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Spying 101: The RCMP's Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917-1997

by Steve Hewitt
295 pages,
ISBN: 0802041493


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Spies on Campus
by Martin Loney

Spying on Canadian students and faculty has a long history, going back, according to Hewitt's well-researched study, to the First World War. What is striking is the ability of the RCMP to continue to secure significant resources for surveillance independently of any evidence of widespread subversion or the successful targeting of universities by hostile foreign powers. The political landscape shifted dramatically in the period Hewitt studied but throughout the RCMP stayed the course. Public outrage at RCMP dirty tricks and a growing awareness of the scale of RCMP spying resulted, in 1984, in a transfer of most surveillance duties to the newly established Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Canadians who thought the force had been successfully tamed and that intelligence gathering was now conducted under close supervision received a wake-up call when RCMP activities at the APEC conference in Vancouver made the news. Most media coverage focussed on the RCMP's pepper spraying and the arrest of peaceful demonstrators, but as Hewitt notes, this had been preceded by extensive investigation of the protesters.

The RCMP's National Security Investigations Directorate carries out its duties under the auspices of the Security Offences Act passed in 1984, at the time of the creation of CSIS. The act gives the force the responsibility for protecting visiting dignitaries, the pretext used to gather intelligence on those planning peaceful demonstrations in opposition to the visit of Indonesian dictator Suharto. The modern spying program included reading e-mail, but otherwise Hewitt notes "the Mounted Police employed tactics that were exactly the same as those of the Security Service in 1969."

In part the explanation for the RCMP's persistence lies in an institutional imperative. As Hewitt argues: "Modern police forces and intelligence services are large, elaborate institutions that receive considerable resources from the state. It is never in the interest of these agencies to minimize threatsÓ. Once the RCMP began to pursue subversion, budgets were established, personnel assigned, bureaucracies organized, careers built, and rationalizations developed to defend the past, present, and future." The threat of Communist subversion was real enough, a point brought home to Canadians by the defection of a Soviet Embassy cipher clerk, Igor Gouzenko, in September 1945. Gouzenko carried evidence of the existence of a spy ring in Canada that involved not only scientists and civil servants but also the only Communist Party MP, Fred Rose. The problem with the RCMP's approach was that in the absence of many obvious campus targets it cast an ever wider net embracing many who loathed communism but sought radical social change. In the 1920s those who attracted the attention of the RCMP included J.S. Woodsworth, the future leader of the CCF, who had been active in the Winnipeg General Strike. Woodsworth's lectures on the subject at the University of Alberta prompted one officer to ask the RCMP Commissioner whether the university's Board of Governors should be informed about the participation of university employees.

Not content with extending its reach to democratic radicals the force also turned a baleful eye on those who had the temerity to criticise its actions. When, in 1962, alarmed by reports that the RCMP had been recruiting informants on campus, the Canadian Association of University Teachers sought to pressure the government to curb the force's activities, the RCMP began investigating the politics of CAUT activists, including its then executive secretary, Stewart Reid. The radical sixties should have been halcyon years for Canada's campus spies and certainly they were busy. In 1964, for example, the force had files on no less than 64 UBC faculty members, and held "references" to a further 23. Departments with a reputation for radicalism were under closer scrutiny.

A 1968 file suggested that Simon Fraser, with its "extreme liberalism and free-thinking" could serve as a Soviet "listening post." The report identified Maurice Halperin, who had fled the United States in 1953 after being called to testify before a Senate committee on allegations of espionage, and Gerry Sperling, a political science professor who had visited Cuba. The report raised the spectre of students "under the supervision of these professors Ó innocentlyÓ drawn into the type of research by being given special research assignments." The report illustrates some of the problems the force had in dealing with the New Left; it could not escape the Cold War paradigm. It was also laughably inaccurate. The elderly Maurice Halperin had no involvement in the political upheavals that occurred at the university and (as he told me at the time) was principally concerned with making sure he got his daily swim. Gerry Sperling, who had studied the Soviet Union at graduate school, was scarcely an enthusiast. To those, including this writer, who knew him well (as friend, teaching assistant and sometime tenant) the idea that he could run a listening post was even more improbable than the idea that he might want to. Gerry (now married to novelist Maggie Siggins) was despite his manifest failings as a putative Soviet agent a very humorous and effective teacher. Subsequently, in common with many other social scientists at Simon Fraser, Gerry lost his job in the McCarthyite climate of the time, though to be fair, this had more to do with the enthusiasm of other faculty personnel for purging those perceived as responsible for disrupting institutional tranquillity than with the RCMP's spies.

The RCMP's eager, if ill-informed, embrace of the threat posed by the New Left continued into the 1970s even as the movement itself fell apart. The scale of surveillance is illustrated by the 1974 report on the University of Toronto, which ran to more than 100 pages with a table of contents, an index and footnotes. The decline of campus radicalism led the RCMP to extend its pursuit of subversives in ways that would ultimately contribute to a reshaping of Canada's security services.

Two particular targets, the Praxis Corporation, a research and activist organization, with strong academic involvement, and the Extra Parliamentary Opposition (which as we will see existed only in the more fevered imaginings of the Mounties) attracted attention. The occurrence of a fire at Praxis and the subsequent delivery of the organization's files into the hands of the RCMP would be among the issues examined by the Royal Commission concerning Certain Activities of the RCMP (the McDonald Commission), established in 1978, which paved the way for CSIS.

The identification of 21 members of the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition who had penetrated the public service was included in a report sent by director general of the Security Services, John Starnes, to Solicitor General, Jean-Pierre Goyer, in May 1971. It was another six years before the "blacklist" became public knowledge, too late for many of the alleged conspirators who had been fired. The Security Service was subsequently forced to concede that no evidence of any "formal" EPO membership existed; this was not surprising since the group itself was a fiction. I know because the RCMP identified me as its leader (though in truth I had met few of the other "members"). By then (indeed before Starnes' report had been sent) I had been dismissed from a position with the department of Citizenship. My superior Michael McCabe (who went on to head the Canadian Broadcasting Association) denied that the security services were involved, telling me in words which would have done credit to any Soviet apparatchik, that I was "psychologically unattuned" to the needs of the department. When the story of the blacklist broke McCabe conceded that in fact my firing was a direct order from the deputy minister Jules Leger. By then, effectively unemployable in Canada, I had returned to the UK.

Hewitt's research extends beyond the RCMP's carefully cleansed files to interviews with some of the key protagonists. He writes gracefully and with a clear understanding of the larger questions raised by the antics of Canada's tax-funded domestic spies. This is a book that sheds light on an unsavoury history and should serve as a warning for those who would entrust the protection of Canadian society's freedoms to the competence or integrity of the security services. ˛

Martin Loney was President of the Canadian Union of Students in 1969. His most recent book is The Pursuit of Division: Race, Gender and Preferential Hiring in Canada, published by McGill-Queen's.

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