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Professors worried about CSIS spying on campus

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A U of T professor who was spied on by the secret service fears a renewed crackdown on dissenting views, echoing concerns of professors across Canada who say university administrators are doing nothing to protect faculty from government snooping.

Dr. John Gittins was one of two U of T geology professors spied on by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) between 1986 and 1990 and says current policy with regard to government spying is toothless, and desperately needs to be revised in wake of the new anti-terrorism measures the government is about to pass.

“My colleagues who are still currently employed in the university might be advised to look at this policy and say, ‘Do I really believe that assurance?’ ” he said.

The topic has become a top priority in discussions of faculty across Canada, according to the organization that represents these professors nationally.

“If faculty members or students are having to look over their shoulders wondering if there’s a CSIS informant in their midst it can make people reluctant to speak freely, and the essence of a university is a place where people can speak freely and argue different views,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. The agreement signed with CAUT in the 1960s says CSIS cannot spy on campus without the consent of the Solictor-General, who is the federal minister in charge of the RCMP and CSIS. It was added to by a 1995 U of T policy which, when announced, was supposed to protect professors, saying “disclosure of personal information contained in University records should be regulated in a manner that will protect the privacy of individuals who are the subject of such information.”

But Gittins does not feel comforted: “It rather smacks of empty words—where are the teeth in it? It doesn’t say anything at all about disciplinary action.”

CSIS representative Chantal Lapalme says investigations at universities require senior level approval, “and in some situations when it involves direction of human sources and the use of intrusive devices, then ministerial approval is also required.” she said. “We don’t report to the public, so we wouldn’t report to campuses.”

Angela Hildyard, U of T’s Vice President of Human Resources, commented on the university’s role in dealing with requests for information. “If it’s a matter where they come to the university and say, ‘We want to observe and follow somebody and check what they’re doing,’ we would have to have a subpoena or something that would obligate us under law to allow that to happen.”

Lapalme assured that CSIS activity is sensitive to the special considerations of academic and personal freedom in a university setting.

“We don’t investigate activities that constitute lawful advocacy, protest and dissent, unlesss carried out in conjunction with threats to the security of Canada,” said Lepalme.

Turk raised concerns over Bill C-36 and current erosions of the Canadian privacy act, in light of what happened with Gittins and his colleague. “All of those things are being justified in the name of September 11, but to what extent do we sacrifice the things that we allegedly value in order to defend the things that we allegedly value?”

Spy Timeline

1960s: CSIS agreed to place no undercover agents on university campuses unless they had specific and prior authorization from the solicitor general.
Agreement was ratified by the Lester Pearson government and confirmed by governments in the 70s, 80s, and most recently 1996.

1986-1990: Isabel Laurence was an informant for the RCMP and CSIS at the University of Toronto. She was secretary to geology professors Anthony Naldrett and John Gittins, who were suspected due to contacts with scientists in former Eastern-Bloc countries during the cold war period. She provided copies of their private letters and Telexes to CSIS during her time there, but found that the research they were conducting was legitimate.

1989: Isabel Laurence tells her director at the University of Toronto of her position as an informant.

1990: Gittins and Pearson are informed of Laurence’s spying. Human Resources director at the time Michael Finlayson gives her a job at U of T’s human resources department.