RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas

RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas
RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas

The RCMP security service spied on Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier and federal NDP leader, from the 1930s until shortly before his death the 1980s. We know this only because Jim Bronskill, an Ottawa-based Canadian Press journalist, has waged a long battle with the federal government and its agencies beginning in 2005 to make public the files on Douglas which are being held in the vaults at Library and Archives Canada.

Bronskill used Access to Information requests and subsequent court cases to pry loose much of the 1,147 page file that the RCMP accumulated. A good portion of the material released has portions of the pages blacked out and it has also come to light that some material was destroyed. The federal government and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which inherited the files from the RCMP, fought Bronskill every step of the way. They argued that the files must remain secret to protect the names of sources and the RCMP’s methods of spying. This seems rather odd because Douglas died in 1986. The police last spied on him about 30 years ago and much of the material in the files goes back as far as 80 years.

Bronskill may now have reached the end of the line. Federal Court Justice Simon Noel ruled in 2011 that Library and Archives had failed in its responsibility to make historical documents available in the case of the Douglas material. The judge reviewed those files and provided a precise list of additional pages that he believed should be made public. He was later overruled by the Federal Court of Appeal so Bronskill appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which decided in March 2013 that it would not hear the appeal. The court gave no reasons for its decision.

File highlights 

I have read the approximately 400 pages on Douglas released by Library and Archives Canada in 2005 and want to share some highlights. The police scrutiny that began in the 1930s continued throughout the time Douglas spent as premier of Saskatchewan between 1944 and 1961. The spying continued throughout his period as federal NDP leader between 1961 and 1971, into his remaining time as an MP until 1979, and even into his retirement.

The RCMP paid close attention to anything that linked Douglas to the unemployed in the 1930s, and later to the peace and anti-nuclear movements and opposition to wars in Korea and Vietnam. The police were also interested in what Douglas did or had to say about the American civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid campaign.

The spying on Douglas occurred within a context of the RCMP’s fear and obsession with communism. To have the state label someone a communist in those years was equivalent to describing an individual as a terrorist today. It was a damning accusation and it was also the lens through which the RCMP perceived any progressive activity in Canada, including that of Douglas, who was incredibly active in a wide range of issues. Material in the files over many years indicates that the RCMP believed that Douglas was either a communist or a sympathizer.

The RCMP failed to make an important distinction. Douglas was a democratic socialist whose inspiration arose from the Protestant social gospel and British Fabian socialism. There was a keen and often nasty competition between the CCF and the communists for the hearts and minds of progressive Canadians. The RCMP was not primarily a spy service and perhaps its officers were not trained or equipped intellectually to draw distinctions that separated democratic socialists from communists. Or perhaps the police simply chose not to make the distinction.

Spying in the 1930s

Based on material in the files, it appears that Douglas first came to the RCMP’s attention in 1939 when he spoke in Ottawa to a group called the Single Unemployed Party. Douglas had been elected in 1935 as the CCF Member of Parliament for the constituency of Weyburn in Saskatchewan. The RCMP informant at the Ottawa meeting writes that Douglas urged the group to organize and to push their case with the federal government for legislation “beneficial to the unemployed and labor in general.” This is hardly a call to the barricades but the RCMP may well have thought it was. The file, dated March 1, 1939, is marked as Secret.

The allegation that Douglas was a communist or that he had once been one form a long thread running through the surveillance reports created for the file. The claim was first made by a man named Pat Walsh, who had been a former undercover agent for the Special Branch of the RCMP. By 1960, Walsh was no longer in the police force and was writing for a newsletter called The Canadian Intelligence Service. In the September 1961 edition, Walsh wrote about the founding convention of the NDP, which had occurred in August. He claimed that the convention had been infiltrated by “reds” and he named many names.

Chicago days

In that same issue of the newsletter, Walsh reproduced a September 1960 letter that he had received from an American named Kenneth Goff, who claimed to have attended the University of Chicago when Tommy Douglas was a graduate student there briefly in the 1930s. Walsh described Goff as being a former communist who had repented and turned to helping the American government identify communists. Goff’s note was on the letterhead of an organization called Soldiers of the Cross and the stationery contained a quote from the Gospel of Luke. Goff said in the letter that he remembered Douglas who, he said, had “attended [Communist Party] rallies on the university campus”. Goff added that “[Douglas] was active in many of the organizations of the Communist Party.”

The Walsh article containing Goff’s letter is in a report prepared by a Staff Sergeant Reimer and marked Top Secret. An unidentified reader, likely a superior officer, comments on the Goff allegations by writing “For what it’s worth” in the margin of the report. Nonetheless, Walsh’s newsletter containing Goff’s comments was to resurface in the Douglas file again and again over the years.

Privy Council concern

In July 1964, D.F. Wall wrote to the RCMP’s Director of Security and Intelligence about a letter which had been sent to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson containing allegations about Douglas. Wall was not just anybody – he was the Secretary of the Security Panel in the Privy Council Office. Wall’s letter did not provide details on the allegations, but other information in the file repeats the allegation that Douglas was active as a communist while at the University of Chicago.

Wall’s letter caused a commotion in the RCMP’s Security and Intelligence Office. The task of responding fell to W.H. Kelly, the Assistant Director, whose handwritten notes appear in the letter’s margins. One of the notes says: “I do recall that T.C. Douglas once appeared on a platform in Chicago in company of some known friends. Please have this thoroughly checked.” [The word “friends’ is often used as a coded word for communists].

Another note in the margin of the same letter was likely the result of Kelly’s calling or meeting with Wall. The note says, “Wall stated that he realized that he should not have asked for an investigation but a records check on TCD would be sufficient.”

Up the line

On September 11, 1964, one of Kelly’s assistants prepared a draft letter for him to send to Wall. It read, in part, “You will appreciate that investigations into an allegation of this type, as requested in your letter of July 6, must be carried out with the utmost caution, and because of the principal involved [Tommy Douglas], restricted to a very limited selection of resources available. Consequently, I have not been able to obtain information upon which the allegation can be refuted or substantiated.”

Kelly had the draft rewritten and sent the completed letter to Wall on September 22. It had been changed considerably. The new letter said that “our reply and the channels through which it will pass are presently being considered.” Kelly had removed the earlier reference to his not being able to refute or substantiate the allegations made against Douglas. Based on what Kelly wrote, Mr. Wall in the Privy Council Office may have continued to believe that the RCMP was proceeding to investigate allegations when, in fact, Kelly knew that his investigation had reached a dead end.

Four months later, in November 1964, Kelly wrote a follow up memo (marked Top Secret) to his own director at Security and Intelligence regarding Wall’s letter. Kelly describes in more detail the allegation to which Wall had referred — that Douglas “was at one time an active executive member of the Communist Party at the University of Chicago.”

Kelly indicates that the only corroboration for such an allegation is the article in the September 1961 edition of The Canadian Intelligence Service. He describes the publication as “a violently anti-communist, anti-Semitic publication.” Kelly says, “We have never asked the F.B.I. for information on this matter because of Douglas’ position as leader of a national political party.” He adds that “an investigation in the normal way was not desirable” and that “limited inquiries have disclosed nothing adverse and there is no criminal activity or subversive record on [Douglas].”

Kelly was later to become a Deputy Commissioner of the RCMP. Despite his obvious skepticism in 1964 about the continuing allegations against Douglas, they continued to have a life of their own in RCMP files. Six years later, in April 1970, another memo marked Top Secret repeats the claim that “T.C. Douglas was an active member of the executive of the Communist Party at the University of Chicago.”

Blacked out

The RCMP considered shutting down its surveillance of Douglas on a number of occasions but decided in each case to keep it alive. Here is one reference from a memo marked Top Secret in December 1977, when Douglas was 73 years old: “Douglas has been known personally by and has associated with leftists, peace movement workers, and [Communist Party of Canada] members for years. . . It is difficult to determine the full depth of sympathy and involvement of influence, if any, these groups or their philosophies have over him. It is felt, however, that 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 piecing this jigsaw puzzle together.” The words “File to be Kept Active” were circled on the memo.

Three years later, in October 1980, the 76-year-old Douglas had retired after his long service in public life but the Force was still with him. Yet another file described as Top Secret indicates that the RCMP review of the Douglas file for the years 1974-80, “reflects a lack of activity/association with the [Communist Party of Canada] or its fronts. In the more recent years, Douglas appears to have developed a close affiliation with . . .

With what or whom? We will probably never know the answer to that because the information is blacked out in the RCMP file and the Supreme Court of Canada has locked the door to the archive. It is supremely ironic that a man who lived such a public and transparent life during his long political career had the keystone cops spying on him for the entire time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

8 thoughts on “RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas”

  1. Thanks for this brilliant piece of researched writing Dennis. CSIS may no longer be watching the NDP but elements of government appear to be observing NGOs who work with Canadian mining injustices and with climate change.

  2. The fact that the so-called RCMP ‘security services’ have long been an instrument of repression in Canada is clear to all but the willfully blind. Over the years, the RCMP has not hesitated to engage in illegal activities when it suited the political purposes of various federal governments. While the famous ‘barn burning’ in Quebec (one notes the media did not report that crime as ‘RCMP Arson Exposed’) may be the best known example of criminal activity in the RCMP, anyone who looks into it will find a litany of such RCMP crimes carried out over the years against various groups the federal government doesn’t like.

    On the other hand, when crimes by government MPs and ‘friends’ of the government, are revealed, the RCMP drags its feet on any investigation, and sees to it that such inquiries rarely reach a satisfactory end or even get to court. Who, for example, has been charged in the now well-known Tory vote suppression schemes of the last election? No one! The media have carried many stories about wrong-doing by government MPs and appointees and supporters in the last decade alone, but real (as opposed to sham) investigations against top Tories and their friends, let alone any charges, are as rare as hen’s teeth. The last Conservative Prime Minister before Harper took envelops of unmarked cash from a murky lobbyist, but there were never any charges in connection with that! Only in the RCMP could a Baptist Minister from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, preaching the ‘social gospel’ be considered a greater threat to Canada than a prime minister taking a couple of hundred thousand dollars in unmarked cash from a foreign lobbyist!

    There are really two justice systems in Canada – one for the wealthy and one for the poor. For the wealthy, that is, those who have the money to hire top notch lawyers, the justice system ‘works’ because ‘money talks.’ For the poor, the term ‘justice system’ is an oxymoron because the structures and procedures of the justice system itself function in a manner that systematically denies justice to those without money. Is it not bitterly ironic that the RCMP spied on the man who brought Canada medicare, but just can’t seem to get to the bottom of government vote-suppression scandals, envelops of cash being passed to Prime Ministers, and similar actions that, at least to me, seem far more of a threat to Canada than caring for the sick? Of course, I haven’t had the extensive training in security required to see just how subversive providing medicine and health care to the sick really is. And I’m not wealthy, so I don’t understand how corruption at the highest levels of government is really nothing to be concerned about because, you see, it helps keep Canada secure.

  3. I can think of no elected politician in Canada who has done more for Canada in my 64 years on this planet. His politics were on the left of centre, but certainly he was a loyal, progressive, and accomplished Canadian. To have the RCMP following him for decades as a potential traitor is an insult to Tommy Douglas and all Canadians. It is important to Canadians that this spying occurred under Liberal and Conservative Governments. Since the Liberals were in power during Tommy’s political career, they are the main villain. So voters should remember this when they cast votes for the Federal Liberals who will pass themselves off as civil libertarians. The Conservatives were just being themselves, there is no surprise here.

  4. J. Edgar Hoover considered Goff to be a “psychopath” and liar. Goff claimed to have been a Communist Party member from 1936 to 1939, although it is not certain he ever was a member. But Douglas was in Chicago in 1931, when Goff was 16. Goff was from Wisconsin and did not come to Chicago until after 1935, when Douglas was an MP in Ottawa.

    Goff’s views were so outrageous, even by the standards of the time, that he had little influence in the anti-Communist movement and became active in racist circles. He self-published numerous books that reflect an extremely paranoid view. (Titles include The Flying Saucers: From Russia, from Another Planet, from God (1955), Reds Launch War to Destroy White Race. Among other things, he claimed that Frank Sinatra was a Communist.

    One of the two men whose rallies Goff claimed Douglas attended, Morris Childs, became an FBI informant in 1952. If Douglas had attended Communist Party rallies, it is possible he would have told the FBI.

    It is shocking that the Canadian government would give Goff’s claims any credibility at all.

    1. Thanks Nick. So James Goff, the person who accused Tommy Douglas of being a communist, was actually an American white supremacist and so weird that even J. Edgar Hoover described him as being a “psychopath”. Yet Goff’s accusations formed the basis of a long trail of entries in the RCMP security file on Douglas. The people in Canada who published the accusation by Goff (Ron Gostick and Patrick Walsh) belonged to a shadowy organization called the Canadian Intelligence Service. Gostick, who had been born in Alberta, was an avid member of the Social Credit and Walsh claimed to have been an undercover RCMP officer in a previous life. Both were rabidly anti-communist and anti-Semitic and both were white supremacists. It all sounds like something out of Franz Kafka.

  5. I am the son of Doug Tomlinson, a proud social activist and a member of the Communist Party of Canada. The years of RCMP harassment have affected me adversely. In a free country one would think that political differences should be accepted and as long as no laws are broken, and that you should be free to do so. Not so if you differ from the status quo. You become a non desirable and are targeted. During the Vietnam War my father ran an underground of draft dodgers. Lots of men after returning on leave fled to Canada and ended up in our basement

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