Surveillance Canadian Style

Whoa Canada

Directed by Sean Devlin (2015)

Film Review

Whoa Canada is an expose of illegal Canadian intelligence activities presented in the humorous satirical style of the Yes Men documentaries. The films credits list the Yes Men and Michael Achbar (directed The Corporation and Manufacturing Consent) as executive producers.

The film follows the exploits of the founders of the website as they attempt to investigate the psychic Harper has hired (at taxpayer expense) as his hairstylist and makeup artist.

These adventures are interlaced with escapades in which they crash closed door meetings between Harper and other members of the Conservative government and their corporate clients and benefactors.

The filmmakers also provide brief factual interludes revealing the extent of the Communications Security Establishment’s (CSE) illegal surveillance activities against Harper’s political opponents, their notorious racial profiling, their infiltration (along with the Canadian police) of the Canadian Occupy movement and the country’s barbarous treatment of First Nations Canadians.

I was particularly intrigued to learn that Canadian telecommunications providers voluntarily turned over data on their subscribers to Canadian intelligence after the CSE paid them over $1.6 million for it ((unlike the US where the government compelled telecoms to turn it over).

When CSE security guards deny them access to the multibillion dollar CSE security complex, activists hire their own psychic to visualize activities taking place inside the building. Her findings are later confirmed by NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

Standing Up to McDonald’s Bullying


Directed by Fanny Armstrong and Ken Loach (2005)

Film Review

The documentary McLibel tells the inspiring story of two London Greenpeace activists who stood up to a giant multinational corporation in the longest court battle in English history. Helen Steel and David Morris (the defendants) technically lost their case when the judge awarded McDonald’s (the plaintiffs) 60,000 pounds ($90,000) in damages. Nevertheless they clearly won in the court of public opinion, especially after the European Court of Human rights ruled in their favor in 2004.

For me the best part of the film is the beginning, which examines discovery documents showing that London Greenpeace was infiltrated by 17 spies from two different detective agencies hired by McDonald’s. Infiltration by corporate informants is far more difficult to document than FBI or police spying – private corporations that spy on activists have no accountability under the Freedom of Information Act or comparable state and local laws.

According to court documents, there were as many spies as activists at some meetings and some spies assumed major responsibility for organizing campaigns.

How UK Libel Laws Suppress Free Speech

Britain has very different libel laws than the US, and they have a very chilling effect on free speech. In the UK, an individual sued for making defamatory statements is required to prove – beyond a reasonable doubt – that these statements are true.

In 1990, five London Greenpeace activists received libel writs for a leaflet they were distributing in front of McDonald’s. The writ threatened to take them to court unless they apologized for their actions. Three apologized. Steel and Davis refused to apologize, and in 1994 McDonald’s started court action against them.

As Britain provides no legal aid in liability cases, they had to defend themselves. McDonald’s, in contrast, spent 10 million pounds on lawyers and expert witnesses.

Steel and Davis were fortunate to receive pro bono legal advice from an experienced lawyer, in addition to invaluable assistance from the McDonald’s Support Campaign. In addition to fundraising to pay legal costs and witness airfares, this support group also organized media outreach, support protests and help them start a website, McSpotlight, in 1996. The website launch provided a major breakthrough in the case, as it enabled them to circumvent the corporate media and go directly to the public with their story.

What Steel and Morris Had to Prove

The specific statements (from the leaflet) that Steel and Morris were obliged to prove were

1. That McDonald’s food was unhealthy.
2. That they treated workers badly,
3. That their advertising deliberately manipulated and exploited children
4. That their production practices were detrimental to the environment
5. That their production practices helped perpetuate animal cruelty

Steel, Morris and their supporters persuaded an impressive array of international experts to testify on their behalf, including renowned nutrition researchers, a former Ronald McDonald impersonator and former cattle rancher Howard Lyman.*

A PR Disaster for McDonald’s

After nearly three years, the judge ruled the defendants had proved roughly half their claims. The initial damages he awarded (60,000 pounds) were reduced to 40,000 pounds on an appeal. Nevertheless, the trial was a total PR disaster for McDonald’s. The media storm surrounding the case caused “fringe” concerns raised to be shared by a broad cross section of the public. As a direct result of the McLibel case, McDonald’s began showing quarterly losses and shutting stores in 2002.

They have made no attempt to collect the 40,000 pounds from Steel and Morris.

*Howard Lyman is a former US rancher turned vegetarian and animal rights activists who (along with Oprah Winfrey) was unsuccessfully sued (in 1998) for “food disparagement.”