Last Friday, we published a story on a secretive private intelligence firm that was monitoring journalist Brandi Morin and her ongoing court case. Welund, which has an active contract with the Alberta government to provide intelligence reports, and has previously contracted with at least three branches of the federal government, responded to our inquiries by deleting tweets mentioning Morin, and taking their public website offline.

Since we published that story, things have only gotten stranger. Today, Ricochet is able to report for the first time on a scathing, soon-to-be-released report by Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard, dated October 16 of last year, which found that Natural Resources Canada improperly withheld documents related to their business relationship with Welund from an access to information request, failed to respond to the commissioner’s recommendations as required by law, and although they released a second package of information, the commissioner notes that it did not include all of the files she had found should be released.

Despite the direct intervention of the associate deputy minister, who promised answers by 4 p.m. yesterday, we have still not received any comment from the department.

Ricochet has also obtained affidavits filed in federal court by the Canada Energy Regulator that show the then-National Energy Board systematically deleted all communication with Welund across all departments and reported holding zero records related to the company — despite paying tens of thousands of dollars to receive intelligence reports.

Neither of the federal departments have current contracts with Welund. The Alberta Government does have an active contract with Welund according to public disclosures, but has not responded to Ricochet’s requests for comment.

We asked Natural Resources Canada a series of questions about the report, which has not yet been released publicly, and is being reported on here for the first time.

Ricochet sent these questions nine days ago, on February 5. Since then we have exchanged over a dozen emails with two staff members. They promised in each email they are working on answers, but refused to provide a timeline.

Yesterday, the issue was escalated to deputy Natural Resources minister Michael Vandergrift and associate deputy minister Jeff Labonté. Within the hour, Labonté responded with a promise that they would provide answers by 4 p.m. At 10 minutes past four, we received an email from the media relations team promising that we would receive their answers “shortly.”

As of publication almost 24 hours later, and despite the direct intervention of the associate deputy minister, we have still not received any comment from the department.

The Edmonton Police declined to answer questions about any contracts they may have with Welund, instructing us to file an access to information request. When pressed, they explained that it is their standard practice to direct all questions about records or contracts to FOIP, a process that takes months at best.

The city of Edmonton confirmed they do not have an active contract with Welund, but did not respond to questions about whether any of their employees were ever provided access to Welund intelligence reports via the provincial government or the Provincial Intelligence and Security Office, a secretive provincial intelligence agency that works with law enforcement and other levels of government and was identified as a recipient of Welund’s services in public disclosures.

A ‘well founded’ complaint

The Information Commissioner’s investigation was initiated in response to a complaint that the department had improperly withheld materials related to their contract and relationship with Welund, applying exemptions to freedom of information rules that did not apply in this case.

The complaint was filed by Adam Federman, an American journalist and reporting fellow with Type Investigations, and Jeffrey Monaghan, associate professor at Carleton’s Institute for Criminology and Criminal Justice, in relation to an access to information request they filed in 2018. Federman was working on a major exposé about Welund at the time, which was published by U.S. investigative outlet Mother Jones.

The information commissioner ruled that the complaint was “well founded.”

The department failed to respond to that recommendation as required by law… That subsequent disclosure did not contain all of the information the commissioner found was improperly withheld.

The final report, authored by information commissioner Caroline Maynard herself, concludes as follows.

I recommend that the Minister of Natural Resources disclose all of the information
previously withheld under paragraphs 20(1)(b) and 20(1)(c), other than the void cheque at
page 366 and the unit prices and quantities. On August 17, 2023, I issued my initial report to the Minister of Natural Resources setting out my recommendation. The Minister did not inform me, as required by subsection 37(1), whether they would implement my recommendation. Rather, on October 3, 2023, NRCan disclosed additional information to the complainant, and subsequently provided a copy of this release package to my office. Upon review of the release package, I noted that the additional disclosure does not include all of the information subject to my recommendation.

In other words, the commissioner recommended that they release the information in question, but the department failed to respond to that recommendation as required by law. They then did release additional information, but that subsequent disclosure did not contain all of the information the commissioner found was improperly withheld.

The commissioner noted in her report that the actions of the department were eligible for judicial review at Federal Court, where they could be compelled to disclose the withheld information. However the period in which such a review can be requested is only 45 days, and had already elapsed by the time we received a copy of this report.

The report has still not been made public, but a spokesperson for the commissioner told Ricochet that “a copy of the report will be published in accordance with section 37(3.1) of the Act, in the near future.”

“Welund themselves, are essentially ex-police (and ex-armed forces),” said Monaghan. “And the police don’t necessarily make much of a distinction, certainly not any longer, between environmental movements and journalists. A lot of this is just seen as antagonistic, and seen as people who are in the way of their dispersal orders, or injunction enforcement, or whatever it may be.”

‘A very deliberate attempt to destroy records’

Natural Resources Canada isn’t the only federal department that has gone out of its way to obscure their relationship with Welund. The Canada Energy Regulator acknowledged in an affidavit obtained by Ricochet that they systematically destroyed all records related to Welund, claiming that these records were “transitory” documents of no business value.

This appears to be at odds with the description of a transitory document contained in internal guidelines attached to the affidavit. It lists nine examples of transitory documents, including duplicates, personal notes, drafts not shared beyond their author and personal messages. None of the listed examples appear to apply in this case.

“My sense as an outsider was that there was a very deliberate attempt to destroy records,” said Monaghan. “The NEB was making a very disingenuous claim that these intelligence reports were transitory records, and that’s why they were being destroyed on the spot.”

“That level of deletion, in my mind, has to be coordinated in some kind of formal fashion.”

Monaghan and Federman ultimately abandoned a federal court challenge over the costs involved, but proceeded far enough to generate disclosure from the CER. Monaghan also notes that the CER ‘found’ some additional documents related to Welund after claiming to have no records, indicating to him that the initial search may not have been comprehensive. These documents, apparently discovered while performing an unrelated search, are also referenced in the affidavits from CER employees.

“These are obviously of business value, because you’re paying for them… there were multiple people receiving these intelligence briefs, and who knows where they’re being forwarded to, but they were systematically deleted. That level of deletion, in my mind, has to be coordinated in some kind of formal fashion.”

Following a protest at a hearing held by the then-National Energy Board in Montreal in 2016, the federal body contracted with Welund to monitor threats to their operations from social movements.

As Federman reported in 2018, the head of security for the NEB, Lee Williams, spearheaded this initiative and recommended their services to other departments. Williams would go on to leave the NEB for an executive role with Welund soon after.

In a June 2016 email, Williams introduced his counterpart at the National Research Council—a Canadian government body that oversees research and development and often works closely with the private sector—to a Welund representative. “We’ve been using their services for almost a year,” Williams wrote, “and find both their web content and bespoke services very beneficial.” A few months later, the NRC’s security branch entered into a $28,250 contract with Welund.

Those bespoke services remain mysterious, but seem to extend beyond simply providing general intelligence reports. The CER did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An affidavit filed in federal court by a CER employee named Andrew Strople, and obtained by Ricochet, sheds more light on the agency’s contractual relationship with Welund.

The NEB had a contract with a company called Falling Apple Solutions in 2016. In 2017, the NEB contracted with Welund, and considered renewing this contract in 2018. Through discussions on the potential renewal of the contract, the NEB decided not to renew and instead launched a competitive procurement process. The 2018 contract was subsequently awarded to Falling Apple Solutions.

As Federman reported in 2018, Falling Apple Solutions, which described itself as a boutique consulting firm specializing in engineering, project management and transportation planning prior to their website being abruptly taken offline, is in fact a subsidiary of Welund, sharing an address (that traces back to a residential home) with Welund North America Ltd. and being run by Eppo van Weelderen, a director of Welund’s North American subsidiary. Public disclosures show they were contracted to provide essentially identical services to those offered by Welund.

All of these measures… appear designed, at least in part, to allow Welund to work for public bodies while escaping public scrutiny.

Ricochet has identified a number of similar obscured subsidiaries of Welund, including Foresight Reports, a company which operates in a much more public fashion on platforms like LinkedIn.

As Monaghan notes, Welund has also streamlined their system for evading access to information requests in the intervening years. They no longer send the kind of emails that were deleted by the CER, instead directing clients to login to a secure server to access intelligence reports that are consequently never in the possession of any public bodies they contract with.

All of these measures, the covert subsidiaries, systems designed to evade access to information rules and the pressure the commissioner found they put on Natural Resources Canada to disclose nothing about them — appear designed, at least in part, to allow them to work for public bodies while escaping public scrutiny.

“The police have stronger and stronger partnerships with (resource companies) to prepare for protests, as they say, or to collaborate and engage in information sharing,” added Monaghan.

As Monaghan notes, governments, police and private intelligence firms like Welund appear to make little distinction between activists, and journalists who report on their actions. Journalists like Brandi Morin or Amber Bracken, who were both arrested while doing their jobs, and were the subject of intelligence reports distributed by Welund.

“And you have the government, of course, being a pipeline owner and having clear interests in extraction as well, you have all of these partnerships taking shape, all of which have an interest in not only surveilling movements, but also in demobilizing them. Framing them as threats or criminals or potentially engaged in criminal action, [and making] them look as though they are not representing communities. All of these different levels of coordination are being done to undermine these social movements that have completely legitimate concerns on the ground.”

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