3 min

When the government becomes a spy

Do you want the RCMP to know what you're reading?

Imagine this, boys. You just got off the phone with a hot date that you met on Cruiseline. You’re busy primping in front of the mirror, getting ready for a night of fucking. It’s been weeks since your last lay, and you want it bad. The doorbell rings. You open the door, to be greeted by your friendly neighbourhood CSIS agent. Turns out your phone call was tapped, and Canada’s spy agency wants you to help them set up a sting to catch your new date, who they say is a suspected terrorist. Oh, and while they’re at it, they threaten to out you to your boss and your grandmother if you don’t comply.

How’s that for a buzz kill?

This might sound like an Orwellian scenario, but if Stephen Harper’s government gets its way, Canadians could soon be subject to telephone and Internet surveillance, without their knowledge or permission. Earlier this month, the Globe and Mail reported that the Conservative government is planning a bill to force telecommunications companies to build in “access points” so authorities can monitor telephone calls, emails and web surfing. The bill, originally a Liberal proposal, would also require phone companies to keep detailed records about customers and share them with authorities.

Would you want the RCMP to know about everything you’ve been reading? Do you have confidence government spies would be able to distinguish between the hot gay porn you have saved on your hard drive, and material that could be construed as indecent or without “legitimate purpose?”

If the Little Sister’s saga has taught us anything, it’s that government agencies seem to be incapable of distinguishing queer literature (and pornography) from the more nefarious examples where people are actually harmed in the making. The Vancouver queer bookstore is back in court again, after 20 years and over $750,000 spent fighting Canada Customs’ seizures of books and magazines at the border. We all thought the issue had been settled in 2000 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canada Customs – now called Canada Border Services Agency – had been unfairly targeting material headed for Little Sister’s, including innocuous publications like the US queer newsmagazine The Advocate. But the bookstore is fighting the same battle again, after border guards seized copies of an adult comic called The Meatmen and two books describing bondage scenarios.

While the Conservative government bleats about its famous five priorities, politicians are quietly laying the groundwork for a more aggressive law-and-order agenda. We’ve already heard rumblings of their plans, including mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes, a ban on street racing, and a law to raise the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16. This month’s arrest of 17 people for allegedly planning a terrorist attack has certainly bolstered support for the Harper agenda. The proposed phone tapping legislation plays into the government’s “duck and cover” message, implying that such egregious invasions of privacy are necessary in order to keep Canadians safe.

And if the thought of CSIS listening in on your phone calls weren’t scary enough, how would you like to share your most intimate moments with the US Department of Homeland Security? Yep, you heard me right. Thanks to the US Patriot Act,any US companies operating on foreign soil must share any and all personal information with Bush and his buddies. Many US telecommunications companies have already provided “back door” access to their phone and Internet lines, and would be happy to accommodate the same request in Canada. And this doesn’t just apply to phone companies. Of particular concerns to queer people in the US and Canada is the fact that their private health records – including HIV status- could be divulged to the government and potentially used as fodder for discrimination and blackmail.

Now it’s worth asking whether any of these measures actually makes us more safe. The bravado surrounding the recent terror arrests certainly provided a tremendous public relations coup for Canada’s security agencies. Newspapers reported that the RCMP was careful to contact reporters about the arrests before the suspects were arraigned so the media could have a field day, sans publication ban. But let’s not forget the last time authorities trotted out dozens of young male Arab “terrorism” suspects in 2003’s Project Thread, later dubbed Project Threadbare. After much fanfare and media hoopla, the RCMP later released every single suspect, citing a lack of evidence.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Matthew Behrens, from the Campaign to End Secret Trials in Canada, recount his experiences travelling in a “Caravan of Hope” from Toronto to Ottawa. He and others stopped at the new prison known as Guantanamo North built on the grounds of Millhaven Penitentiary in Bath, near Kingston, specially to house suspects being held – without charges – on security certificates. He and his fellow travellers – including gay peace activist James Loney – planted symbolic seeds of hope outside the facility, telling prison guards that they wanted the detainees to see flowers when they are released one day.

Resistance is fertile, as they say.