New Hotline to Assist Students Approached by CSIS Addresses a Problem Neither New nor Unprecedented

Posted September 27, 2019
By Anver M. Emon

Co-Authored by Nader Hasan

On November 12, 2018, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, The Varsity, reported that Muslim Student Association executives had been regularly receiving surprise visits from RCMP and CSIS agents regularly since 2016. Since the events of 9/11 in the United States, security and intelligence officials have taken an interest in Muslim Students Associations (MSAs) across universities in both Canada and the United States. In 2012 news outlets broke the story that the New York Police Department had been conducting extensive surveillance on Muslims, in particular Muslim university and college students, not only at colleges and universities within New York, but also at elite schools such as Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania (both of which are outside New York city limits). Intelligence agencies have inferred a causal relationship between MSAs and terrorism based on the tenuous correlation that some terrorists caught and prosecuted had in the past been members of university MSAs. 

Certainly, there is an important role for CSIS and the RCMP to play to combat the threat of terrorism. However, their methods employed against university students threatens both student wellbeing and the fabric of academic freedom. 

Unfortunately, the incidents reported inThe Varsity were not new or unsual. The unfair targeting of Muslim university students is a systemic problem.  In response, we have created the National Security Student Support Hotline for UofT Students.  The purpose of this program is to ensure that students who are approached by a CSIS agent are not left fending for themselves.  The student who calls the hotline will be paired up with a lawyer, acting pro bono, who can advise the student on their rights and help them navigate the difficult decision of whether to speak to CSIS. 

The hotline has been the subject of recent media reports and op-eds, but, it’s important to remember that the problem it addresses is neither new nor unprecedented.

In his impressive study Spying 101, historian Steve Hewitt outlines the history of Canadian security surveillance of universities. Prior to 1984, Canadian intelligence services were under the purview of the RCMP. Prior to that date, there was no CSIS. But a series of allegations against RCMP misconduct in the 1970s led to a commission—the McDonald Commission— to examine the scope of RCMP authority and activity. The Commission’s report evidenced the fact that the RCMP had been conducting various investigations on Canadian university campuses.  Given the heated context of the Cold War, it is not surprising that the Commission found the RCMP’s activities in that period focused on ferreting out Communist sympathizers on campus. But security investigation on campus was nothing new for the RCMP in the 1970s.  The RCMP conducted surveillance on Canadian campuses as early as World War I to respond against perceived threats of espionage from various sectors of Canadian society. That surveillance only increased as the century wore on. Concerns about espionage explain “why the RCMP spent over half of the twentieth century monitoring universities.” 

RCMP activity on campuses, however, was not something that would play well with the general public, whether the target of surveillance was a 1950s communist activist or a 1970s peace activist.  In 1961, RCMP campus activity came out of the shadows at the Université Laval, when RCMP surveillance of anti-nuclear student-activists became public knowledge. When Montreal’s La Presse ran the story, it became fodder for Question Period in Parliament, putting the Diefenbaker government on the defensive. As Hewitt writes, “for the first time in its history the [RCMP’s] countersubversion operations received public scrutiny.”  And at the helm of the public outcry against RCMP surveillance on universities was a key institution upholding the culture of academic freedom in Canada’s universities, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).  From the moment the Laval story became public, CAUT lobbied the federal minister of justice for years to address its concerns. Within the security establishment, CAUT’s concerns were utterly disregarded as outlandish, exaggerated, and ‘farfetched’. Moreover, the RCMP suspected the CAUT itself of subversive activity. 

The government’s deferential attitude toward the RCMP changed in 1963 with the election of the Liberals, under Lester Pearson.  As Prime Minister, Pearson met with the CAUT, and issued an informal agreement, known as the Pearson-Laskin Accord. The meaning of the accord varied widely, depending on the party. To the CAUT, “the agreement represented an end to sweeping security investigations on university campuses, with the exception of security screenings that involved background checks for those seeking government employment. The RCMP more narrowly saw it as a continuation of the restriction on recruiting sources on university campuses,” which had already been in place since 1961. As Hewitt describes, the accord achieved little, due to fundamental differences between the parties over what its terms meant.

Fast forward to September 11, 2001, Hewitt and others are alarmed at the enhanced national security landscape that empowers security agencies like CSIS and the RCMP to conduct surveillance in a time of increasing nationalist sensibilities. “[D]emocratic countries have passed laws giving far greater power to intelligence and law enforcement agencies than they had even during the [C]old [W]ar. In turn, there is little tolerance…for the traditional dissent that universities offer.” 

It is in this institutional and historical context that the new hotline for UofT students serves to ensure that young students in university have the necessary education as civic participants when faced with the sometimes ominous presence of a national security officer.  From our consultations among students and practicing lawyers, we learned a bit about how CSIS field agents approach a university student.  In most cases, two field-agents (usually one male and one female) will make contact with the student, via email, telephone or in person at their off-campus housing. The field agents request an informal interview, often in private or at a local Tim Hortons. These interviews are not well defined, and in many cases are fishing expeditions about the student’s life and the activist culture at the university. 

Given the historical continuity of Canadian security surveillance on campus, Muslims now take a turn in the long and contentious history between national security agencies and Canadian universities. Muslim students are not the only students who have been the subject of surveillance, nor will they continue to be the only ones. In Toronto, Black Lives Matter activists have been subject to police surveillance. In British Columbia, CSIS allegedly spied on a peaceful anti-pipeline protester illegally. In both these cases, the surveillance occurred off-campus. But for an urban campus, such as the University of Toronto, where students contribute to the public life of both campus and city, the border between on- and off-campus alone cannot delimit how we protect institutionally and otherwise our students’ academic freedom. 

We all know that CSIS and the RCMP perform important functions. The Hotline exists because sometimes how those functions are carried out leave something to be desired. As Hewitt relates, in 1941, RCMP commissioner Stuart Taylor Wood declared, “youth by nature is radical.”  That one sentence captured the security concerns of the RCMP, and arguably framed their surveillance on campus activity. But radical need not be threatening.  The University of Toronto’s mission gives a very different meaning to the word. It reads in relevant part: 

…Within the unique university context, the most crucial of all human rights are the rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of research. And we affirm that these rights are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself. It is this human right to radical, critical teaching and research with which the University has a duty above all to be concerned; for there is no one else, no other institution and no other office, in our modern liberal democracy, which is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit.

In contrast to Wood’s indictment, ‘radical’ is intimately associated with the freedom to think, speak, write, and research. Those are the core values that animate all those who have worked to create this special service for UofT students.  It is our hope other universities, the CAUT and even the Canadian Federation of Students, will join us in this endeavor. In this era of polemics and polarized politics, protecting our democracy and democratic way of life increasingly will require us to protect Universities and the radically inquisitive culture they enable.