Deadly Allies: Canada`S Secret War, 1937-1947

by John Bryden
314 pages,
ISBN: 0771017243

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Glasnost At Home
by Lawrence Jackson

FOR HALF A CENTURY, our government has been deceiving us about Canada`s role in germ-warfare research. On our behalf, Canada has lied to the world on the same subject. In March, 1970, when our ambassador to the UN, George Ignatieff, told delegates to a disarmament conference that Canada "never has had and does not now possess any biological weapons," he probably believed it, but it was false. Canada was, in fact, a world leader in germ warfare research during the Second World War. We were also active but less prominent in research on poison gas. Suppression of details of this work, long after any military justification for secrecy, gives us no way to be certain it has stopped even yet, and no reason to believe authorities who tell us it has. This book, however, confines itself to the decade bracketing the Second World War and to the story John Bryden could assemble chiefly from archival records of that period. Under the terms of the illnamed Freedom of Information Act, authorities denied him access to a fifth of the documents he sought. Still, this is a book of appalling revelations, quietly told. For example: Grosse lie, a small island downstream from Quebec City, became the site of secret Allied mass-production of anthrax, tularemia, and other toxins. Anthrax spores, fatal if inhaled, can remain living but dormant for years, possibly decades. A 1,000-square-mile block of shortgrass prairie at Suffield, near Medicine Hat, Alberta, became the major site for field testing the Allies` chemical and biological weapons. Bombs loaded with anthrax were among them. "Large tracts of windblown land at Suffield must still be contaminated to this day." During the war, Suffield was run essentially by and for the British. They tested mustard gas on Canadian troops, at least 1,000 of whom suffered painful injuries. Volunteers were assured that no "personal injury is likely," yet the tests were intended precisely to cause and evaluate suffering. The Americans, forbidden such experiments themselves, were grateful for the quality of the Canadian results. The British, preparing to resort to gas if Hitler invaded England, also tested mustard gas on troops in India and Australia. At Queen`s University in Kingston in 1944, 40 scientists and soldier-technicians were employed in growing, refining, and testing lethal germs. A guard had orders to shoot anyone who might threaten the secrecy of this work. One of the most deadly products of the Kingston lab was botulinus toxin, "at least 5,000 times more efficient than nerve gas." A particle smaller than a pinpoint can be fatal. By one of the more modest estimates, there are 32 million lethal doses in a gram. Converted to more familiar measures, that`s more than 14 billion fatal doses per pound. Churchill favoured a massive first strike against the Germans with mustard gas, but was restrained by his chiefs of staff. Roosevelt, on the other hand, resisted pressure from his generals to use gas against the Japanese. Toward the end of the war in the Pacific, when the Allies feared that a desperate Japan might resort to biological weapons, Canada was ready to retaliate by dusting Japan with tons of powdered peat infected with bubonic plague. This was a refinement of earlier work by Sir Frederick Banting, Canada`s insulin pioneer. Banting was an eager advocate of research into chemical and biological warfare, and was engaged in such research when he died in 1941. It is entirely fitting to shudder at this today, but the involvement of respected figures like Banting in such gruesome work compels a modern reader to weigh this in the context of the times. The author, whose father was also engaged in wartime research, strives to avoid judgement. "Men were dying, and as far as the wartime scientists were concerned, their job was to prepare their countries for the worst war possible -- one of gas and germs." As for testing mustard gas and other compounds on soldiers, "risking a few for the welfare of many was what warfare was all about." Today, when Canadian authorities acknowledge this research at all, they stress that it was purely for defence. Certainly it began amid genuine alarm about enemy intentions. But research builds its own momentum, especially when conducted in secret. The distinction between offensive and defensive research, largely semantic anyway, soon dissolved. To maintain that distinction today is sophistry. In July, 1946, a boxcar bound for Suffield from the U.S. via Kingston and Toronto carried 2,800 pounds of botulinus toxin. This was a year after the war, and before any peacetime defence arrangements between Canada and the U.S., or at least any that became public. Shipping more than a ton of this unimaginably nasty stuff by rail through southern Canada and then, presumably, testing it on the southern prairies, makes testing Cruise missiles took like flying kites. But in the Cold War paranoia that followed the Second World War botulinus toxin had its attractions. The Soviets had captured German nerve gas factories but botulinus was vastly more toxic. Moreover, only Canada, the U.S., and Britain had an antidote. In the aftermath of the Gouzenko spy revelations, Mackenzie King feared that the Soviet Union would attack over the Arctic and that Canada would be the battleground in an even more hideous world war. He was not about to abandon Canada`s leadership in germ warfare, nor to tell us about it. It is ironic that Mackenzie King, who warned his cabinet that the U.S. had hopes of swallowing Canada, was the one to lead us into secret defence arrangements that do more to compromise our sovereignty than anything the Soviets might attempt. By 1986, when there were at least eight such agreements, a parliamentary committee was denied not only their details but their names. It is this lingering postwar secrecy that most disturbs the author. Here alone (except for a fascinating but largely irrelevant chapter on the incompetence of Lord Louis Mountbatten), he permits himself some well-earned indignation. Nations must have their secrets. No one would disagree that there has to be confidentiality in security, intelligence, foreign affairs and defence. But surely there has to be a time limit. Secrecy is anathema to democracy.... it invites irresponsible, even criminal actions if people can be sure that their deeds will never be scrutinized. Today, much of the world reels under an epidemic of good sense. As leaders and citizens of oppressive countries make astonishing, courageous, and irrevocable steps toward democracy, is it too much to ask for more glasnost in Canada

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