Documents show university spied on novelist

0 Posted by - November 26, 2009 - Features, Policy, Word

Concordia University's Hall Building

Montreal author David Bernans made international headlines in 2006 when he was prevented from holding a reading of his novel North of 9/11 on the campus of Concordia University. While university administrators had cited security concerns as cause for the rejection, they were quick to reassign blame to a clerical error once journalists came calling. Documents recently obtained through access to information legislation show that the writer was in fact under observation by security personnel. In this first-person narrative, Bernans chronicles his experience dealing with Concordia’s security apparatus, and questions the motivations of a university that spies on and censors its students.

Dangerous Reading

There is a powerful moment in the film The Lives of Others where ordinary citizens in a recently re-unified Germany are poring over de-classified documents of the former East German regime’s Stasi to see how details of their lives had been recorded and carefully filed away by the spies of a hyper-paranoid police state. What would it be like to sit under the cold glare of the florescent lights of those drab storage rooms among the massive filing cabinets and read about your own life as seen through the eyes of the Stasi?

Well, I have never lived in a communist dictatorship, but you might say I got a glimpse of my own Stasi file thanks to a favourable ruling from Québec’s Access to Information Commission. “It seems,” writes Investigator Jacques Lachance in the report to his superiors, “that Dr. Bernans is interested in bilingualism at Concordia.” Why, I wondered as I read my file, does the investigator feel it relevant to inform his superiors that the subject he is observing — a writer doing graduate work in translation — is “interested in bilingualism”? Is that really news to anybody? Do they have investigators following mathematicians around, informing their superiors that this one is interested in pi, that one in logarithms? Or perhaps, I thought, “bilingualism” was some kind of code word for a particular political tendency, or sexual preference. Was he telling his superiors that he suspected me of being bisexual?

I was, of course, reading too much into Investigator Lachance’s words. According to Noam Chomsky, who has seen his own FBI file, intelligence agencies “never get anything straight” (this off-the-cuff observation predates the spectacular intelligence failures of 9/11 by more than a decade). Agency information is not exactly wrong, just skewed, as if they were observing you walking through a hall of mirrors and describing the freakish reflections rather than your true form:

If you look at an FBI file, say, about yourself, where you know what the facts are, you’ll see that the information has some kind of relation to the facts, you can figure out what they’re talking about, but by the time it works its way through the ideological fanaticism of the intelligence agencies, there’s always a weird distortion.

Is “ideological fanaticism” what made my shadow write such a strange report for Concordia Security? For whatever reason, as in the FBI file described by Chomsky, the “relation to the facts” is “weird.”

The entire text of Investigator Lachance’s September 7, 2006, email report on my activities is reproduced below (translated from its original French by the bilinguaphile yours truly).

Greetings,

I learned this morning that Dr. Bernans will give two readings for a “launch” of his book, “Beyong 9/11” (sic.): one at McGill University, on September 11, 2006, at 4:30 p.m. and one at Concordia University, the same day at 7 p.m. at the Coop Bookstore.

It seems that Dr. Bernans is interested in bilingualism at Concordia. He was photographing posters this morning.

Jacques Lachance, Investigator

The email was sent from the investigator to the head of Concordia Security, Jean Brisebois (a former RCMP agent), and a copy sent to Robert Rivard (another member of the Concordia Security establishment). Robert Rivard replied the same day to thank the investigator for his report, saying cryptically (at least from my perspective as outsider trying to make sense of these internal communications) “Agents will be informed.”

north911bgTo be honest, I was more than a little miffed that the investigator got the title of my book wrong. For the record, the novel is called North of 9/11 (Cumulus Press, 2006). He managed to get the time and place of both events right, but neither of the readings could be described as a “launch” since the book had already been launched at Concordia the previous spring. I have no clue what the reference to bilingualism means and I have no recollection of having taken any photographs of posters that morning at the Montréal downtown campus. In fact, it would have been quite a feat since I had no camera. I do recall a photographer from a McGill student newspaper snapping pictures of me going up and down the clunky escalators connecting the floors of the concrete bloc that is Concordia’s Hall Building. I suppose that could have been what the investigator was reporting to his superiors, thinking the photographer was working for me on some secret terrorist bilingual reconnaissance mission. But why “agents” (presumably campus security guards) needed to be informed about any of this, is puzzling to say the least.

Now, you are asking yourself two questions:

  1. Why is Concordia’s campus security acting like the Stasi, spying on an author planning a book reading?
  2. What motivated me to make an official request to the Access to Information Commission to see this report? (How was I to know that I was being spied upon? Am I just a naturally paranoid person or what?)

This is where things go from weird to downright absurd.

The fictional plot

North of 9/11 is set in the tumultuous corridors of Concordia’s urban campus in the burning autumn of 2001. Rebellious pierced and tattered punks and proud uncompromising youth of the Arab Diaspora naively brave the flames of chauvinism unleashed by the exploding planes of 9/11. Because they so forcefully reject the calls for vengeance on Afghanistan, the anti-war activists become targets of an intelligence agency keeping a watchful eye on “subversive” student organizations. Paranoia and incompetence are rife in Concordia’s bureaucracy and the RCMP. Plans for non-violent anti-war direct action are mistaken for the activities of a terrorist sleeper cell. Intelligence failures result in tragic consequences.

The stranger than fictional plot

My publisher and I have been planning a public reading of North of 9/11 for the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, September 11, 2006. Concordia is the logical venue for obvious reasons. Taking time out from a hectic summer schedule interning as a translator with the Québec government and swimming with my four-year-old son, I file all the paperwork to book a room. Everything seems to be in order and the booking is approved by mid-summer. But the approval is mysteriously revoked less than a week later. According to the official email I receive, it is by order of Concordia’s Risk Assessment Committee that the event cannot take place on campus, but no explanation is offered as to the risk posed to Concordia’s security by the public reading of a fictional story.

I’ve heard of the Risk Assessment Committee before, established in 2002 (after the infamous Netanyahu fiasco) with Vice President Services Michael Di Grappa at its head. But the committee has kept a low profile, operating in the murky shadows of the security bureaucracy. Even the names of committee members, other than Mr. Di Grappa, are not known to the public.

declinedBack in February, I had recognized the committee’s fingerprints on the last-minute cancellation of a room reservation made by the student group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) whose members had come to me for help since, at that time, I was President of the Graduate Student Association (GSA). On SPHR’s behalf I asked Mr. Di Grappa about the cancellation at a meeting of Concordia’s Board of Governors, but the portly silk-suited administrator, wearing his trademark Cheshire cat grin, refused to discuss “matters of security.”

Michael Di Grappa and I are two different species living in the same university ecosystem but in fundamental opposition — the administrator and the writer. We are on opposite ends of just about every spectrum you can think of — economic, political, cultural, intellectual and social. I earned a Ph.D. in political science with the help of scholarships, yet my post-doctoral university career has gone nowhere (perhaps due to my fierce criticism of the corporate sponsors that increasingly dominate Concordia). Mr. Di Grappa has managed to reach the top echelons of power at a major Canadian university without holding a Ph.D. (perhaps because of excellent qualifications or maybe due to political savvy and powerful friends among Concordia’s benefactors). Mr. Di Grappa has an iron hand in dealing with Concordia’s unions while I am a campus union organizer. Mr. Di Grappa wears the finest Italian suits. I do not own a tie. Mr. Di Grappa chairs the Risk Assessment Committee. I am a risk to be assessed.

Although I’m sure the committee was involved in the cancellation of various student events including the one organized by SPHR, I had never seen the committee mentioned in any written communications with student groups affected by negative risk assessments. Events were simply canceled, no explanation given — talk to the bureaucratic hand. Decisions were made about what artwork could be seen and what speeches could be heard on campus, but the risk assessments themselves were secret “matters of security” and there is no way to appeal a negative ruling.

The email is more than important — it is gold, written confirmation of the mysterious committee’s involvement in the censorship of a Canadian author. I carefully file it away, make the first in a series of official access to information requests, call PEN Canada and then call my publisher.

PEN’s support makes all the difference. There’s a big splash in the press when the writer’s freedom organization takes time out from helping jailed poets in Iran to write a letter of support for an author targeted for censorship by a secret committee at a Canadian university (on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 no less). The story makes the front page of the Montreal Gazette; it is picked up by news services and student newspapers across Canada and even internationally (The Guardian runs a piece in its Books section).

When the censorship comes to light amidst the hustle and bustle of September registration, Concordia’s media relations team scrambles to smother the bad publicity. I don’t have a media relations team, but my publisher and I do our best to keep the story in the public eye. On every lunch break and after work each day, I’m on the phone with my publisher discussing press releases and scheduling media interviews.

Concordia PR goes on the offensive

Concordia’s media strategy seems to be based on the old football adage that the best defence is a good offence — attack the writer’s credibility. Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota outright denies the very existence of the Risk Assessment Committee (but never offers an explanation as to why the author received an email informing him that the non-existent committee had revoked his security approval). The University says the author himself is to blame for the cancelation. Over a period of three days, a series of accusations are levelled but none of them stick.

  • Accusation #1: The author is not a Concordia student and therefore not eligible to book a room. Response: A valid student card.
  • Accusation #2: The author did not file the proper paperwork. Response: Captured image files of the duly completed online forms.
  • Accusation #3: The author did not have the required support of a sponsoring organization on campus. Response: GSA acknowledgment of its sponsorship.

With each explanation put forward by Concordia’s PR department, journalists grow more skeptical.

Finally, through its media relations spokesperson, the University accepts the blame for the cancellation, but sticks with the story that the reading had not been censored for security reasons. The whole matter, it seems, had been a bureaucratic mistake – nothing to do with the Risk Assessment Committee (if indeed, such a committee really exists).

VP Di Grappa (who had been asked by yours truly a month earlier about the Risk Assessment Committee’s involvement in the matter and who had emailed in response that he would “look into it”) pens his first and only official explanation for the cancellation of the book reading in a letter directly addressed to me and forwarded to the media on September 5, 2006. The official position is that “Concordia does not censor its students” and the book reading had not been cancelled for security reasons, but rather due to “a combination of human error and a booking system that needs to be improved.” Mr. Di Grappa goes so far as to say “you are welcome to hold your book reading on campus” (although the author imagines the administrator must have dictated those words to his secretary through clenched teeth).

Stasi exposed

East Germans had to bring down a Communist regime to see the Stasi’s secret files. In my case, it took three years of wrangling with Concordia’s legal team (much more competent than its media relations team).

The following facts have been established:

  • The Risk Assessment Committee exists, but according to an affidavit from Concordia’s legal counsel, it is an ad hoc committee that meets at the pleasure of VP Di Grappa. It does not keep minutes or record its decisions in any way. The names of past and present committee members have never been recorded in any form. In short, it is a secret committee that leaves no paper trail whatsoever. It is therefore impossible to access a list of members under Québec legislation because those laws only apply to documents held by public bodies; if Concordia does not make records of the committee’s dealings, there are no documents – nothing to be accessed.
  • No records exist to support the claim that my book reading was cancelled because of “human error and a booking system that needs to be improved.”
  • The report from Investigator Lachance, an employee working under Mr. Di Grappa, shows that Concordia Security was spying on me in the planning stages of the book reading. The report was made two days after Mr. Di Grappa had written with assurances that the University had no security concerns about the reading.

So now, three years after the fact, we have the real story (or at least the part of it that has been documented), and we’ve all had a good laugh at the expense of the Con U keystone cops. “All’s well that ends well,” you might say, “no harm no foul.” But just because it’s funny, doesn’t mean this is a laughing matter.

There is funny ha-ha and funny peculiar and then there is funny scared shitless. Think about it — a public university with a secret censorship committee and an internal spy network. If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, there is something fundamentally wrong with post-9/11 society.

Sure, nobody is being sent off to Syria to be tortured because of such “intelligence failures,” but don’t fool yourself. This institutional paranoia is damaging. It sabotages learning. What kind of education can you get in an institution that spies on and censors authors who dare organize public readings of their works? Sure, such reading may be dangerous; challenging accepted ideas always is. But I humbly submit that it is worth the risk.

David Bernans is a former graduate student and part-time faculty member of Concordia University whose historical novel, North of 9/11 (Cumulus Press, 2006), takes place on Concordia’s downtown Montreal campus. He is currently looking for a publisher for his latest novel, a murder mystery featuring intelligence failures in the war on terror, Collateral Murder.

References & Documents

Photo: Concordia University’s Hall building, by tylerc.

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