Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

It's A Free Country Isn't It?

Dec 29, 2012

During the 1950s the RCMP security service employed a machine to root out homosexuals working for the federal government. Individuals suspected of being gay were hooked up to this bogus device, the so-called “fruit machine,” and exposed to pornographic images. Their physiological responses were assessed and a sexual identity conferred. Once identified, homosexuals were purged from the public service. Ostensibly it was the Mounties’ job to look for Communist spies, but since homosexuals were vulnerable to blackmail because of their illicit lifestyle, they too represented a risk to the security of the state, or so the argument went. More than one hundred civil servants lost their jobs because of the “gay squad,” which expanded its efforts beyond the civil service by opening files on thousands of gays across the country. Clearly it was homosexuality that was being policed, not subversion.

In their new book Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America (University of Toronto Press), the historians Reg Whitaker, Gregory Kealey and Andrew Parnaby describe the fruit machine as “the single looniest venture” in the history of the security service. But they had a lot to choose from. What their book reveals is that any Canadian who has ever held unorthodox political views or even led what might be considered an unorthodox lifestyle could take it for granted that the government was watching. The origins of this intrusive surveillance go all the way back to Confederation, when John A. Macdonald placed Gilbert McMicken in charge of a force of special agents to keep a watchful eye on the activities of Fenian sympathizers along the Canada–US border. But the surveillance state really got organized at the end of World War I, when the Royal North West Mounted Police was remodelled as an internal security force—the modern RCMP—and deployed to spy on labour leaders and left-wing agitators who the government believed were plotting a Bolshevik revolution in Canada.

In the 1930s the security service was asked to fulfill Prime Minister R.B. Bennett’s promise that he would grind Communism under “the heel of ruthlessness.” It was “open season on Communists and suspected Communists,” write Whitaker et al., as the political police rounded up hundreds of radicals and even deported a number who were recent immigrants. “They simply came and took him away,” said the wife of one of the men. “They had no right to do such a thing.”

Picking up the story two decades later, our authors call the 1950s “the deepest Ice Age of the Cold War.” It was not just homosexuals that the RCMP singled out for persecution; they also encouraged purges of the National Film Board, the foreign service, labour unions and universities. In a variety of ways, write Whitaker et al., public policy was made hostage to “Cold War fantasies.” Worse, they present a portrait of a country “honeycombed with secret informers,” people who were not attached to the secret service but gladly helped spy on their friends and associates on its behalf. “What is quite extraordinary about the vast collection of dossiers on Canadians and Canadian organizations… is the amount of complicity shown by large numbers of people in police surveillance of their own associations and activities.” To a disturbing extent, we had become a nation of spies, and by the early 1980s the security service had compiled files on ten thousand suspected subversives and had made plans to round up and incarcerate them in the event of an unspecified “national emergency.” The authors do not go so far, but the picture of Cold War Canada that emerges from the pages of their book seems every bit as sinister as East Germany under the Stasi.

This is the hidden history of the RCMP, which until 1984 had responsibility for secret policing. Much of the story is already known, though Secret Service brings it together in a convenient and compelling synthesis. But it is hidden in the sense that it contradicts so much of what the public is asked to believe about the Mounties: that they are the stalwart defenders of law and justice; that they are respecting our rights, not undermining them; that they make the country a safer place. This version of the Mountie has been purveyed for years in movies, histories, tourist brochures, comic books and novels. Famously, the force even hired out its image-making to the Disney Corporation. The result of all this massaging and spin-doctoring has left Canadians thinking that our souvenir police force was on our side. Yet behind the scenes, which is where Secret Service takes its readers, the RCMP’s agents have been violating the rights of Canadians from the very beginning of the force.

It was in Quebec where the RCMP security service finally came a cropper. During the 1960s and ’70s, agents engaged in a series of “dirty tricks” aimed at sovereigntists in that province. They broke into journalists’ offices to steal documents; they opened mail; they stockpiled dynamite to use in furtive operations to discredit separatists; they stole records from the Parti Québécois, a perfectly legitimate political party; they fabricated communiqués from the Front de Libération du Québec; and so on. All this illegal, clandestine activity eventually led to a Royal Commission, which in turn persuaded the federal government to transfer responsibility for national security policing from a discredited RCMP to a new agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), in 1984. Which didn’t end the RCMP’s problematic involvement in terrorism matters. In 2002, when the Americans kidnapped Maher Arar, a Canadian computer engineer, and sent him to Syria to be tortured, it turned out to have been the RCMP that provided the dubious “evidence” on which the Americans had acted. (Arar was later exonerated and received an apology from the Canadian government, along with $10.5 million.)

CSIS has had its own problems, of course. Whitaker et al. call the cock-up over the 1985 Air India bombing “the worst intelligence failure in Canadian history.” But Secret Service is not simply a chronicle of police scandals and mistakes. As befits academics, the authors are extremely judicious in their treatment of individual incidents, and the result is a thorough, even-handed catalogue of most of the major security-related cases in Canada down to the present post-9/11 world. Few would argue—certainly Whitaker and his colleagues do not—that there is no role for security policing to protect Canadians from foreign espionage and terrorist violence. However, what the history shows is that as often as not, it is the police who have been the subversives, violating the rights of innocent individuals and legitimate organizations whose only “crime” was to challenge the status quo.