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

Steve Hewitt

Possibly the prequel to Lisa Stampnitzky’s Disciplining Terror that I’m not entirely sure I even wanted. Hewitt’s historiography of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police struck the very same chords of being both humourous and incredibly sad when it came to giving the “counter-subversion” activities of Canada’s first intelligence service an objective eye.

The story Hewitt weaves throughout his historical reconstruction is one of anti-intellectualism and right-wing fanaticism. During and in the lead-up to the Cold War, anti-communism was the raison d’être of the RCMP following the Winnipeg General Strike in its formative years. Aside from being in the thrall of their political masters in the Canadian government who were nominally anti-labour during the Gilded Age; the general makeup of many communist parties at the time was primarily working-class minorities such as Ukrainians and Jews, giving racist motivations to the otherwise equally working-class mounties. But while they had no way of knowing it at the time, anti-communism involved chasing a dying star. Their constant search for communists well into the 01960’s and beyond ended up leaving them wholly unprepared for dealing with problems that were fully Canadian in source. (Such as Quebec separatism, which they erroneously attributed to communist influence despite all other evidence presented before them.)

Even as the numbers of the actual remaining communists in Canada dwindled, to the point where there were practically none left by the agency’s own reports, the pursuit of communists never dialed down once. The loose and malleable threat of communism and subversion was used as ideological (and hierarchical) justification for whatever the RCMP wanted to justify; supposedly for things that would be problematic if done without such pretense. The focus which Hewitt uses for this is the espionage and infiltration of Canadian universities, making students and teachers the target of government surveillance in the cause of anti-communism. ... generating thousands upon thousands of ultimately useless intelligence reports, whose only practical purpose was as justification for generating even more useless intelligence reports. Only as the MacDonald Commission approached did the RCMP realize the complete lack of value these dossiers on university students had, and eventually reduced them from tens of thousands to only a mere five hundred files; but not before also purging the record of their own wrongdoing in the “dirty tricks” era of RCMP counter-subversion, the scandalous interlude of intra-Canada espionage supposedly similar to the COINTELPRO activities of the American FBI. Even Hewitt’s archival research could only find scattered references due to how effectively the record was erased.

But missing puzzle pieces is ultimately not the weakest part of Hewitt’s work. It is the locus at which this book is focused; the counter-subversion efforts on Canadian Universities, and sometimes even high schools. Part of this is simply academic conceit; it was only through this angle that Hewitt even attained access to the historical records in the first place, but the question of “why on earth were they the draw of so much RCMP attention” never ends up getting a complete answer. The right-wing and authoritarian preferences of a militaristic and hierarchical organization such as the RCMP are well documented, but simply looking at it as a means of established authority asserting its will on its rebellious young is a thesis that doesn’t hold up. When the RCMP first turned its attention to Canadian schools in the 01920’s, the universities were often just as conservative as they were—if not moreso. The “progressive” nature of Canadian youth is not a historical constant, undergoing many ebbs and flows largely depending on the economic conditions at the time, which the RCMP often struggled to keep up with if they were paying attention at all. Political power, while also an influence in the general direction of anti-subversion, wasn’t the source of the concern either; many Canadian governments were often scandalized by the idea of spying on the nation’s own students and children, as many cabinet ministers were alumni of the same universities and often outright forbade the RCMP from continuing this work. (Orders which the RCMP went through considerable effort to ignore.) Every time the government and judiciary did regress on those regulations, it was always at the pleading request of the RCMP, meaning the need and requirement to keep monitoring universities was purely a need that came from within the RCMP itself.

The similarities between Hewitt and Stampnitsky are numerous, perhaps especially when it comes to their thoughts on the politics of anti-knowledge, but there is one crucial difference between them. Stampnitzky sees terrorism studies’ inability to come to a proper definition of “terrorism” as a major problem for the security institutions who rely on it, as it leaves them prone for interior actors to influence them in undue ways that only serve to further individual interests and undermine national security as a whole. Stampnitzky sees this as a weakness to be overcome if governments wish to deal with an otherwise legitimate problem; yet Hewitt argues that this is not a bug, but a feature. The RCMP saw communism as a form of “make work project.” Each mountie was working to further their own careers within the hierarchical organization: catch the bad guy, be the hero, get the promotion. The problem was that the actual supply of bad guys was merely a fraction of the need which required them, causing the RCMP to go out and invent communist influence where none likely existed in order to serve their own ends. And in the cases where a lot of counter-subversion work was invested, but no result could be observed, anti-communist rhetoric was just one way of “covering their asses” from rebuke. Younger adults and vulnerable peoples were simply one of the prime targets for seeking out involuntary actors to play the part of the communist, as they would’ve had less means of recourse from the destruction of their lives should the mountie’s own career advancement end up actually successful. (Perhaps the most noteworthy case of this in recent times is the rather infamous Supreme Court of British Columbia case Rex vs. Nutall.)

The only point at which the “need” to target universities made any sense was at the very beginning of it all. When the RCMP was formed, university education was still the purview of the social elite and had not yet been democratized to the larger population. Due to how low their wages were, the mounties could not afford university tuition for either themselves or their children. In contrast to their American counterparts, the mounties who themselves held degrees were the smallest part of the force, and were the slowest to grow. Any time they had to interface with Canadian universities was fraught with frustration. They struggled with the complexity of the material and interpreted some hidden malice in the things they did not understand. They congregated their subversion efforts in the lighter subjects of the humanities and political science, simply because the technical requirements of sciences and mathematics would’ve blown their covers for all to see. Even later on in the counter-cultural revolutions of the 01960’s, the undercover police saw in the students a level of freedom which they could not enjoy in their own lives from belonging to a hierarchical organization. Their documents frequently warned of the subversives working to “undermine” the “pillars of government” they were at once a part of, yet disowned from; thus they worked to undermine those same “pillars” of government on their own terms, in the supposed protection of a government they cared for, but cared not for them. Envy alone is not what motivated the RCMP to bully students and teachers as they did, but it was what impassioned it to become as bad as it was.



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