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 Federal Court Justice Simon Noel ruled in 2011 that Library and Archives had failed in its responsibility to make historical documents available in the case of the Douglas material.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.
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.
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.”
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.