RCMP labels anti-torture caravan a 'Criminal Act by Terrorists'

Photo: Matthew Behrens

According to recently released Access to Information documents, during the spring of 2008, I became -- and not for the first time -- the subject of an RCMP terrorism investigation.

At the time, I was coordinating the Caravan to End Canadian Involvement in Torture, a group of about 40-45 people who hit the road in central and eastern Ontario for 10 days in May alongside Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin. These three Canadian citizens had been falsely accused of being state security threats and were set up for torture by proxy in Syria and, in one case, Egypt, with the complicity of the RCMP, CSIS, External Affairs, the Justice Department, and other Canadian agencies.

Their cases -- along with that of Maher Arar -- were documented by two judicial inquiries that cleared them of the false allegations and which also chronicled a disturbing, systemic Canadian involvement with torture. Almalki, Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin recently received a settlement from the federal government after an exhausting legal struggle.

The Caravan's goals were straightforward: education, public action, and putting pressure on a secretive federal inquiry examining the men's torture. Led by former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci, it was only the second inquiry under the Public Inquiries Act to be held in complete secrecy. Neither the men, their lawyers, the media, nor the public could attend. It was hoped that public action would crack open the secret inquiry, which seemed designed to protect the reputations of the government agencies that were eventually found to be complicit in the torture of Almalki, Abou-Elmaati and Nureddin.

We were also calling for the return to Canada of Abousfian Abdelrazik, another Canadian then being refused a ticket home from Sudan, where he had been detained and tortured with Canadian complicity. Other cases of Canadian involvement in torture -- from Omar Khadr and Benamar Benatta to the Secret Trial Five and Afghan detainees -- were discussed along the Caravan route, as was Canada's ongoing failure to condemn Guantanamo Bay and Bagram Air Force Base, among other sites of torture.

The Caravan also highlighted a broader context of torture on North American soil: Indigenous survivors of the first rendition to torture program, known as residential schools, as well as women routinely brutalized in their own homes by the men in their lives. All this was talked about in our daily discussions walking through communities, in schools, and at evening events in churches and community halls.

It was clear federal officials were concerned that the rosy image of Canada was being tarnished by our ongoing exposure of Canadian criminality. (Incidentally, we received significant support in many so-called "conservative" areas once folks were informed about what was going on). And Iacobucci, who was cruelly keeping a tight lid on the inquiry to prevent further exposure of CSIS and RCMP misdeeds, was no doubt displeased that his "good guy" human rights image was also being questioned.

RCMP begins to investigate

Against this backdrop, the Ontario Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (OINSET) immediately got down to work by having its Mounties open a file on myself and the Caravan under the heading: "Criminal Act by Terrorists -- Protest/ Demonstrations/Marches."

The labelling of our work as terrorist is not only of historical interest. It's also a cautionary tale that, despite all the assurances by the RCMP and CSIS that they would never, never, ever consider protests to be terrorism under the notorious C-51 (The Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015), in all likelihood this remains standard operating procedure inside the bunkers of Canada's state security agencies, as it has been for the past 150 years (and long before Confederation as well). Such assurances were also bandied about as the Liberals hastily passed the notorious C-36 "anti-terrorism" legislation over 15 years ago. However, that did not stop the Mounties, among others, from continuing to monitor Indigenous rights groups like Idle No More as alleged security threats under Project Sitka.

Indeed, this equation of terrorism with protest is so ingrained as a given within state security culture that no one even thought to redact the phrase from these documents.

A wide range of agency inquiries

The investigation of the May 2008 Caravan appears to have begun two months earlier, with a preliminary conclusion that there was "no indication of violence." Nevertheless, the documents indicate a wide range of inquiries being made, curiously linking me to the Bank of Canada (which was labelled a "possible intended victim of fraud" and the Office of the Legal Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa.

Among the RCMP divisions involved in investigating the Caravan were the following: the Criminal Intelligence outfit in Kingston, the Toronto Airport unit, the Alberta RCMP headquarters, Montreal HQ, the Montreal National Security Investigations Section's Threat Evaluation Group, London, Ontario's Threat Assessment Group, National HQ, a division assigned to "Canadian Executives & Foreign Missions and Visits," the Federal Policing Protective Policing Unit, the national Criminal Intelligence division's Threat Assessment team, and the National Operations Centre.

While it is not surprising that the authorities went to such lengths to investigate us, it was also an incredible insult to the men whose lives were at the heart of the Caravan. After all, these was the same RCMP and CSIS that falsely named them as threats to state security based on nothing other than racist profiling. These were the same agencies that passed along questions to the men's overseas torturers based on those false, inflammatory allegations. That these agencies would continue treating Almalki, Abou-Elmaati, Nureddin, and their friends and supporters as threats -- even after the 2006 O'Connor Inquiry into Canadian complicity in the torture of Maher Arar called them out on such practices, and government officials solemnly said they would change their ways -- shows that nothing changed behind the scenes in the years leading up to the Caravan.

These are the same agencies that would have us believe that the expansive, dangerous, torture-enabling legislative mandate of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 (the notorious Harper/Trudeau C-51, which remains unaltered two years after passage) will not be abused. Yet as history clearly shows, it is in these agencies' DNA to abuse and disregard the most basic of human rights in the name of the never-defined "national security interest."

Despite no known threat, investigation continues

On April 29, two days before the 2008 Caravan got under way, the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre called in to report "NO KNOWN THREAT." Despite this, the Caravan remained under intensive surveillance.

On the first day of the Caravan, OINSET received an important update that the Caravan was outside Skyservice, a charter airline being protested for its role in deporting refugees to the risk of torture. Two Mounties reported "the group was demonstrating the fact that 'the Canadian government is using their airline to deport detainees to a Country where they will be tortured and killed.'"

The report on "Criminal Act by Terrorists" further notes that "many of the demonstrators were elderly with some students present," and one particularly sharp Mountie said "the name of the group was determined to be 'Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture,'" though whether he gleaned this information from our brochure, our banner, or the dozens of placards with that slogan is unclear.

The RCMP then did some quick research and concluded, in an area of the documents that is fairly redacted, that "the subject identifying himself as Matthew is possibly Matthew BEHRENS, an individual very active as an organizer of demonstrations and participant in a number of causes related to the homeless and immigration." Clearly, the Mounties cross-checked their extensive files covering campaigns to end hunger and poverty as well as stopping arbitrary detention and secret hearings -- all no doubt under similarly designated terrorism activities -- to identify their target.

On May 2, 2008, we learned that "Cst Chad MCLEAMING from OINSET has been doing an excellent job monitoring the Caravan from the start, he advised that the Caravan has so many locations to attend that they will stop for a few minutes, if there is no media they will move to the next location." (The Caravan stopped at scores of sites of Canadian complicity along the way, from RCMP and CSIS offices to corporations and other government agencies complicit in torture. But the length of the stay at each location did not depend, as the RCMP concluded, on the presence of media.)

Another May 2 report notes that the Caravan stopped at an RCMP airport detachment "with camera and boom mike," but makes no further comment (There was a documentary crew following the Caravan from RAMZ Media, whose award-winning film on the Caravan, Ghosts, is available online).

Later that same day, the RCMP's Newmarket branch learned the Caravan would be stopping at their location. While numerous sections of the report are whited out, someone at that location "advised that they were aware of the situation and had contingency plans to deal with the situation." Reports also take note of vehicles observed with the Caravan.

It appears that Cst MCLEAMING did not have a complete handle on the dastardly activities of the Caravan group. Indeed, McLeaming is reported to have stated that "there was [sic] numerous vehicles that had joined the caravan. Cst MCLEAMING had no way of knowing if the vehicles were for local demonstrators or if they would follow the caravan all the way to Ottawa. Cst MCLEAMING will upload the information to this file at his earliest convenience."

Filing reports 'just in case'

An unnamed official reports that he called Cst MCLEAMING to inform him he would be liaising with the Kingston detachment, reasoning that "there is no information about the caravan demonstrating at the RCMP Detachment but just in case."

By the time the Caravan reached Ottawa, the RCMP was hurriedly trying to produce reporting on potential numbers for the final day's activities, a Torture Tour of Ottawa. The Integrated Threat Assessment Centre and the War Department were duly informed that as many as 150 individuals might be demonstrating, while someone from National HQ called to advise that a certain individual "at Bank of Canada Security advised that he was seeking more information in relating to the demonstration 'End the Torture.' I called [whited out] and left a message."

Also of interest in an age when charities are subject to political interference is a report from one officer who, under the same heading of Criminal Act by Terrorists, explores a "file review exempt bank status." It is unclear exactly what this means, though the remarks later on that "reviewed file exempt bank status requirements not met" leads one to conclude that our group itself was investigated to see whether it had charitable status.

Additional Orwellian disclosure

Mixed in with some of the access to information documents I received from the Mounties was an occurrence report from October, 2014 when, working with Homes not Bombs and the Ottawa group NOWAR/PAIX  (NOWAR stands for Network to Oppose War and Racism), a vigil of 40 or so individuals opposed to the Harper government's bombing of Iraq resulted in a fairly lengthy investigation and final report.

The Ottawa protective Investigative Unit "learned of a vigil that was to happen in the afternoon on Parliament Hill by a group called Homes not Bombs. The information was received from the news." The report notes that at 3 p.m., a startling number of individuals -- two in total -- approached the top of the stairs on the Hill with a banner.

The following narrative is full of the kind of irony that is lost on secret police forces, with my comments in brackets. The reporting officer was miffed that as an organizer of the vigil, I refused to provide personal details about myself or other individuals. At the time, as the officer insistently demanded that information, he also kept claiming that anything I might share would not be used to open files or beef up protester profile databases back at headquarters.

"The second [individual] would only provide his first name: Matthew. He said that he did not want to end up on a police database [not true, but that was the Mountie's interpretation]. After some somewhat unpleasant conversation [which he neglects to detail, a discussion on the complicity of the RCMP in torture at home and abroad against Muslims and Indigenous people] Matthew opened up about his organization and their goals. He does not believe that war is the answer to anything."

The report continues that one constable:

"[a]sked Matthew to move his group to the lower part of the stairs as is the normal practice with demonstrators [but which defeats the purpose of being seen!] He refused. Parliament Hill members were interested in moving Matthew and what was now a significant (approximately 20 people) group to the bottom of the stairs."

Portions of the document are then whited out, with the RCMP's legendary knack for inaccuracy coming through with the comment that "there was a banner from War not Paix in the group for much of the vigil." [The Mounties, who regularly monitor the NOWAR/Paix group, kind of muffed that one].

The report ends ironically, given that the RCMP had maintained there is no fear of sharing one's personal information with them because they do not keep databases on activists. Nonetheless, at the bottom of the report it reads:

"Cst Johnson subsequently looked at the homesnotbombs blog and noted that it is run by Matthew Behrens. Age and descriptions are the same as for the Matthew of the demonstration, and as such he was carded to the file, but this information was not confirmed with formal identification or a statement from 'Matthew.'"

In other words, somewhere in the RCMP database under my name is a report that is linked to me, even though their own report questions my identity (putting "Matthew" in quotes) and is unable to confirm who I really am. Notably, the Homes not Bombs blog does not mention my age or identity, so this reference is more about matching up "Matthew" with the guy already in their database.

The final words of the report state: "Paper file created."

C-51 becomes further entrenched

Anyone who works for social change will not be shocked that the role of Canada's state security agencies is to protect the powerful from what the Trilateral Commission identified over 40 years ago as "an excess of democracy." Those who exercise democratic rights have traditionally been viewed as threats to powerful, secretive systems of power that are dressed up as democracies because they have elections every once in a while.

Canada has long specialized in making its secret police forces part of the big, happy Canadian family, the subject of fawning TV shows, annual summertime musical ceremonies, cute teddy bears, and photo-ops at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Junos, where liberal musicians and actors think nothing of smiling for selfies with representatives of an institution complicit in torture and other acts of violence. In no other country are the secret police celebrated on postcards and T-shirts.

The "we're just here to help" approach they take at demonstrations is nothing more than a fishing expedition, where everything that is shared will not only be used against you, but probably written down in an inaccurate, inflammatory manner that could wind up in some database shared with some country that you no longer dare visit.

Meanwhile, the calls to abolish C-51 and other so-called "anti-terror" legislation have been smothered by the Trudeau government's answer to everything: a symbolic "consultation" designed to suck away the grassroots oxygen into discussion papers, briefings, and other distractions that allow them to stall and, eventually, either do nothing or introduce toothless, window-dressing changes. With each passing day, the expanded powers of C-51 become ever more entrenched in the state security bureaucracy.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

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