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Research

Surveillance and C-15

[Stéphanie McKnight]
Photo: Brian Ross

By Stéphanie McKnight, PhD Student (Cultural Studies)

The implications of Bill C-51 and current surveillance trends on citizens are pressing issues in Canada today. Bill C-51 “authorizes Government of Canada institutions to disclose information to Government of Canada institutions that have jurisdiction or responsibilities in respect of activities that undermine the security of Canada” (C-51 First Reading, 2015). These “activities” are defined as events that interfere with the capability of the Canadian Government in relation to intelligence, public safety, espionage, acts of terrorism, and cause harm to a person or property. The act states, “for greater certainty, it does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression” (62-63-64 ELIZABETH II, Parliament of Canada).

However, it is unclear how these activities intersect with artists’ and citizens’ use of activism and protest.

Along with my supervisors, Drs. David Murakami Wood (Sociology) and Susan Cahill (University of Calgary), my doctoral research focuses on analyzing these issues. More specifically, I create artistic and cultural objects as a way of critically engaging, translating, and analyzing the sociological, political, affective, and theoretical impact surveillance has on Canada. My methods of investigation are unique because they include artistic intervention and production at all stages of my research. I produce exhibitions, art work, interactive web platforms, and installations that include multi-dimensional interaction from my audiences, including my peers, the research community and study participants. My creative research aims to ask questions and find answers through cultural productions that have been created and framed with political and social ideas in mind. Since we are never disconnected from the media and cultural objects we experience (i.e. artworks, posters, social media, memes, protest banners, films, music, television series, etc.), it is imperative that we look at these productions as texts that are continuously creating and reimagining new information.

My interest in surveillance stems from its ubiquitous nature. Surveillance inescapably permeates our everyday lives, impacts our performance and engagement with a place and time, controls our borders and rights to movement, and is continuously practiced and repurposed consciously or unconsciously. We are all participants in a surveillance culture, whether it be by protecting personal or corporate land from trespassers or following friends on social media. The emerging and evolving surveillance culture has been studied and written about for decades by leading scholars at Queen’s (Surveillance Studies Centre) and others around the world.

Then why do we continue to exhaust a subject that we know is, cynically, impossible to change? We study surveillance because we know there is something more to be said and no matter how many times we slice it and dice it, there’s always a new angle to be explored. For example, how does surveillance impact our most vulnerable and marginalized communities? Surveillance theory has continuously looked at surveillance as something that impacts all citizens on a similar level, though it is very evident that most surveillance practices and trends predominantly target vulnerable and oppressed communities. In Canada, the implementation of Bill C-51 does this.

Bill C-51 is one of the ways the Canadian government is attempting to regulate protests and activism that counter their political agenda.

Bill C-51 is one of the ways that the Canadian government is attempting to follow global movements of constructing a survival state post-9/11. Sociologists Greg Elmer and Andy Opel define a survival state as a construction where citizens and institutions’ priority and collective responsibility is to survive, using technologies and surveillance processes to do so. Paradoxically, as scholars Rachel Dubrofsky and Shoshana Magnet argue, most citizens who would be adversely influenced by these surveillance strategies are marginalized and oppressed minorities who use activism and self-expression as a method of reclaiming their rights and identity.

[Hawk Eye View]
Hawk Eye View, Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning, Kingston Ontario, 2015. (Photo by Chris Miner)

In Canada, this issue is constantly affecting Indigenous people who are fighting and actively contesting contemporary political, economic, and environmental violence. An example of this, outlined in Battell Lowman and Barker’s 2015 book Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada, is the protesting of pipeline construction throughout Canada.

Bill C-51 is one of the ways the Canadian government is attempting to regulate protests and activism that counter their political agenda. These impacts include expanding definitions of security as well as broadening meanings of activities that are considered a threat and ‘chill the freedom of expression’ (Cheung and Stryker, 2015). There is an urgent need for studies that prove the significant impacts of Bill C-51 on Canadian citizens, artists, and cultural advocates.

My work aims to bring to light contemporary surveillance trends that have yet to be fully explored by academics through visual means. It explores new ways of contending with questions of politics, law, and human rights through artistic intervention. My hope is to continue to create interactive, subtle but powerful images and objects that encourage audience intervention and critique.

(e)AFFECT Issue 11 Spring/Summer 2017