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Carleton University is Paying Private Investigators to Film Students and Instructors on Picket Lines

Carleton University contract instructors and teaching assistants are striking against ‘exploitative’ wages

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Carleton University is using undercover private investigators in unmarked cars to conduct covert surveillance targeting contract instructors and teaching assistants on picket lines as their ongoing strike enters its second week.

The presence of anti-union private investigators near picket lines was first reported by The Charlatan, the university’s student newspaper. The Ottawa university later confirmed it hired the private security firm Xpera to monitor picket lines.

Carleton University spokesperson Steven Reid declined to provide any details to PressProgress about the public institution’s use of anti-union private investigators, including details about the scope or monetary value of its contract with Xpera.

On Tuesday, PressProgress verified the presence of six private security vehicles at two picket lines on Carleton University’s campus. Only one was visibly identified as belonging to Xpera.

One man wearing an alpine ski sweater in an unmarked Kia Sportage confirmed to PressProgress he was a licensed private investigator employed by Xpera after he was photographed with a camcorder pointed at a picket line.

Photo credit: Luke LeBrun (PressProgress)

Picket line captains and striking teaching assistants say the covert surveillance by undercover private investigators is unnerving.

“I’m looking at them right now,” CUPE 4600 President Noreen Cauley-Le Fevre told PressProgess while standing at a picket line. “There’s a car across the street with two people in it, those are the ones who film us.”

Emily Quaile, a teaching assistant and picket line captain, said Xpera has been “keeping an eye” on students and faculty at picket lines for two weeks.

“They have been heavily surveilling us with a focus on watching picketers instead of aggressive cars,” Quaile said. “There’s always at least one or two humans stationed at each of our three picket lines.”

Quaile said she had one run-in with an a Xpera contractor last week while she was talking to students at the picket line:

“I had a guy run out of his unmarked vehicle, come right over to me, saying he’s going to have to alert the police because we are trespassing on campus.” Quaile said she was standing within steps of the property line: “He was quite concerned about us standing even two feet into the campus.”

Photo credit: Luke LeBrun (PressProgress)

Eileen, another teaching assistant who is on strike, says the presence of anti-union private investigators is something reminiscent of “pinkertons.”

“As we know with labour history, the entire private investigations industry originally existed to bust strikes.”

“I heard reports about people coming around in unmarked vehicles as early as day three,” Eileen said, adding that there have been reports of investigators “getting into the crowd and trying to film.”

“I’m really not sure what they’re up to, I would suspect that they’re here to gather dirt for the university.”

Eileen said the level of “hostility” towards the union and “strike busting” tactics are “highly irregular for a public-sector negotiation.” Carleton’s willingness to spend money on covert surveillance rather than negotiate a fair deal suggests this is not about money for university administration, “it’s about power.”

Photo credit: Luke LeBrun (PressProgress)

CUPE 4600, the union representing contract instructors and teaching assistants at Carleton, issued a statement Tuesday expressing its concern about the “ongoing surveillance and intimidation” by undercover private investigators.

“Members are reporting being approached and intimidated by Xpera employees,” CUPE 4600 spokesperson Hayley Rose said a statement.

“Despite reporting concerns to Carleton Security and Campus Safety, private security employees continue to ignore standard protocol by crossing back and forth over the legal picket line, attempting to engage picketers and using facilities established by the union.”

Xpera, which has dozens of offices across Canada as well as one in Ottawa’s west-end, also declined requests for comment from PressProgress.

Xpera describes itself as a “risk mitigation and investigation” firm. It offers services ranging from private investigations and background checks to “executive protection,” bug sweeping and GPS asset tracking, as well as services to protect “soft targets” against “active shooters” and “mass homicide” events.

Xpera has been a subject of controversy over some of its past contracts. BC Hydro hired Xpera to surveil First Nations members protesting BC’s Site C Dam and the firm was accused of  blocking refugees’ access to legal counsel in connection with its federal contracts dealing with border security.

On its website, Xpera also advertises services to help employers dealing with “labour disputes.”

Photo credit: Luke LeBrun (PressProgress)

“Whether you need picket line security, logistics and transportation, temporary replacement workers, or evidence to support legal actions and injunctions, our national footprint has you covered across the country,” Xpera says.

The firm’s website also offers employers a long list of services to help “minimize the risk associated with a strike or labour dispute,” including “contingency planning,” “mobile security teams,” “crowd management,” “property and picket line monitoring,” and “social media monitoring.”

“We address our clients’ needs with investigative information that is collected, analyzed, and disseminated in a timely manner,” Xpera’s “open source intelligence” page notes.

“Our proprietary systems, paid and open source database access, combined with 40+ years of investigative experience across North America and internationally provides our clients with unparalleled intelligence gathering and analytical opportunities.”

Xpera did not respond to questions about whether it would retain any information about students or faculty collected through its contract with Carleton.

Carleton University declined to explain why it is filming strikers on the picket line and whether it is compiling any lists or databases identifying the names of students or faculty participating in the labour action in person or online.

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On Monday, hundreds of full-time Carleton University faculty members signed an open letter expressing “strongest possible solidarity” and criticized the university administration for paying “exploitative” wages.

“How can we, in good conscience, continue to admit graduate students and work with colleagues who are likely to face housing insecurity, food insecurity, and debt due to exploitative wage rates?”

“If Carleton wasn’t spending so much on security companies to fight their workers, they could give us a deal to end the strike,” CUPE 4600 President Noreen Cauley-Le Fevre told PressProgress.

 

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Mitchell Thompson and Luke LeBrun
PressProgress is an award-winning non-profit news organization focused on uncovering and unpacking the news through original investigative and explanatory journalism.

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