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What is it like to be targeted by Canada’s spy agency? Veteran anti-war and environmental activist Ken Stone knows firsthand and is willing to talk about it.
The retired school teacher is presently taking the legal route: making a formal complaint against the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This action follows the sudden appearance of two agents at his Hamilton home two years ago.
“The visit was not warranted under the mandate of CSIS. It caused anxiety for me and my family. It was an attempt to intimidate me, and my family members in lawfully exercising our charter rights, of freedom of speech and association, and my right to criticize the government of Canada, and its policies,” said Stone.
The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) will be holding an in-camera hearing on March 26 and 27, where Lawyer Bijon Roy will present Stone’s complaint against CSIS and CSIS will offer its rebuttal.
Roy says Stone’s unusual experience might be a sign of what’s to come after the Conservatives push through Bill C-51’s controversial measures, which will expand the scope of surveillance, targeting and disruption of dissenting groups in Canada.
Roy has encountered other politically active people who have had similar CSIS visits, both at home and at work. However, hardly anyone chooses to challenge these unannounced CSIS visits, as has Ken Stone.
“I have heard from a number of people who have had these visits. They have expressed to me their main concern is — neither they nor their families, acquaintances or community members become aware of that or are affected by that. They are certainly afraid of personal consequences,” said Roy.
A visit from CSIS reinforces the sense that a designated person is on the radar of Canada’s security agency. Roy said, from personal experience, that it can even intimidate the most politically committed person and force them to scale back their activity. He cited the example of CSIS visits to pipeline protestors.
“People say ‘you know what? I am not going to write a letter to the editor, I am not going to go to that protest, I am not going to sign that petition, because I didn’t really think doing that was going to put me on a list or attract scrutiny from an agency like CSIS,'” said Roy.
Stone, however, appears impervious to these fears, perhaps because he is retired. He says he doesn’t have to worry about a school board, a principal or a parent making fuss about him in front of students in the classroom.
“As to why the visit took place [at Ken Stone’s home], the main reasons I can think of would be an effort to intimidate, to gather information, to potentially ascertain whether the person might be capable of being recruited as a source down the road. Clearly, [CSIS] picked the wrong person to contact and it has blown up in their faces,” said security and intelligence expert Steve Hewitt.
Stone is a high profile activist in Hamilton, marshalling protests against military intervention in Muslim lands, fighting the local transportation of tar sands oil via Enbridge’s Line 9 and writing op-ed pieces in the city’s daily newspaper, the Spectator.
His activism goes back to the 1960s when he was, by chance, placed in a Toronto holding cell with future Toronto mayor John Sewell, for allegedly creating a disturbance during an anti-Vietnam war demo in front of the U.S. consulate.
Later, Stone managed to obtain from the Library of Parliament a scrupulously-documented 700-page file that the RCMP kept on him, detailing minutes of political meetings he had attended and the notorious Profunc list of so-called communists targeted for a planned (but never carried out) police roundup and indefinite detention during the Cold War.
The trouble with CSIS all started one day in January 2013 when Stone was sitting with his computer on the front porch of his home and there was a knock on the door.
At the door, he was confronted by two young women in black suits who shoved a badge into his sight to show they were from CSIS. They asked if he was “Ken Stone.”
“[What they wore] was like a uniform except it didn’t have insignia. They looked like police officers,” he says.
When Stone confirmed his identity, the agents inquired about Stone’s October 2011 trip to Iran and a subsequent opinion piece in the Spectator.
“We assume you have positive things to say about Iran and we want to hear your views on Iran, and we want to know your relationship with the government of Iran,” said Stone, paraphrasing what the agents told him.
Suffice to say, Stone refused to converse with the CSIS agents any further. Instead, he took their business card and said his good byes. “They were not very happy; I could see by their faces,” he recalled.
The timing was curious. Just months earlier, in early September 2012, the Harper government had broken diplomatic relations with Iran.
In the months leading up to that event, there were genuine fears that Israel might precipitate a war with Iran over its nuclear energy development, which it claimed would lead to a nuclear bomb.
Stone had criticized Canada’s fulsome and unconditional support of Israel’s “sabre rattling,” in a January 11, 2012 article in the Spectator.
Stone denies having any special relationship with the Iranian government. Back in 2011 he was in the capital city, Tehran, at the invitation (after someone else in Canada had turned down the same invite) by the country’s parliament to attend an international conference on Palestine. Stone is also a campaigner for Palestinian rights.
A member of Independent Jewish Voices, Stone said he was very upset by the presence of a Holocaust denier at the conference and he confronted that person.
“That person was the only negative influence among the 900 delegates. He was the only one that I thought was objectionable,” said Stone.
At the heart of Stone’s complaint is the allegation that CSIS has unfairly, and without evidence, tarred peaceful activists like himself with the brush of terrorism. He wants the agency to withdraw any hint of association in any file on him and to lay off all similar visits to peaceful activists.
Stone’s lawyer suggests the targeting of his client may be related to Canadian foreign policy.
“[Ken] was outspoken on the issue at a time when the Canadian government was rolling out a much more aggressive position about Iran,” said Roy.
Also, Roy continued, the widening of the definition of ‘terrorism’ in Bill C-51 is problematic.
“So, terrorism is no longer just a very violent type activity but it encompasses the ideas that underline or motivate such and such,” Roy said.
“What if someone says, ‘I can see Hamas’s point or I understand Hezbollah does x, y, and z. [Both on Canada’s list of proscribed terrorist organizations] Has that crossed the threshold [for CSIS]?” asks Roy.
With the support of his family and local MP, Stone began the complaint process in April 2013 with a letter to CSIS that detailed what had transpired at his door.
He was supposed to officially receive an answer in 30 days from CSIS, but got a response in March 2014. CSIS defended the officers’s actions, maintaining they were acting professionally and within its legal mandate.
Stone then made his formal complaint with CSIS to SIRC in June 2013.
It is interesting to note that at the upcoming SIRC hearing in March, there is an exparte meeting within the general meeting that Roy and Stone cannot attend.
In the exparte session, the SIRC official will be hearing evidence presented by CSIS that will explain how Stone came to its attention.
Roy agrees this makes mounting a defense of his client challenging, but not impossible.
“There is still the opportunity to present details of [Ken’s] side of the story. I am confident that we will have every opportunity to present that,” said Roy.
“We fully expect that the Committee’s findings will reflect all of the evidence that is put before them, and that their recommendations will address any concerns which we’ve raised, even if they are not spelled out in detail,” Roy added.
Meanwhile, Stone has spoken to almost ten other people who have been approached by CSIS agents.
“I tell them, take the card, don’t talk to them, be polite, send them away, and call your MP,” he said.
Stone estimates between 10,000 and 30,000 Canadians have experienced these encounters, although his lawyer is a bit more cautious, declining to offer a figure.
CSIS did not respond to questions on the issue of the home visits by publication time.
If you’d like to support or donate to Ken Stone during this process and to help cover his financial expenses, you can write and send cheques to the complainant at 133 East 17th Street, Hamilton, L9A 4M4.
Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton based freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected].
Photo: flickr/ Machiel van Zanten