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ATI requests filed by Aboriginal child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock reveal the extent to which the federal government is watching and documenting her every move


HE FIRST THING that shocked Cindy Blackstock was the sheer volume of stuff—hundreds of pages of government documents about her own life—squeezed onto two discs. “I go through the slides, and I’m starting to see they are following me to different talks,” says Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations 16 CJFE REVIEW 2013

Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. “And they would be sending reports about these talks, not just to one or two people, but in many instances to 10 or 15 people. That, in and of itself, is kind of disturbing. It’s kind of like I had a professional stalker.” The federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development even documented Blackstock speaking at a conference in remote Alice Springs, Australia. Amid the documents was ample evidence of frequent Facebook creeping— screenshots of Blackstock’s private, personal Facebook page, including chats with friends about movies and cooking, circulated among several government officials. The kicker, found in a second batch of documents, was her Indian status registry, complete with personal information about her entire family. According to the date stamp, it was obtained by department staff the very day Blackstock appeared on the CBC’s The Current to talk about being surveilled. “You don’t want to believe your government is doing this,” says

—Cindy Blackstock Blackstock. “Even I was sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t believe this.’ But it was page after page after page.” With those documents, Blackstock became the latest victim of what some fear is now a routine strategy employed by the federal bureaucracy to systematically collect and circulate public and private information on critics. According to human rights lawyer Paul Champ, it’s a strategy that could intimidate citizens, stifle free speech and discourage


Under the Microscope

“You don’t want to believe your government is doing this. Even I was sitting there thinking ‘I don’t believe this.’ But it was page after page after page.”

By Mary Agnes Welch

“It’s kind of like I had a professional stalker.” —Cindy Blackstock activism among citizens who disagree with government policies. “It brings to mind a Big Brother image of government, following every move of a citizen,” says Champ, who represents Blackstock and the Caring Society. “It certainly causes a chilling effect.” Blackstock’s case is not the first, nor the worst. In 2010, Sean Bruyea, an outspoken advocate for wounded soldiers and a critic of Veterans Affairs, earned an apology and an out-of-court financial settlement after government staff snooped through his private military medical records and circulated them widely in an attempt to smear him. The backdrop to Blackstock’s case is the landmark Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hearings, which began Feb. 25, 2013, that could overhaul how Ottawa funds child welfare and other social services on reserves. Backed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations are arguing that federal funding for Aboriginal children on-reserve is discriminatory when set against much more generous provincial funding off-reserve. As part of the case, the Caring Society will also argue that the relentless surveil-


Filing a request under the Privacy Act is very much like filing a federal access to information request. Here are some tips, courtesy of Cindy Blackstock:

lance of Blackstock was triggered by the child welfare complaint and amounts to retaliation and intimidation prohibited by the Human Rights Act. That relentless surveillance has been largely clumsy and futile in Blackstock’s case. There are no juicy tidbits for federal officials to use against her, not even a parking ticket. “She is by no means a threat to society,” scoffs Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor and Idle No More activist Pam Palmater. “She is standing up for kids.” Inspired by Blackstock, Palmater requested her own information file under the Privacy Act, and she received 1,000 pages in response, all detailing a similar kind of surveillance. Now, whenever Palmater steps up to a podium, she (only half-jokingly) does “random spot checks for feds” in the audience. She says Blackstock’s case and others like it will create a chill among many activists—environmentalists and students, but especially Aboriginal peoples, who already have an ingrained mistrust of government. Blackstock first turned to the federal Privacy and Access to Information acts after she was punted from a meeting with government officials in Ottawa in December 2009. That meeting was meant to bring together senior Aboriginal Affairs staff and Ontario’s chiefs to discuss child welfare issues, and Blackstock was there as a policy advisor to the chiefs. But she says she was barred from the meeting because of her “issues” with child welfare funding and was left waiting in a reception area while a beefy

■ Not all government documents are date-stamped, and if you ask for documents between certain dates, you may only get those that have been datestamped. Be sure to use phrases such as “date-stamped or likely to be date-

stamped” and “produced or likely to be produced” during a certain time frame. ■ Make the same request to several government departments. In Blackstock’s case, she asked for documents from Aboriginal Affairs, Justice

security guard kept watch over her. “I wondered, ‘What is it about me that invokes the Government of Canada to call up a security guard to guard me?’” That security guard turned out to be one of 189 government staffers who authored, received or were copied on information about Blackstock’s daily doings, raising red flags for her and many others about the extent of bureaucratic spying, the protocols that govern it and whether persistent surveillance is now the government’s preferred way to silence critics.  Mary Agnes Welch is a reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, the former president of the CAJ and a 2012-13 Southam journalism fellow at Massey College.

“It brings to mind a Big Brother image of government, following every move of a citizen. It certainly causes a chilling effect.” —Paul Champ

and others. ■ Ask for documents and drafts of documents. The back-and-forth between staff as they craft media lines, for example, can be revealing. ■ Use a combination of names to ensure you are getting

everything— Cindy Blackstock, Cynthia Blackstock, Dr. Blackstock, etc. ■ Appeal all redactions and extension notices. ■ Be patient, but persistent. It took Blackstock 18 months to get her first batch of files.


Review of Free Expression 2013: Cindy Blackstock  

An extract of Cindy Blackstock's story of government surveillance from CJFE's 2013 Review of Free Expression

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