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Hearing into allegations that CSIS spied on pipeline opponents set to begin

People gather during a demonstration against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline in Vancouver, B.C., on Nov. 16, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A hearing into allegations the Canadian Security Intelligence Service spied on people opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline project will begin Wednesday in downtown Vancouver – and two of the people who will testify say the allegations have had a chilling effect on environmental advocates.

The BC Civil Liberties Association filed a complaint with the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which oversees CSIS, in February of last year. The civil liberties association alleged that CSIS spied on community groups and First Nations opposed to the pipeline, and that CSIS then shared at least some of that information with the National Energy Board and the oil industry.

Josh Paterson, the civil liberties association's executive director, in an interview Tuesday said it is illegal for CSIS to gather intelligence on law-abiding groups. He said documents released through Freedom of Information indicate CSIS was spying on people who were acting in an entirely peaceful manner – such as those who met in a church basement to paint signs and even a First Nations basketball tournament.

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"What we're going to see through the evidence in the next few days is that the effect of finding out that you're being spied on, and that others are being spied on, is to turn people off from being engaged," he said. "There are literally people who decided not to get involved, not to volunteer, not to come out to a meeting because they were concerned about being watched. That is a huge problem. We think it's a violation of people's freedom."

The hearing is expected to run for three days and is not open to the public. Mr. Paterson will testify, as will Caitlyn Vernon, Sierra Club BC's campaigns director.

Sierra Club BC was one of the organizations alleged in media reports to have been spied on during meetings and other events. Dogwood Initiative and ForestEthics Advocacy were among the others.

Ms. Vernon, in an interview, asked how speaking out for the environment could brand a person an enemy of the state.

She said the spying allegations were a serious concern and Sierra Club BC secured its online server as best it could. Ms. Vernon said fear they were being monitored also caused staff, at times, to lose their focus.

"The question being asked organizationally changed from 'What's the best thing for the environment?' to 'Will this make us vulnerable in the eyes of the federal government?'" she said.

Ms. Vernon said staff would at times grow paranoid, such as when a new volunteer came through.

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She, like Mr. Paterson, said the allegations turned some people off from participating altogether.

"Some people, not everybody, are perhaps more reluctant to sign a petition or to go to a rally or to get involved in something, for fear of being put on some unknown list and being monitored," she said. "There's definitely a lot of talk out there. That seems like it's potentially making it harder for us to do our work of raising awareness of these important environmental issues."

The Security Intelligence Review Committee did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

CSIS also did not respond. When the complaint was first filed, a CSIS spokesperson said the agency does not comment on specific complaints. However, the spokesperson added that "CSIS investigates – and advises government on – threats to national security, and that does not include peaceful protest and dissent."

The BC Civil Liberties Association has also filed a complaint with the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP and alleged it, too, was involved in spying on environmental advocates.

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