Harm reduction advocate Euan Thomson says Calgary police targeted him for surveillance through database name search

Harm reduction advocate Euan Thomson, pictured with a "Dead People Don't Recover" sign, protests the Alberta Recovery Capital Conference on Feb. 21. After he promoted the protest on his newsletter earlier that month, Calgary police searched his name in their database. (Submitted)

Calgary police won’t explain why a local harm reduction advocate and police critic’s name was searched in their database twice in February, but maintain that the searches were legitimate. 

Euan Thomson filed an Aug. 9 complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta (OIPCA) about the police database search, arguing he’s being targeted for his activism. He requested the identity of those who conducted the search, the reason why they conducted it and any internal correspondence regarding the search. 

“It feels at minimum like a breach of trust and a breach of privacy, but at worst it feels like an attempt to intimidate me into silence,” he told the Progress Report. 

Thomson filed a freedom of information and privacy (FOIP) request with the Calgary Police Service (CPS) back in May for an audit of emails and database searches of his name from January 2020 to July 2023. The FOIP coordinator suggested he narrow the inquiry to database searches, since CPS members are instructed to delete emails if they’re unrelated to an active investigation. 

A CPS spokesperson, declining to discuss specifics, confirmed that under the service’s email retention policy, emails “should be saved if it is determined to be relevant to a police file.” 

“If it is not deemed relevant, it is to be deleted. Emails are considered transitory records until saved,” said a CPS spokesperson. 

The results of Thomson’s FOIP request, which he provided to The Progress Report, confirmed that his name was searched on Feb. 13. by a civilian CPS member. Thomson’s newsletter, titled “Why are we protesting the Alberta Recovery Conference?” was published earlier that day. 

Last Door Recovery Society held their Alberta Recovery Capital Conference on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22 in Calgary, which included presentations from Edmonton police chief Dale McFee, Premier Danielle Smith’s chief of staff Marshall Smith (no relation) and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Nicholas Milliken. 

During the conference, CPS chief Mark Neufeld, in his capacity as Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police president, and McFee expressed their continued opposition to drug decriminalization.

Thomson has been an outspoken critic of the Alberta government’s recovery-oriented system of care and the role of law enforcement in it, in addition to being a proponent of harm reduction measures to address the drug poisoning crisis, including decriminalization, safer supply and supervised consumption sites. 

Police searched Thomson’s name again on Feb. 28 after he filed a FOIP request about an unrelated incident. 

Thomson asked senior CPS disclosure analyst Sabrina Attwood for the identities of those who conducted the search and for what reason in an email exchange he provided to the Progress Report.

Attwood said CPS doesn’t provide the names of civilian employees, but that the first search was conducted by an analytical technician of the CPS Major Events and Emergency Management division and the second by an intake coordinator at the force’s Access and Privacy section. 

She didn’t provide a reason for the searches beyond asserting that they were for “legitimate business purposes,” encouraging him to file a complaint with the privacy commissioner if he had further concerns. 

The CPS spokesperson, speaking generally, said that the CPS sometimes won’t disclose the purpose of their search for “reasons of investigative integrity, safety concerns or compromising a third party's personal information.” 

A police source, who was granted anonymity because they’re not authorized to discuss these matters publicly, said that police often look up protest organizers in their database to ensure they’re not a risk to public safety. 

Additionally, a FOIP intake coordinator “will query any applicant when they make a request to confirm they are on file with the CPS or related to the file they are requesting,” the CPS spokesperson said, implying the second search was standard procedure. They didn’t explain why these details about an applicant are pertinent to their application. 

Thomson called the idea that these are legitimate uses of the police database “junk.” 

“I was the one who made the announcement about the protest. I was a key organizer of it. What if I had a [criminal] record? Would that have disqualified me from civic protest?” 

Regarding the Feb. 28 search, Thomson said he felt he was being treated “as a potential criminal” for exercising his right to access information. 

According to OIPCA’s website, an investigation takes about a year, but recent decisions show waits as long as two years. 

If the privacy commissioner rules in Thomson’s favour, it wouldn’t be without precedent. 

In June, the B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled that Victoria blogger and police critic Stephen Harrison, who regularly attends police commission meetings and files FOIP requests, had his privacy rights violated by the Victoria and Saanich police departments when they searched his name immediately following FOIP requests. 

Harrison, who acknowledged the apparent similarities in his case and Thomson’s, said police conducting database searches on critics is like “if you've been writing a letter to the editor criticizing health policies, a doctor can read that and decide to take a look at your medical records.” 

“Some officers and staff are doing these types of things because they can and because they don't think anybody's ever going to look,” Harrison added. 

Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel, who often represents clients alleging police misconduct and abuse, found through a FOIP request in 2005 that his name was searched by officers and civilian employees 16 times from 1999 to 2005, including two officers his clients had complained about. 

Engel told The Progress Report that he finds the CPS’s failure to disclose why they searched Thomson’s name in the police database troubling. 

“That lack of transparency suggests that there was an illegitimate reason and that the reason for the search was to fish for information that might be used to discredit Mr. Thomson, a known critic of the Calgary Police Service,” said Engel. 

“The subject of the inquiry is entitled to transparency about why their name is being queried.”

(Disclosure: Tom Engel is representing Progress Report publisher Duncan Kinney in unrelated legal matters.)