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Just Watch Us: RCMP Sur­veil­lance of the Women’s Lib­er­a­tion Move­ment in Cold War Canada

by Christa­belle Sethna and Steve He­witt McGill-Queen’s Univer­sity Press, 316 pages, $34.95

Spy­ing on Cana­di­ans: The Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice Se­cu­rity Ser­vice and the Ori­gins of the Long Cold War

by Gre­gory S. Kealey Univer­sity of Toronto Press, 286 pages, $29.95

It’s not para­noia if they ac­tu­ally are out to get you, and read­ers of two new books about the his­tory of the RCMP’s se­cu­rity ser­vice may very well con­clude that they are.

Christa­belle Sethna and Steve He­witt’s Just Watch Us ex­am­ines RCMP sur­veil­lance of the “sec­ond wave” fem­i­nist move­ment in Canada over a fif­teenyear pe­riod be­gin­ning in the late 1960s. The core ar­gu­ment of their work is that the RCMP saw the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment through the lens of what the au­thors call a “red-tinged prism.” Largely ig­no­rant of fem­i­nism and the au­then­ti­cally rad­i­cal de­mands of the women’s move­ment, the RCMP in­stead searched for phan­tom com­mu­nists in the move­ment’s ranks.

This in turn was part of a broader ef­fort in the late six­ties and the sev­en­ties to root out “red” in­flu­ences in the New Left and its at­ten­dant so­cial move­ments. The RCMP’s ac­tiv­i­ties, the au­thors note, should be of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to Cana­di­ans, as the or­ga­ni­za­tion in­vari­ably tar­geted and fur­ther alien­ated al­ready marginal­ized groups. More­over, sur­veil­lance data was gath­ered not merely for its own sake but for its po­ten­tial to dis­rupt, ha­rass, and oth­er­wise re­press those com­mu­ni­ties when the govern­ment deemed it nec­es­sary to do so.

While Sethna and He­witt fo­cus on a pe­riod of about two decades, Gre­gory Kealey’s col­lec­tion of es­says, Spy­ing on Cana­di­ans, ranges more freely. Forg­ing links be­tween the his­tory of the se­cu­rity ser­vice and work­ing-class Cana­di­ans, Kealey ar­gues that un­war­ranted and of­ten-para­noid do­mes­tic sur­veil­lance and, at times, out­right re­pres­sion have very deep his­tor­i­cal roots, pre­dat­ing the cre­ation of the RCMP and reach­ing back to the be­gin­ning of Cana­dian state­hood. These ac­tiv­i­ties have been per­sis­tent over time but have waxed and waned with the times, in­ten­si­fy­ing in times of war, in­clud­ing dur­ing the Cold War and pseudo-wars — such as the “war on ter­ror.”

Kealey’s es­says, while schol­arly and aca­demic in tone, are not be­yond reach for non-spe­cial­ists. They fo­cus in par­tic­u­lar on the re­pres­sion of labour and “sus­pect” im­mi­grant groups. Of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance, as Cana­di­ans com­mem­o­rate the end of the First World War, are Kealey’s es­says on the re­pres­sion of these same com­mu­ni­ties in wartime. These chap­ters raise se­ri­ous chal­lenges to the un­crit­i­cal claims, made too of­ten at com­mem­o­ra­tive events, that the world wars were fought en­tirely to de­fend free­dom and democ­racy.

Kealey’s es­says were writ­ten be­tween 1988 and 2003. It is some­thing of a mi­nor mir­a­cle that Univer­sity of Toronto Press agreed to print a col­lec­tion of papers that have been pub­lished else­where. But the force of Kealey’s in­dict­ment — and it is that — is greater when his es­says are con­sid­ered to­gether.

The au­thors of both works, and Kealey in par­tic­u­lar, stress that the is­sue is not merely pas­sive sur­veil­lance but the vi­o­la­tion of fun­da­men­tal civil lib­er­ties. Kealey pro­vides am­ple ev­i­dence of egre­gious acts of re­pres­sion, di­rected in par­tic­u­lar at or­ga­nized labour, by the RCMP and its pre­de­ces­sors.

In their book, Sethna and He­witt note that the redac­tion and out­right de­struc­tion of cer­tain records has made it im­pos­si­ble to dis­count the pos­si­bil­ity that the RCMP car­ried out more se­ri­ous acts of di­rect re­pres­sion against the women’s move­ment and other New Left groups in the six­ties and sev­en­ties. Sim­i­larly — in two con­clud­ing chap­ters and an ap­pen­dix that I ur­gently rec­om­mend to classes on his­tor­i­cal method — Kealey writes at length about the tri­als, tribu­la­tions, and, in­deed, risks in­volved in seek­ing ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion. As late as the mid-1980s, CSIS cited se­cu­rity con­cerns in at­tempt­ing to deny his ac­cess to records from 1919 and 1920!

In their re­spec­tive books, these writ­ers em­pha­size that the his­tory of the se­cu­rity ser­vice’s ac­tions must be un­der­stood, lest re­newed trans­gres­sions of the law and of the rights of Cana­di­ans be viewed as an aber­ra­tion.

I be­gan this re­view with a mild joke, but this is no jok­ing mat­ter. The RCMP’s do­mes­tic sur­veil­lance ac­tiv­i­ties, of course, were not unique: Amer­i­can and Bri­tish se­cu­rity ser­vices en­gaged in par­al­lel acts and com­pa­ra­ble acts of re­pres­sion. But the rev­e­la­tion of these ac­tiv­i­ties will sur­prise many Cana­di­ans and may even seem like an af­front to oth­ers. The cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the United States, where the pres­i­dent him­self has im­pugned the loy­alty of the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, has re­sulted in the para­dox­i­cal sight of pro­gres­sives rush­ing to the de­fence of the FBI and other na­tional se­cu­rity agen­cies whose agen­das they have in the past ve­he­mently con­demned.

Sim­i­larly, many Cana­di­ans to­day ad­mire the brav­ery of mem­bers of the RCMP, em­brace the myth of the agency’s no­bil­ity, and as­so­ciate its uni­forms and pageantry with Cana­dian iden­tity. But, in their re­spec­tive works, Kealey and Sethna and He­witt have es­tab­lished a dev­as­tat­ing counter-nar­ra­tive: that of an RCMP that for decades im­per­illed the rights of Cana­di­ans whose se­cu­rity it pur­ported to de­fend. Re­viewed by Gra­ham Broad, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­tory at King’s Univer­sity Col­lege at Western Univer­sity.

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