Looking back

The case for security intelligence review in Canada

A police-sponsored campaign of dirty tricks consisting of break-ins, arson and theft targeted at left-leaning press and political parties (including one that was poised to form a government). A subsequent cover-up that was almost successful—involving a deception that included lying to a Minister about the campaignFootnote 1 —but was undermined by frank admissions of people who participated directly in illegal activities.

These kinds of stories might seem far-fetched and the stuff of spy-novel fantasy, but all of it is true. And all of it happened...in Canada.

Revelations of an RCMP dirty tricks campaign conducted during the 1970s—which came to light during the hearings and subsequent report of the McDonald Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the RCMP (1981)— led directly to the disbandment of the RCMP's Security Service. It also resulted in the creation three years later of a new civilian security intelligence service and the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC).

The story of how Canada's security service evolved is worth re-telling. In doing so, it's important to understand that there were key events that predate the McDonald Report. The RCMP Security Service's illegal activities up until the late 1970s were not isolated incidents. There were lessons that should have been learned—perhaps earlier than they were—about the need for changes in the way that security intelligence had been conducted in Canada. Circumstances simply reached a breaking point, such that by the 1980s, a civilian security intelligence service and a framework to hold it publicly accountable were long overdue in Canada.

For much of its history, Canada (and many other democracies to this day) did not have laws or a formalized framework governing domestic security intelligence. Since national security was handled by the RCMP—at arm's length from government—political responsibility belonged to the Solicitor General of Canada (now called the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness). Debates related to national security were a rarity in the House of Commons, well into the late 1970s and early 1980s, a point that is acknowledged in the Government of Canada's 2004 discussion paper on creating a National Security Committee of Parliamentarians.Footnote 2 Prior to the McDonald Commission's work, the appetite of media and scholars for the subject was not much better. The body of academic writingFootnote 3 and reporting prior to 1980 was meagre at best, prompting at least one Globe and Mail reporter to admit that “reporting on national security affairs in Canada... was not something that should be recommended to journalism students as a shining example of investigative reporting.Footnote 4

Canada's national security—how it was conducted, managed and maintained—was largely a matter left unspoken at nearly all levels of civic discourse. The inherent and obvious consequence was that an entire area of state power—considerable in its might and scope—was wide open and vulnerable to abuse. Parliamentary scholar C.E.S. Franks of Queen's University, writing about the importance of accountability in security intelligence, warned about the dangers stemming from a culture of secrecy. “Secrecy in any government agency,” he said, “ is an invitation to an abuse of power, and there is therefore a potential threat to free discussions and democratic politics.Footnote 5 Indeed, by measure of the McDonald Report revelations alone, there was a compelling case to be made that civil liberties and democratic freedoms could be seriously undermined in Canada if the security service's powers were left unchecked.

Security screening in Canada in the pre-Cold War years

Well before the events described in the McDonald Report, there were earlier efforts to better define the roles and limits of the Canadian government's intelligence monitoring capacity. Security screening of immigrants to Canada and of staff within the federal public service was the first area that underwent a review. In Canada, government-run screening dated back to 1945, immediately following the Gouzenko affair—a landmark international incident involving a Russian defector who revealed significant Soviet espionage within the Canadian and allied governments. In fact, at least one historian has contended that screening efforts had started much earlier, in 1931, when civil servants were systematically screened for checks against criminal wrongdoing.Footnote 6

Nevertheless, it was Gouzenko's revelations (and the Cold War tensions they helped spark) that led the Government of Canada to use screening as a tool to identify and suppress communism—a much-feared ideological adversary for much of the 20th century. The consequences of federal screening activities in this regard are well documented in University of Victoria historian Larry Hannant's book, The Infernal Machine: Investigating the Loyalty of Canada's Citizens, in which he contends: “In the course of imposing this security screening, the Canadian state violated the civil liberties of hundreds and thousands of citizens...the infernal machine was built without brakes, and roll on it did.Footnote 7

The MacKenzie Commission

By the mid-1960s, fuelled in part by a desire to modernize security practices at the federal level, the Royal Commission on Security, headed by Maxwell MacKenzie was established. It submitted its report in 1968. While many of its key recommendations seemed more geared to sustaining and even expanding the status quo as far as screening was concerned (it called for fingerprinting and security checks of every government employee), the MacKenzie report also included a progressive idea: that the RCMP's security intelligence function be completely severed from the police force. That latter recommendation caused considerable debate and friction between the RCMP and the government. In 1969, a compromise was reached—the RCMP retained its national security role, but John Starnes, a career diplomat, was appointed as its first civilian director.

It was a compromise that even Starnes would second-guess later on. In his memoirs, published in 1998, he wrote: “In my view, the MacKenzie Commission should have received much more attention. The government should have been much firmer in dealing with the RCMP's largely emotional and sometimes unrealistic objections to the idea of having a security service divorced from the RCMP.Footnote 8 Just as important, he was frank in his assessment of how this new arrangement did little to repair what had become a difficult relationship between police and government. “What I had not reckoned on was the quite different culture of the RCMP and the mistrust that had grown up between the...government and the force. I now believe that both the force and the government were to blame, though the latter's rather unsophisticated and dilatory treatment (of the MacKenzie report's recommendations) certainly worsened the unsatisfactory relationship.Footnote 9

The McDonald Commission

More than a full decade passed before the MacKenzie Commission's
controversial recommendation re-emerged, this time in the McDonald Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the RCMP. By that point, investigative reporting had found its footing in national security matters in Canada. Vancouver Sun journalist John Sawatsky had run several stories exposing RCMP misdeeds, culminating in a December 1976 front-page exposé in which he concluded that there was a cover-up that “extended into the upper echelons of the RCMP in Ottawa.Footnote 10

He documented how the RCMP Security Service had conducted a systematic campaign throughout the 1970s to subvert organizations in Vancouver deemed to be a threat—those espousing communist or far-left leaning politics. Sawatsky later remarked how, for the most part, the RCMP members who were involved in the dirty tricks weren't bothered by the illegality of their deeds. He wrote: “Illegal activity was accepted with enthusiasm since it was exciting, was good for one's career and contributed to the fight against communism.Footnote 11

More newspaper reports emerged in 1977, including revelations of how the offices of the Agence du Presse Libre du Quebec (APLQ)—a separatist newspaper—had been burglarized by the RCMP in the early 1970s. Also revealed among the RCMP Security Service's activities was the torching of a barn outside of Montreal, which had been used as a meeting place of Quebec intellectuals suspected of having separatist affiliations. Morale within the RCMP sank. By the time the McDonald Commission had begun its work in 1978, then-Solicitor General of Canada, Francis Fox, found himself in the unenviable position of having to make a series of disclosures about the RCMP Security Service's activities, including an admission that it had been engaged in illegal conduct for over two decades.Footnote 12 Mr. Fox's predecessor, Warren Allmand, would later testify at the McDonald hearings that he “felt very much betrayed...it appears now that I did not get full answers even when I asked them specifically.Footnote 13

The McDonald Commission Report, published in 1981, heralded a new chapter in the history of Canadian security intelligence. It called for a new civilian intelligence service, a Parliamentary Committee to monitor its effectiveness and an independent Advisory Council to review its activities. By 1983, when the government introduced Bill C-157, the broad mandate proposed for the new civilian agency caused considerable political debate.

As a result, the legislation was referred to a Senate Committee, which recommended major changes in a report entitled A Delicate Balance. It called for a two-tiered approach to security intelligence review. The first level—an internal review mechanism—was to be an Inspector General, responsible to the Deputy Solicitor General. This office would examine the CSIS Director's annual report and report directly to the Minister. In effect, the IG would serve as the Minister's “eyes and ears” concerning CSIS.

The second level of review—an external review mechanism—was to be a Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). This Committee would report to Parliament and its members would be appointed by the Governor in Council after consultation by the Prime Minister with the leaders of the Opposition parties.

The CSIS Act

In January 1984, the Government of Canada introduced Bill C-9, incorporating virtually all of the changes recommended by the Senate Committee. In doing so, Canada became the first democratic government anywhere in the world to establish a legal framework for its security service. This revised bill was passed by the House of Commons and the Senate in June 1984, and on July 16, 1984, An Act to Establish the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was proclaimed.

One of the most important legacies of this legislation was that it marked the end of an era for the intelligence community. For the first time, Canada had legislation that clearly defined the mandate and limits of state power to conduct security intelligence. Just as important, it created a framework to keep those powers in check—and that framework has stood the test of time.

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