Native people, ecologists and human-rights groups aren’t the only ones worrying about Hydro-Quebec’s secretive new police force. Now the utility’s own employees are getting a taste of the tactics of the “Surete d’Hydro-Quebec,” and they don’t like what they see.
Hydro-Quebec’s 210-person police squad has extensive new powers to investigate, interrogate and arrest its own employees and anyone else perceived to be a threat to the utility, according to two recent articles in the Quebec City daily Le Soleil. Also, the article suggested, Hydro’s $18-million-a-year police department may get even more powers in the future.
Employees who fake injuries or illness now have to worry about Hydro police sneaking up and filming them in their homes. Union sources said work-related incidents are ending up more and more in criminal court instead of being settled by ordinary labour-dispute mediation.
The article also suggested that Hydro cops are somewhat out of control. They have tried to charge utility employees even when both the union and Hydro management wanted to settle the incident quietly through mediation.
Hydro police didn’t always have these powers. Just two years ago, they were little more than security guards and night watchmen. They were given new powers in 1992, including the power to charge anyone without even bothering to consult Hydro-Quebec’s own legal department along the way. Hydro’s security guards had been granted the same powers as all other police in Quebec, and also had a worrisome new mandate.
The Grand Council of the Crees and other groups became worried about the new powers of Hydro security in March 1993. That’s when a highly confidential document was leaked that described the security force’s new marching orders.
“The natives are unsatisfied with their socio-economic and political conditions,” said an appendix to the document. “They have started to lobby, they adopt means of pressure that flirt with vandalism… The more active ones are ready for forceful demonstrations to support their demands. ”
The document said Hydro police could use “electronic surveillance” on the utility’s opponents. There was also a strange reference to “special activities,” which was
to engage about a third of Hydro’s police force—64 to 85 officers. The special activities were not defined, but they could include spying on Hydro’s opponents. The document, written in 1991, says Hydro police were already at that time opening 8,000 new files each year.
“The social context is changing,” the document explained. “More radical social movements are emerging and their means of pressure are going beyond simple vandalism and evolving in the direction of terrorism and bombings.”
The reaction to the document was a mix of amazement and fear. Bill Namagoose, the Grand Council’s executive director, accused Hydro of using “Third World dictator-style tactics.” A broad coalition of church groups, ecologists, the Innu, Crees and Atikamekw condemned the document and filed a complaint against Hydro-Quebec at the Quebec Human Rights Commission in March 1993. They said the Hydro police force’s new mandate is a threat to human rights and democracy. The complaint is still being heard by the commission.
Also at the time, Public Security Minister Claude Ryan assured Crees that Hydro police were simply security guards and didn’t have full police powers. “There is no question of according this service of Hydro-Quebec the status of a police force in the full sense of the term,” Ryan wrote in a letter to the Grand Council’s Romeo Saganash in March 1993.
But that’s not what Hydro spokeswoman Marie Archambault said in an interview with The Nation. “They have the same powers as any other police—interrogation, arrests, investigation,” said Archambault. She insisted, however, that Hydro police have always had these powers. “There’s nothing new there.”
Archambault also maintained that Hydro police have the same mandate they’ve always had—”to prevent fire and protect the utility’s assets.” And, she emphasized, the utility does not use wire-tapping. “I would be very surprised if there was any wire-tapping. We’ve never done that and there’s no reason to do that. ”
The Nation could not reach officials from the Hydro engineers’ and blue-collar workers’ unions for comment.