Are Canadian environmentalists a terrorist threat?
In a report released yesterday outlining the federal government’s new counter-terrorism strategy, Public Safety Canada listed environmentalists among other “issue-based domestic extremists” that could pose a threat to Canadians.
Responding to the report, Sierra Club Canada director John Bennett said this portrayal is aligned with officials’ attempts to silence environmental groups opposed to major energy projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline.
“We are one of the few segments of Canadian society that has continually stood up to the present Conservative government and been able to be effective at raising issues," said Bennett.
"As a result, they’ve decided that we’re political opponents rather than a part of the democratic dialogue. So this is just the next stage in these attacks.”
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced the new strategy during a meeting of international counter-terrorism experts, as part of an effort to “promote an open discussion with Canadians on the threats we face”. In addition to well-known global terrorist groups like Islamist extremists and Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, Toews’ report lists a few potential domestic threats including white supremacists, animal rights activists and environmentalists.
“Although not of the same scope and scale faced by other countries, low-level violence by domestic issue-based groups remains a reality in Canada. Such extremism tends to be based on grievances—real or perceived—revolving around the promotion of various causes such as animal rights, white supremacy, environmentalism and anti-capitalism,” the report stated.
For those in the environmental community, the characterization of environmentalism as a home-grown terrorist threat is simply the next step in a series of increasingly negative portrayals, as government officials have already publicly labeled Canadian environmental groups as “radicals” and raised concerns over their funding.
“First we're radicals, then we were agents of foreign socialist billionaires, and now we’re terrorists. This is just a classic smear campaign to marginalize environmental voices in Canada,” Bennett said.
This week’s counter-terrorism report primarily addresses other, more serious threats to public safety, only referring to environmentalism in one small section.
But for Bennett, the fact that it was included in the newly publicized strategy—and that it came out now, amidst heated national debates over environmental policy—was no coincidence.
“This was done deliberately to plant the seed in the public mind that somehow we’re a bad thing for Canada, and it’s just not true,” he said in an interview with the Observer.
Bennett warned that when governments threaten to silence opponents and curtail democratic processes, it pushes people further and further, potentially creating the conditions for more drastic or even violent action. However, he emphasizes that environmental groups in Canada tend to stick to promoting their causes through legal, non-violent activities.
“It’s certainly not something we advocate. We do not believe in doing anything in a violent way or destroying anything,” said Bennett.
Eco-terrorism in Canada
Violent incidents, such as a series of gas pipeline bombings in Northern B.C., have often been the basis for concerns around Canadian “eco-terrorism”. But so far, no proof has emerged to link these bombings to specific environmental causes or groups. Internationally, organizations like the Earth Liberation Front have claimed responsibility for other drastic actions, and there have been a few similar (yet isolated) incidents here in Canada.
For instance, a Royal Bank branch in Ottawa was firebombed in 2010 by the anarchist group FFFC, partly because of the bank’s role in financing the Alberta tar sands. And in 2006, a group from Montreal called Résistance Internationaliste claimed responsibility for firebombing an SUV belonging to an executive with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).
While these extreme incidents are few and far between—and never linked to legitimate environmental organizations—they provide fuel for the government’s suspicions around environmental causes as motivation for violence. According to Public Safety Canada, this type of “issue-based” terrorism may be less of a problem here than it is in other countries around the world, but still needs to be monitored.
“Although very small in number, some groups in Canada have moved beyond lawful protest to encourage, threaten and support acts of violence. Continued vigilance is essential,” Public Safety spokesperson Lisa Filipps said in an email.
Filipps explained that the agency does not keep a list of domestic issue-based terrorist groups, and said the counter-terrorism strategy is not meant to target those using legal means to further their causes.
“Canada’s counter-terrorism efforts are rooted in respect for the rule of law," she said. "We will always aim to uphold the fundamental human rights and freedoms Canadians cherish in a free and democratic society.”
“Efforts to respond to terrorist threats, both home-based and those identified abroad, are not focused on groups that are expressing their opinions legally and peacefully.”
Despite these assurances, the idea of being labeled as a “terrorist” is something environmentalists like John Bennett do not take lightly.
“The only real environmental terrorists are actually in the federal cabinet,” he said.