Historian of the city, politics, and society
Originally posted at activehistory.ca
Beginning before Confederation—but especially since the mid-twentieth century—political policing has been something of a growth industry in Canada. As a landmark new book on the subject makes clear, over the past century the federal state has devoted considerable resources to spying on its populace in an effort to find and contain “the enemy within”. Its targets have been a varied, but mostly left-leaning, bunch, ranging from Fenians to Quebec nationalists, labour organizers to gays and lesbians. By the late 1970s, the RCMP security service had files on 800,000 individuals, among a population of just over 23 million. An enormous secret archive, and a potential treasure trove for historians.
In a previous post I discussed how security services on both sides of the Canada-US border spied on countercultural communes like Tennessee’s The Farm in the 1960s and 1970s. Some interesting information about the Canadian side of that story came to light through a series of access to information requests I made for files about “hippies”. That experience got me thinking: why aren’t more historians—and especially graduate students—working with the files of CSIS and the RCMP? I asked the authors of Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America about the researching and writing of their book. Their answers highlight both the possibilities and problems of digging into the secret archive.
What led you to the researching and writing of Secret Service?
Reg: A long-standing interest in the area of security and intelligence in the Canadian context, and in particular an attraction to tackle a hard scholarly target, one surrounded by a decades-long wall of secrecy, one that thus appeared more resistant than most to the production of primary source material.
Greg: After working on materials surrounding the Labour Revolt of 1917-21 in Canada and then doing extensive work for Volume 3 of the Historical Atlas of Canada on strikes and other manifestations of social movements in twentieth-century Canada, I became fascinated with the evidence surrounding political policing of labour and the left. The exposés of the MacDonald and Keable Commissions fueled my interest in the RCMP Security Service as did evidence of curious behaviours re: the relationship between the RCMP and the then National Archives of Canada. Finally the passage of the CSIS Act, access to information legislation, and the new National Archives of Canada Act all made it possible to pursue archival materials that would not otherwise have been available.
Andy: I was conducting research on labour law in British Columbia for my Master’s degree at Simon Fraser University, and came across countless examples of state surveillance of labour unions and organizers. That surveillance was conducted by municipal, provincial, and federal authorities – sometimes in combination with private detective agencies which were hired by employers. The more I looked, the more interesting and historically significant this activity appeared. This was also a time when the anti-globalization movements were really getting active. And questions of civil liberties were being debated. Later, when I relocated to Memorial University to work on my PhD with Greg, I was hired as a research assistant on a book project that Greg and Reg had started on the history of the secret service. Over the years, my role expanded – eventually becoming a co-author.
What are some of the main benefits of working with the files of security services?
Reg: Security service records may reveal a perspective on the relation between state and civil society that is not reflected fully in other, more open sources. Sometimes this casts light on events that have been understood, or in some cases misunderstood, in terms of public discourse. An example is the experience of political violence in the name of Quebec secession (FLQ, the 1970 October Crisis and the 1970s era of RCMP “dirty tricks” in Quebec). There are conventional, even quasi-official, interpretations of these events that reflect partisan and ideological perspectives of the main participants, but a close to look at declassified security service records cast these events in a somewhat different light, allowing for a revision of the conventional narratives.
Greg: The Secret Service files provide an inside view on the activities and ideology of the RCMP from the ground up. They also provide a vast array of information on the massive data gathering operation of the state regarding the Canadian left and its presence in labour, peace, women’s, student, aboriginal, and almost every other progressive social movement of the last century.
Andy: Security service files tell us a lot about politics and policing. But when read “against the grain,” they also tell us a lot about the social and cultural history of Canadian workers. As I worked on the book, I was struck time and again by the amount of quotidian detail contained in the surveillance reports: what people looked like; where they worked and lived; what they read and what they ate; who they hung out with. All of this stuff and more was contained in the files.
Describe the research process that produced Secret Service over the past sixteen years.
Reg: Some of the research rested on previous work done by each of us. Many people contributed over the years, including research assistants at our respective institutions, archivists, journalists, and even some old security service participants who pointed us in the right direction from time to time.
Greg: The research in archives in Canada, the USA, and the UK was extensive. Much of the research involved extensive use of the Canadian ATIP legislation and some use of the American Freedom of Information Act. This, of course, made the research particularly cumbersome. In addition to the three authors an array of research assistants, primarily from the Memorial and later University of New Brunswick graduate programmes in History, participated over the years.
Andy: This research took me across the country and back again – from archives in British Columbia to Nova Scotia. It also meant working in the British Library in London, where copious records related to the early years of state security are located. In the early years, Canada’s security concerns and the means to monitor them were intertwined with broader imperial questions. Reports about South Asian radicals in Vancouver and San Francisco, produced by a Canadian agents working across the border, were circulated among officials in London and in India.
What are some of the difficulties you encountered accessing RCMP and CSIS files?
Reg: The main difficulties lie in the Access to Information Act, and specifically the exemption clauses. Protection of the privacy of third persons is a particularly attractive loophole for the censors; another is the protection of information received in confidence from foreign governments or agencies. The exemptions are not unreasonable, in theory, but the devil is in the details of how successive governments have interpreted them. It is interesting to note that even official commissions of inquiry, such as the O’Connor inquiry into the Maher Arar affair, have run into the heavy hand of the censors and had to contest exemptions in the federal court. Individual researchers cannot usually afford the costs in money and time associated with challenging ATI decisions through the Information Commissioner into the courts. There is another, unexpected consequence of ATI that is potentially negative for future researchers. ATI requests in effect create new records according to the terms of the requests. These ATI-generated records may be misleading in terms of how the agencies actually created and used their records in their own work.
Greg: It was a complex quagmire in which we were constantly breaking new ground and pushing the limits of the legislation. One needed to be persistent and absolutely ruthless in insisting that time limits were met and then one ALWAYS complained to the Information Commissioner about deletions. Those complaints ALWAYS led to the release of additional material. In many ways we were pathbreakers and not only were we learning how to use the legislation but the other side was also learning how to respond and the Information Commissioner’s Office was learning how to respond to researchers in this particular area. We came close to legal action on more than one occasion.
Do you have any other advice for researchers, including graduate students and non-professionals, who are interested in working with restricted files?
Reg: A key point is to know what you are looking for, precisely. Agencies can claim innocence if a request is not very specific. Scatter-gun approaches will likely yield little, and may well generate intimidating estimates of costs that are passed onto requesters. You have to be knowledgeable to approximate precision. Archivists’ advice can be helpful in this regard and even more is interviews with actors in the process you are studying.
Greg: Be persistent. Do not believe the people you are dealing with are friends. Being nice will only lead to further delays. Instead insist on your legal rights. Always push the limits. And be imaginative in your requests. Try to decipher how the bureaucracy works and follow up accordingly. Often it is like trying to put together a jig saw puzzle which has no straight edges and from which key pieces have been locked away.
Andy: Patience and persistence.
A huge thanks to Reg Whitaker, Greg Kealey and Andy Parnaby for their cooperation.
Andy Parnaby and Reg Whitaker discuss their book for the Federation of Social Sciences and Humanities
Access to information requests can be made in writing directly to institutions at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. This includes archives like Library and Archives Canada or the Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec (BANQ), but also record-producers (for example, police forces or universities) in cases where documents have not been transferred to an archive. There is a nominal fee of $5 for each request (more for reproductions), and while laws vary, typically institutions must respond to your query within 30 days. For examples of requests, see the monthly reports on access requests made by the LAC here. Remember than any material released after a request is available to other researchers, so this also acts as a list of some of the restricted documents that are entering the public domain each day.
Government of Canada, Access to Information Act.
David Johansen, Federal and Provincial Access to Information Legislation (Government of Canada, 1997). A comparative overview of the different layers of access to information legislation.
Gary Kinsman, Dieter Buse and Mercedes Steedman, eds., Whose National Security? Canadian State Surveillance and the Creation of Enemies (Between the Lines, 2000).
Larry Hannant, “Using the Privacy Act as a Research Tool,” Labour/Le Travail, 21 (Spring 1988), 181-5.
Patrizia Gentile, “Resisted Access? National Security, the Access to Information Act, and Queer(ing) Archives,” Archivaria, 68 (Fall 2009), 141-58.