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Invasive surveillance of human rights defender Cindy Blackstock

    May 29, 2013

    A report released on May 28 in Canada by the federal Privacy Commissioner highlights a troubling pattern of invasive and unwarranted government surveillance of Canadian human rights defender Cindy Blackstock.

    Dr. Blackstock is the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, a prominent and highly-respected non-governmental organization promoting equitable access to education, health care and other services for First Nations children.

    Human Rights Defender under surveillance in Canada

    Government documents obtained by Dr. Blackstock show that two federal departments monitored her personal Facebook page, tracked people who posted to her page, and sent staff to take notes on her public presentations, all in an attempt to find information that might help the government fight a discrimination complaint that Dr. Blackstock’s organization is pursuing before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

    The Privacy Commissioner concluded that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Department of Justice went too far in their online monitoring of Dr. Blackstock.

    According to the Privacy Commissioner's report, senior officials overseeing government response to Tribunal case directed staff to collect screen shots of Dr. Blackstock's personal Facebook page and circulate this material within the departments. The Privacy Commissioner concluded, “By all indications, it was clear to officials in both departments that they were accessing and compiling information about the complainant personally."

    The two departments have accepted the Commissioner’s recommendation to stop this monitoring and to destroy personal information that they have collected.

    Government monitoring of Dr. Blackstock began after her organization and the Assembly of First Nations filed a discrimination complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

    The discrimination complaint, which is now before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, concerns the fact that year after year the federal government provides substantially less funding per child for child and family services in First Nations communities than the provincial governments provide for other children.

    Amnesty International's shares concern for underfunding of First Nations children

    Amnesty International has supported the case through our campaigning and as an intervener in front of the Tribunal.

    Initially, Amnesty's involvement was motivated by concern over the fact that the underfunding of family and children’s services is pushing a vastly disproportionate number of First Nations children into foster care, away from their families, communities and cultures. As the case has dragged on, we have become increasingly concerned about broader issues about the effectiveness of human rights protections in Canada.

    Human rights tribunals are meant to provide an alternative to lengthy and costly court challenges, so that timely and effective solutions can be found to address discrimination. In this instance, however, the federal government has gone to great lengths to challenge the Tribunal’s authority to hear the complaint, repeatedly forcing the case into the courts. By June 2012, the federal government had already spent more than $3 million in legal fees to oppose the case.

    The government’s arguments have relied on extremely narrow interpretations of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The federal government has argued, for example, that while the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the delivery of government services, this shouldn’t apply to the government funding decisions that determine the levels of services that can be provided. The federal government also argued that it cannot possibly discriminate in the delivery of services to First Nations children since it doesn’t provide services for any other children – and therefore does not treat any other children better than it treats First Nations children. Had they been successful, these arguments would have severely limited future applicability of the Human Rights Act, especially in relation to federal government services in First Nations communities.

    Although the initial complaint was filed six years ago, hearings into evidence of discrimination only began this year. Earlier this month it was revealed that the government had still not disclosed more than 50,000 documents relevant to the hearings. The existence of the documents was revealed only through an access to information request.

    The lengths that the federal government has gone to delay this case, including gathering personal information on Dr. Blackstock, flies in the face of fundamental principles of human rights protection.

    UN Declaration protects the rights of Human Rights Defenders

    The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recognizes the right and obligation of all members of society to speak out against human rights violations. The Declaration prohibits retaliation, pressure or  “any other arbitrary action” against someone as a consequence of their efforts to defend human rights. The Declaration also requires all governments to ensure that everyone has access to timely and effective remedy for human rights violations.

    Learn more about Amnesty International's work on Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples

    For inquiries contact:
    Craig Benjamin,
    Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples
    613.744.7667 (ext 235)