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Watching the Detectives Illustration by Karsten Petrat.

Watching the Detectives

Troubled by the recent revelation that the government is spying on us? It’s nothing new.

NOT TOO MANY EIGHT-YEAR-OLDS HAVE A FAVOURITE MARXIST, BUT I DID. Tim Buck was the leader of the Communist Party of Canada from 1929 to 1962. Eighteen thousand people once gathered at Maple Leaf Gardens to hear him speak. He survived an alleged assassination attempt when guards shot up his cell during a prison riot at Kingston Pen. He also happened to be my grandfather’s uncle. For years, Grandad regaled my family with tales of Uncle Tim and the government spooks who trailed him.

Like many postwar couples, my grandparents would host aunts, uncles, cousins and friends at their west-Toronto bungalow. They’d chat, drink cocktails, wear fancy outfits and take a lot of Polaroids. Though Tim often travelled (on both sides of the Iron Curtain), he always found a way to attend. But he didn’t come alone. One night, leaving my grandparents’ house, Tim walked up to a black car parked outside and banged on the hood. “Wake up,” he said. “Time to go.” No sense leaving his diligent government tail behind. 

My family loves this story, but I always suspected that it wasn’t really true. I thought that this shadowy state surveillance business could only happen in countries with far heavier-handed governments. China, perhaps. Or America. I was wrong.

OVER THE PAST EIGHTEEN MONTHS, Canadians have learned more about the activities of the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), an almost half-a-billion dollar, 2,000 person “national cryptologic agency.” It has been collecting records of phone and internet activity and sharing them with other agencies—including the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and foreign governments—all without the need for warrants. Technically, CSEC is prohibited by law from spying on Canadians. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. CSEC publicly admits that citizens’ metadata is “incidentally” collected over the course of focused operations.

This metadata may not seem like much. On one level, it feels nothing like government agents conducting cocktail-party stakeouts down the street. But these bits of intel can be used to find out where you are, where you’ve been, who you’ve been speaking with and who your contacts have been speaking with. The ostensible goal is to root out terror networks. But the plan requires collecting mass amounts of information from many innocent people, all on the off chance that something useful can be picked out from the noise. It’s a willful violation of the rights of many to root out the subversion of a few. And while the Canadian government has repeatedly argued that CSEC collects and uses metadata in a legal manner—and does so with Canadians’ privacy in mind—there is little transparency or public accountability. Canadians are forced to take the government at its word. And anyone familiar with our country’s history of state surveillance knows that is a problem.

SOON AFTER THE RCMP was formed in 1920, it took on the role of domestic intelligence, with special attention turned to leftist agitators. By the time CSIS assumed the state surveillance role sixty-four years later, the RCMP had amassed surveillance files—some more than one thousand pages long—on over eight hundred thousand Canadian citizens, residents and visitors. These were people of all ideologies and levels of influence: communists, conservatives, prime ministers, undergraduates. Nobody was above suspicion. “Think about all the spy fiction you have read and the techniques described therein,” says Dr. Greg Kealey, professor of security and intelligence history at the University of New Brunswick. “The RCMP did it all, often illegally—bugs, mail opening, breaking and entering, wire taps, informants, undercover agents, agents provocateurs.”

As the western world’s fear of communism grew, so did the scope of RCMP surveillance. The Great Depression turned millions of people on to concepts such as social assistance and the welfare state. This swell of left-wing enthusiasm pitched North America into an early red scare. In 1931, Canada responded by throwing eight Communist Party leaders—Uncle Tim included—into prison. They were charged with being members of an “unlawful organization,” a short-lived statute created twelve years earlier, primarily to criminalize the labour movement.

The RCMP, meanwhile, created a special intelligence branch in 1936 to handle the surveillance of Canadians with ties to organized labour and other “Bolshie” movements. Prior to the Second World War, intelligence files were opened on future New Democratic Party (NDP) icons Tommy Douglas and David Lewis. These files would remain active throughout both of their political careers.

The Cold War only heightened anti-communist paranoia. The 1945 defection of Igor Gouzenko, an employee of Soviet Russia’s embassy in Ottawa, pulled back the curtain on an extensive Soviet spy ring in Canada. Among those convicted based on Gouzenko’s tipoff were Quebec Member of Parliament Fred Rose, of the communist-backed Labour-Progressive Party.

With Canada established as a bona fide Cold War battleground, the RCMP’s intelligence section, rechristened Special Branch in 1950, began monitoring more people than ever. Its definition of a left-wing subversive became exceptionally broad: “Anyone who attended a peace movement meeting, a women’s [rights] meeting, an anti-war demo, the student left, many unions, many ethnic associations, or if you were gay—all were subject to surveillance,” Kealey says.

Not even the people in charge were safe. Pearson himself was monitored by Special Branch, as was Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Both leaders were among 668 politicians, senior bureaucrats and other public figures targeted by the RCMP’s VIP Program. But we’ll never know what information was gathered on the two prime ministers; their files, along with hundreds of thousands of others, were destroyed in a great purge twenty-five years ago.

In the early 1980s, amidst anxiety about RCMP overreach and abuse of power, Parliament passed legislation to establish CSIS as a civilian spying agency, in an attempt to increase accountability in the intelligence community. When CSIS took over in 1984, it inherited its predecessor’s staggering backlog of surveillance files. Either in the interest of good housekeeping or information cover-up, CSIS reviewed approximately 495,000 files and chose to destroy about 438,000 of them, including those on Pearson and Diefenbaker. The remaining files are locked away by Library and Archives Canada.

In theory, these files can be released when their subject has been dead for two decades. But as Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill found out, there are no guarantees. He spent over eight years fighting for access to the RCMP’s one thousand-plus page file on Tommy Douglas. In the end, he never did get it all. But the parts Bronskill did recover offer incredible insight into the security service’s method, or lack thereof. More an information dump than a deep analysis of Douglas’ activities, the file includes extensive reports on NDP conventions, and a transcript of him chatting with a peace activist about grabbing lunch. Still, the surveillance continued long after Douglas had become a pillar of the Canadian political establishment. 

“On the basis of information contained on this file, it is difficult to determine the full depth of  sympathy and involvement or influence, if any, [leftists, peace movement workers and the Communist Party] or their philosophies have over him,” reads a report from 1980. “There is much we do not know about Douglas and the file should be maintained in order to correlate any additional information that surfaces which might assist in peacing [sic] this jigsaw puzzle together.” Douglas, seventy-five at this point, had retired from politics one year earlier. By 1986, he was dead.

Canada is supposed to be too democratic, too genteel for such state-sanctioned cloak and dagger. But the fact is that we are not, and never have been. “The end of the Cold War did not bring an end to this kind of surveillance,” Kealey says. “And while gains were made in the 1970s and 1980s to bring it under control, in the aftermath of 9/11 it has all gone crazy again.” The threat of communism may have been replaced by terrorism, and technology has changed the methods and scope of domestic surveillance, but the story has remained the same. The government is spying on us. As usual.