The head of Canada's largest aboriginal group is denouncing the military for using its counterintelligence unit to keep an eye on native organizations and their protest plans, saying this implies such advocacy can be compared to terrorism.
The Canadian Forces' National Counter-Intelligence Unit, meant to address "threats to the security of the Forces and the Department of National Defence" such as espionage, terrorists and saboteurs, assembled at least eight reports on the activities of native groups between January, 2010, and July, 2011.
Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he was offended to learn that native activism is considered "threatening to national safety and security" in Canada.
"The fact that Canada would expend national defence resources to monitor our activities amounts to a false and highly offensive insinuation that First Nation advocacy is akin to terrorism or threats to national security," Mr. Atleo said in a statement. "The reality is that all of the events monitored in the documents released were peaceful demonstrations conducted with the full co-operation and notification of all relevant authorities."
Critics on Thursday called for Canada to subject the military's counterintelligence unit to monitoring by independent overseers in the same way that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is scrutinized by the Security Intelligence Review Committee.
Navy Captain Dave Scanlon, a National Defence spokesman, said the Canadian Forces "do not spy on Canadians, nor do we monitor aboriginal or other groups."
"We're not keeping watch on aboriginal groups," he said. "We're keeping a watch on activities in Canada that could affect Canadian Forces operations. It doesn't matter [which]group. It's the activity that matters."
He said when choosing what to watch, the counterintelligence unit also anticipates where it might be called on to help. The Forces insist the unit doesn't do any snooping itself, but receives intelligence from other government agencies.
Little is known about the Forces' National Counter-Intelligence Unit. The military refuses to divulge its budget or staffing, citing national security. It won't even say whether the operation has grown over the past decade as Ottawa ratcheted up defence spending after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and for the war in Afghanistan.
"If you're lining up your troops on the front line, you don't want to tell the enemy that you have three battalions on the right, three battalions in the middle and only one battalion on the left," Capt. Scanlon said.
The unit's described mandate talks of identifying "threats" – which the military defines broadly.
"I think the word threats is almost too narrow," Capt. Scanlon said. "If I'm planning to do a road move of tanks from one part of Ontario to another, and I'm going to go down the TransCanada and I see there's going to be a demonstration on the TransCanada … that constitutes a threat to our ability to conduct that operation down that path." In that case, he said, the Forces might want to plan a route that avoids the protest.
Philippe Lagassé, assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the counterintelligence unit needs to be more accountable to independent oversight.
"They're created by the executive through executive powers and essentially this power, it just fills voids. So whatever is not strictly forbidden, they can do," Prof. Lagassé said.
He recommends giving MPs on the national security committee special clearance, sworn on oath, so they can ask more probing questions of the counterintelligence unit.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said history has shown government agencies that aren't monitored by external oversight have gone beyond their mandate and threatened civil rights.
"Even within the military we have the Communications Security Establishment," he said, referring to the crypto-logic agency that among other things collects and analyzes foreign electronic, radar and radio signals.
"It's a mysterious organization that very few Canadians know anything about. But they have oversight. There's a commissioner whose job it is to ensure they operate within the law," Mr. Harris said.
Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, an expert in military law, said the Forces vastly expanded their operations in the past decade as a result of funding increases to fight terrorism and the war in Afghanistan.
"They got the funding, the equipment, the augmentation in strength, they were allowed to create almost overnight a whole number of headquarters," Mr. Drapeau said.
"There are few organizations in Canada that can hold DND to account," the former colonel said. "For everybody's sake we want a military that basically stays in its place and is subject to civilian control, real civilian control."
The Forces said they have worked hard to build a good rapport with aboriginal groups.
"The Canadian Forces are committed to maintaining a strong relationship with the First Nations, one that is built on trust, embraces their culture, and seeks inclusiveness," Capt. Scanlon said.