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

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Secrets upon secrets surround a hearing into allegations that Canada's spy agency kept tabs on environmental groups in an effort to suss out their anti-pipeline activities and may even have used moles to get the job done.

In a story worthy of a cloak-and-dagger spy thriller, the lawyer representing the groups was forbidden from discussing anything that took place at a restricted hearing of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service watchdog committee.

Josh Patterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which filed a complaint on behalf of several groups, said he was barred from sharing any information with his clients about his participation in the Vancouver hearing on Wednesday.

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"I cannot describe anything that took place in that room," he said Thursday.

Will Horter, executive director of the Dogwood Initiative, one of the groups alleging CSIS illegally spied on them, said Paterson was unable to tell him anything about his testimony.

"I use the word Kafkaesque, but you couldn't write a play like this," he said.

"I asked a fairly simple question of my lawyer: 'Did you feel like you got a fair hearing?' And he said, 'I can't answer that question.' That's deeply disturbing."

The hearing, which is closed to the public and media and scheduled to run until Friday, is tasked with determining whether CSIS crossed the legal line in eyeing anti-pipeline activists.

It followed a complaint filed by the civil liberties association in February, 2014, that the spy service considered opposition to the petroleum industry a threat to national security.

The complaint cited reports that CSIS illegally shared information with the National Energy Board about "radicalized environmentalist" groups wanting to participate in the board's hearings on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

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The project by Calgary-based Enbridge would see Alberta crude flow westward to the B.C. coast.

"This whole overlying issue is (whether) freedom of expression is constitutionally protected and what's the role of government in that," Horter said.

"Now the process that's supposed to bring that to light to say whether our concerns are valid is actually gagged."

Seven witnesses are scheduled to testify and include members and volunteers of the Dogwood Initiative, ForestEthics Advocacy, Leadnow.ca and the Sierra Club B.C., as well as participants in the #IdleNoMore movement.

All are expected to be similarly forbidden from speaking after they give testimony.

Minutes before testifying Thursday, Dogwood Initiative organizer Celine Trojand told reporters that the RCMP had allegedly spied on her group in the past.

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"It's designed to scare people away from exercising their democratic right to freedom of speech and association," she said of the gag order issued at the hearing.

When Trojand finished her testimony, Dogwood spokesman Kai Nagata confirmed she too had been banned from discussing any of the proceedings.

"It's basically like a black hole," he said. "Anyone who goes in comes out mute."

The civil liberties association has filed a similar complaint against the RCMP. No date has been set for that hearing.

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