust media environment. We want to engage as openly as possible. Everyone is allowed to speak to the media on the Afghanistan mission. In this case, journalists are raising conspiracy theories that are completely of context,” said Robertson.
“Our job is not to shape public opinion, but to provide factual information to Canadians. It is part of our mission. They have a right to know what we are doing. These allegations are absurd. We are incumbent on fixing the record by being aware of the public environment. Canada’s mission needs to be seen in the context of a coalition of 21 Nations and that it is sanctioned by the U.N. The information provided is often selective. This is an important mission,” said Robertson. IPS