Gregory S Kealey
Someone once remarked that Canada was the only country in the world which regarded its secret police as a national icon. While perhaps true until the 1970s, the extraordinary exposes of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Security Service (SS) crimes and wrongdoing revealed by the McDonald and Keable Commissions not only ruined the Force’s undoubtedly overblown reputation but also led to the creation of the civilian Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to replace the old SS. The creation of CSIS in 1984 was only one in a series of important legislative changes that have transformed Canadian research in general and in particular have made possible serious research on our intelligence and national security history.
On I July 1983 the Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) Act, which had been passed by the House of Commons and received royal assent a year earlier, was proclaimed. While research was not the focus of the legislation at all, it nevertheless had far reaching effects that have almost totally changed the nature of scholarly research in government records in Canada. Under the Access to Infonllation Act any Canadian citizen, permanent resident, ‘or another individual present in Canada,” or a corporation present in Canada can apply to any federal government institution for the release of any information held by the agency for an initial fee of $5. For no fee an individual or someone acting with the permission and authorization of the individual can do the same with regards to govemment infonllation about her/himself under the Privacy Act.1
The third piece of legislation was the new National Archives of Canada (NAC) Act, which was debated and passed in 1986 and received Royal assent in 1987. This Act passed by the Mulroney Government replaced the archaic 1912 legislation under which the old Public Archives had operated. Its major contribution to Canadian scholarship lies in the specific and almost complete power that it gives the National Archivist to control the retention or destruction of government records. Section 5.( 1) gives this power to the National Archivist:
No record under the control of a government institution and no ministerial record, whether or not it is surplus property of a government institution, shall be disposed of without the consent of the Archivist.2
Section 6(1) then mandates the transfer of such records as are designated by the National Archivist to the NAC in accordance with agreed upon retention and transfer schedules.
The powers given to the National Archivist in the Act are particularly sweeping and impressive given that the draft legislation introduced in February 1986 had possessed two huge loop holes which would have rendered the legislation almost useless in any controversial area. Bill C95 had an additional clause in each of Sections 5 and 6, which disappeared from the final Act. Section 5.(6) would have removed “records containing information that was received in confidence from the government of a foreign state or institution thereof’ from the Archivist’s mandate and Section 6.(4) would have restricted the transfer of records “that contains information related to the conduct of international affairs, the defence of Canada or any state allied or associated with Canada or the detection, prevention or suppression of subversive or hostile activities that was obtained in confidence from the government of a foreign state or an institution thereof.”3 The removal of these two obnoxious restrictions represented a significant victory for lobbyists such as the Social Science Federation of Canada and the Canadian Historical Association, both of which had vociferously opposed these sections of the legislation.4
Until the McDonald Commission there had been almost no senous scholarly scrutiny of the RCMP SS. The literature on the RCMP basically consisted of hagiographic accounts written largely by RCMP insiders or fonner RCMP officers and a few left wing critiques that were, of necessity, based as much on speculation as they were on evidence.5 In many ways the most successful literature on the Mounties’ security efforts were the journalistic accounts by John Sawatsky and Jeff Sallot and the fiction of Ian Adams.6Needless to say that has begun to change dramatically and the last ten years have witnessed the emergence of a new learned society, the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS), a number of important and productive conferences, and a steadily growing stream of scholarly articles and books, which have begun the process of seriously coming to grips with the history of Canada’s secret service.7 There is not space here to loon sider this literature, but none of it could have been written without the changed research climate that has come with the A TIP and NAC legislation. Such an assertion, however, should not be confused with any notion that things have shifted from ridiculous secrecy to any significant new openness. Nothing could be further from the truth. CSIS has entered the new age of access to information and mandatory archival control kicking, screaming, and resisting every step of the way.8
Perhaps the balance between what has been gained with the new legislation and the immense difficulties that researchers still face in this field can probably be best demonstrated through an examination of my own research experiences. Since the mid 1980s I have been researching the history of the Canadian secret service from the 1860s to the beginning of World War II, but with special emphasis on the World War I and inter-war period, and especially on state repression of labour and the left. In this work I have made extensive use of the Access to Infonnation process, especially with regards to records now held by CSIS but also involving the RCMP, Department of Justice, the NAC and several other government departments.
I first became interested in this project when I was doing research on the late World War I and immediate post-war labour revolt. In the process of research at the then Public Archives of Canada I discovered the story of the withdrawal from the Archives of Royal North West Mounted and Royal Canadian Mounted Police records from the 1917-21 period. These materials which had been deposited by the RCMP in the early 1960s were withdrawn for security reasons in 1971 and not returned until the early 1980s. Even then they were initially subjected to the new Access and Privacy restrictions and only finally released to researchers minus exemptions at the end of the decade. The final release and a number of interim releases were accomplished only because of the active involvement of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada to which I made numerous complaints concerning the handling of these records.9 The intervention of the Information Commissioner included much mediation, but also involved the active threat of judicial appeal, which led to the last minute release of the records.
While these were records held by the NAC, the Archives on this occasion and seemingly on all subsequent occasions has been unwilling to substitute its opinion for that of CSIS in interpreting the Access legislation. For me and for other researchers who have fought over the years to get such records into the NAC this has proven a considerable disappointment. No doubt National Archivist Jean-Pierre Wallot would explain that the gain is that the records’ survival has been guaranteed and hence that at some time in the future researchers will be able to access them in their totality. To be fair that is an important achievement, but researchers expected rather more !Tom the NAC than simply preservation.
Indeed the whole question of access to security service records is, if anything, becoming so complex as to create real problems of appropriate documentation for historical research. Let me try to explain again by reference to specific research materials that I have acquired. Starting in 1985 and in co-operation with Political Scientist Reg Whitaker of York University, I sought access to the RCMP Security Bulletins that commenced in 1919 and continued until at least the 1950s. I knew about the existence of these Bulletins because a scattering of them are at the NAC in various politician’s papers. To our amazement CSIS and the RCMP could find only some of these Bulletins. Given that these were the major mechanism by which the RCMP reported on its major security efforts after 1919, this is somewhat amazing to say the least. Nevertheless all efforts by the Information Commissioner’s office to discover more than CSIS could identifY have led nowhere. To date we have published three volumes of these Bulletins covering 1919-1929, 1939-1941, and 1942-1945. A series of volumes covering the Depression will soon be published.10
These published volumes contain the documents as released to us by CSIS with numerous exemptions made in alleged conformity with the A TIP legislation. We appealed these exemptions to the Information Commissioner but received little if any further information as a result. CSIS in conforming with the retention and transfer schedules created to cover the agency by the NAC as mandated by the NAC Act has now transferred some of this material to the Archives as part of RG 146, the records of CSIS, which include all the old RCMP Security Service CSIS upon its creation. All materials in RG 146 must be cleared via the NAC access section before release to the public. A fonnal Memorandum of Understanding between NAC and CSIS that was entered into before any CSIS material was deposited makes this clear and, in effect, this means that CSIS makes the decisions on the exemptions applied to these documents.
Initially all materials released by NAC had to be applied for via fonnal access requests, a procedure at variance with normal NAC policy. Material so released to any researcher is now available in the reading room of the Government Archives Division of the NAC. Unfortunately, the relationship of this released material with its various exemptions to the original archival record is not clear. The original requester will know the nature of the request and will know how much material has been exempted and under what sections of the legislation, but this information is unavailable to subsequent users. To make an already complex situation even worse CSIS has recently opened its own reading room in its building, conveniently located on Wellinbrton Avenue next door to the NAC. To date the reading room contains copies of two exempted CSIS manuals and about twenty previously released access requests. Precisely what procedure CSIS uses to choose which access releases find their way into this collection is not apparent to the user nor could the individual who escorted me there provide any explanation, although he
thought that they would all end up there eventually. (For better or worse this particular replication has occurred because the NAC made a blanket decision not to collect records generated by access requests. In the CSIS case, at least, I think this was unwise.)
Let me summarize the researcher’s problem by using the Bulletins for 1935 as an example. The original and to date unseen documents are now part of RG 146 in the NAC. I have in my possession and will shortly publish the version released to me by CSIS with its numerous exemptions. A version, which I assume is identical to the one released to me, is now also available in the CSIS Reading Room. At any moment another version may become available at the NAC via some other researcher’s access request there. Once cleared by NAC in consultation with CSIS, a version will be made available to all researchers in the GAD Reading Room. Hypothetically that version may be at variance with the one released to me and the one in the CSIS reading room. Why? Simply because the fact that a different individual or individuals will be applying their discretionary judgement with regards to exemptions and because if there is a complaint to the Infonnation Commissioner a different investigator or investigators will also apply their potentially different judgement and interpretation. Moreover, as time passes some exemptions change by definition. Personal information, for example, is subject to a limitation that is lifted twenty years after the person’s death. A similar rule applies to cabinet materials and, under the CSIS Act, to records concerning “activities suspected of constituting threats to the security of Canada within the meaning of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act.” As this example should make clear, there is every possibility that a plethora of versions of the same document may be created over time, while the original sits in the NAC vaults awaiting the demise of an outmoded sense of national security that is based on a world long gone.
Another complicating factor as yet not mentioned is that CSIS has insisted that the file lists to RG 146 are themselves totally exempt. Only a series of complaints to the Information Commissioner (by University of Ottawa Law Professor William Kaplan, among others) has managed to get severely exempted versions of these lists open. Again, this is a situation that no researcher envisioned when we were fighting the battle to get this material into the NAC. At the time of writing not all of these lists have been released even in an exempted form but they are expected to be available shortly.
CSIS has also chosen to apply numerous restrictions to their compliance with the A TIP legislation that lie outside of Treasury Board interpretations and advice. For example, most government agencies indicate on the document beside the deleted material what exemption is being applied. CSIS contends that this is not mandated by the legislation and won a court decision against the first Information Commissioner Inger Hansen that upheld their view. An appeal against that decision was allowed to vegetate for a number of years before Hansen’s successor, John Grace, refused to fight the case. (Grace explained to me that in this and other matters he preferred to work by persuasion not litigation. Indeed he assured me that he thought he could accomplish more via luncheons with bureaucrats than by asserting the legal powers of his office.)
In addition, unlike other government agencies, CSIS refuses to allow an access user to view any material in advance. Instead a researcher must pay all the costs associated with the preparation and copying of the material before viewing it. Given the vast extent of the security archive this is a time-consuming and expensive venture with a low rate of return. Researchers without the luxury of independent wealth or significant research grants and much time should not enter this arena. The CSIS policy, which can only be intended to impede research, is in stark contrast, for example, with the commendable co-operation that I have received from the RCMP Access division, which has on several occasions shipped material from Ottawa to St. John’s to allow me to view it before making decisions on copying.
Having said all of this, let me again make clear that, despite the major difficulties that flow from the A TIP legislation itself, from the lack of an aggressive Information Commissioner, from the unfortunately passive role of the NAC, and above all from the neanderthal attitudes of CSIS, research in this area is now possible that would previously have been impossible. Moreover, things should improve with time as the anticommunist and cold war world view that dominated RCMP and CSIS thinking continues to dissipate. Without doubt a change of government would also help. The Mulroney Government has not distinguished itself in this area by ignoring the substantial improvements recommended by parliamentary review committees in both the case of the A TIP legislation and later with regards to CSIS itself. 11
Indeed my own work would have proved impossible to pursue in anywhere the same depth without the existence of the ATIP legislation. To date, for example, I have received some 63 personal RCMP Security files including those of prominent Communist leaders such as Malcolm Bruce, Rebecca Buhay, Florence Custance, Arthur Evans, Bella Hall Gauld, Jack Kavanagh, Jack MacDonald, J.B. McLachlan, Leslie Moms, Matthew Popowich, Sam Scarlett, A.E. Smith, Maurice Spector, etc. Other non-communist figures include J.S. Woodsworth, William Irvine, and R.B. Russell. I even have accessed the RCMP file on Leon Trotsky (only 4 pp.) and Comintern agent Charles Scott. In addition and generally far bulkier are the 50 plus subject files which include various aspects of the Workers Party and the Communist Party in various cities and regions, the One Big Union, the Winnipeg General Strike, the Comintern, the Profintern, Canadian Trotskyist and Communist Opposition groups, and material related to Canadian participation in the Spanish Civil War. Equally valuable have been lucky discoveries such as the previously unreleased internal history of the RCMP Security Service, apparently written as part of the RCMP preparation for the McDonald Commission.12 This document in turn led to the accessing of annual reports of the RCMP SS, which originated in 1939 and ran on through the 1950s. While all of this has been expensive and time consuming, it should be clear that it would be impossible to write about state repression without the chance of reviewing this material. Indeed the extent of this secret police archive will certainly affect the totality of Canadian writing about labour and the left as it becomes more readily available.
Is there a moral to this tale? The obvious one to me is that historians must be activists in the general quest for the preservation of and access to historical documentation. Historians and other scholars must work closely with archivists, civil libertarians, and others to insure that the NAC Act is enforced and improved and to lobby for further amendments to the ATIP legislation to improve all aspects of access to government infonnation. While research in the area of security and intelligence is obviously one of great sensitivity, the larger issues involved are crucial in all areas of our efforts to understand Canadian history and society.
- Information Commissioner of Canada, Access to Information Act: an indexed consolidation (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1991) and Privacy Commissioner of Canada, The Privacv Act: An Office Consolidation and Index (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1991). The best published discussion of this legislation is David H. Flaherty, Protecting Privacy in Surveillance Societies: The Federal Republic of Germanv. Sweden. France. Canada and the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 243-30 I.
- National Archives of Canada Act (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1987),3-4.
- House of Commons of Canada, First Session, 33rd Parliament, Bill C-95, An Act respecting the Archives of Canada and records of government institutions of Canada and to amend the Copyright Act.
- Canada, House of Commons Debates, 6 June 1986, 14063-82.
- For hagiographic accounts see, among others, Nora and William Kelly, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police: A Century of History 1873-1973 (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1973); for insiders accounts see Cliff Harvison, The Horsemen (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), Charles Rivett-Carnac, Pursuit in the Wilderness (Boston: Little Brown, 1965), and Vernon A.M. Kemp, Without Fear, Favour or Affection: Thirtv-Five Years with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Toronto: Longmans, 1958). The earliest serious muckraking account was Lome and Caroline Brown, An Unauthorized Historv of the RCMP (Toronto: James Lewis and Samuel, 1973). For a useful overview that considers much of this literature sec Wesley Wark, “Security Intelligence in Canada, 1864-1945: The History of a ‘National Insecurity State,'” unpublished paper, University of Toronto, 1990. For popular views of the Mounties see Keith Walden, Vision of Order: The Canadian Mounties in Symbol and Myth (Toronto: Butterworth, 1982).
- John Sawatsky, Men in the Shadows (Toronto: Doubleday, 1980) and his For Services Rendered: Leslie James Bennett and the RCMP SecuritY Service (Toronto: Doubleday, 1982), Jeff Sallot, Nobody Said No: The Real Storv about how the Mounties Alwavs get their Man (Toronto: Lorimer, 1979), and Ian Adams, Portrait of a Spy. RCMP Intelligence The Inside Story (Toronto: Gage, 1977). For the complicated publishing history of Adams’ novel see the “Introduction” and Appendices to the paperback edition (Toronto: Penguin, 1986),ix-xxviii and 117-91. On Quebec see also Robert Dion, Crimes of the Secret Police (Montreal: Black Rose, 1982).
- Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies, [address]; Proceedings of some of these conferences have been published see C.E.S. Franks, ed., Dissent and the State (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989), Peter Hanks and John D. McManus, eds., National Securitv: Surveillance and Accountabilitv in a Democratic Society(Cowansville: Les editions Yvong Blais, 1989), A. Stuart Farson, David Stafford, and Wesley Wark, edS., Securitv and Intelligence in a Changing World: New Perspectives for the 1990s (London: Frank Cass, 1991), and Wesley Wark, ed., Espionage: Past Present. Future? (London: Frank Cass, 1993), forthcoming.
- For a useful discussion of these issues, see Reg Whitaker, “Access to Information and Research on Security and Intelligence: The Canadian Situation,” in Hanks and McManus, edS’ National Security, 183-95.
- For a detailed version of this story see my “The Royal Canadian Mounted Policc, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Public Archives of Canada and Acccss to Information: A Curious Tale,” Labour/le Travail, 21 (Spring 1988), 199-226.
- Gregory S Kealey and Reg Whitaker, eds” RCMP Securitv Bulletins: The Early Years. 1919-1929 (St. John’s: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 1993), forthcoming: RCMP Security Bulletins: The War Series 1939-1941 (St. John’s: CCLH, 1989); and RCMP Security Bulletins: The War Series, Part II, 1942-1945 (St. John’s: CCLH. 1993). Soon to appear is RCMP SecuritY Bulletins: The Depression Years Part I, 1933-1934 (St John’s: CCLH, 1993), forthcoming.
- Standing Committee on Justice and the Solicitor General, Open and Shut: Enhancing the Right to Know and the Right to Privacy: Report on the Review of the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1987) and Government of Canada, Access and Privacy: The Steps Ahead (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1987). House of Commons Special Committee on the Review of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Securities Offences Act, In Flux but not in Crisis (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1990) and Solicitor General Canada, On Course: National SecuritY for the 1990s: The Government’s Response to the Report of the House of Commons Special Committee on the Review of the Canadian Securitv Intelligence Service Act (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1991).
- Carl Betke and Stan Horrall, Canada’s Security Service: An Historical Outline (Ottawa: RCMP Historical Section, 1978), acquired from CSIS via Access request 117-90-107. For a discussion and assessment of this document see, Larry Hannant, “Access to the Inside: An Assessment of Canada’s Security Service: A History,” Intelligence and National SecuritY, 8,3 (1993), forthcoming.