CANADA

Watching the watchers

A $10-million tale of distrust and deception Ottawa will find hard to ignore

Robert Lewis May 25 1981
CANADA

Watching the watchers

A $10-million tale of distrust and deception Ottawa will find hard to ignore

Robert Lewis May 25 1981

Watching the watchers

CANADA

A $10-million tale of distrust and deception Ottawa will find hard to ignore

Robert Lewis

Judge David McDonald must have realized that his royal commission on the RCMP security service had arrived as an Ottawa institution one day in 1978, when he received a telephone threat on his life. Having already heard months of evidence about the pervasiveness of scarlet in the national mosaic, McDonald should not have been surprised that the Mounties promptly assigned him a protective detail, even while he continued his probe into who should oversee the watchers. After close to four years of study, the McDonald inquiry had the last word when it submitted the third—and final—volume of conclusions to the government last week.

It is a tale of distrust and deception which in the unravelling spanned two changes of government in Ottawa. One of the 150 witnesses, John Diefenbaker, died before the task was completed; another, a perturbed security service operative, took his life after giving evidence; a third, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, checked his executive privilege at the commission’s door, with the push-button combination lock, to testify in secret. By the time the inquiry winds down with the expected release of the reports in the fall, the exercise will have cost more than $10 million. Chairman McDonald resists any suggestion that there is a “core report” among the three in the barrel. “You know,” he observes, “what part of the apple people throw away.”

Despite national ennui and government resistance to sunlight, it will be difficult for Ottawa to ignore the fruits of the labor. They have bqem polished with care so that an interdepartmental committee of senior officials, charged with vetting the lode for national security leaks, can release the maximum. McDonald and his fellow commissioners, Toronto lawyer Donald Rickerd and Montreal lawyer Guy Gilbert, will then check the expurgated version to decide if they can lend their imprimatur to the publication.

The fabled force is bound to end up with stains on its tunic, but one thoughtful security service official allows: “It is important that we get it all out. We give a damn, because a security service can’t operate without support of the citizens. It’s important to assure people, even if they are a minority, that this is not some kind of secret police state.” Adds a member of the commission: “Canadians will be more free, or less free, depending on what is done with what we say.”

Because of hearings in public since the McDonald commission was appointed in July, 1977, there is little doubt about one central theme: starting with the October Crisis in 1970, there was a complete breakdown of communication between the government and the security service. At first, the sleuths in scarlet covered up their involvement in operations outside the law, aimed at suspected subversives. Ministers accused Mounties of misleading them. Later, Mounties alleged that ministers ordered a crackdown on the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) and other groups in the early 1970s, but looked the other way when confronted with the unseemly fact that security service gumshoes would have to break laws to get on with the job.

In the panic that followed the FLQ’s kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and the assassination of Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte, the Trudeau government concluded that the RCMP was not on top of the scene. Before the October Crisis, Trudeau had appointed ex-diplomat John Starnes as the first civilian director, with a halfbaked mandate to make the security service increasingly separate and civilian—but the force rejected the outsider. So in June, 1971, the government established a separate branch under army Col. Robin Bourne in the solicitor-general’s office to review intelligence gleaned by the Mounties and others. Again, the RCMP balked. The Trudeau government, Maclean ’s has learned, had also quietly established its own network of informants that spring to monitor Quebec labor unions and college campuses for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). It became known as “the Vidal Group,” after Claude Vidal, a former director of the Company of Young Canadians. Other participants included Trudeau staffers Jean-Pierre Mongeau, now an aide to Communications Minister Francis Fox, and Jacques Olivier, a former Quebec labor leader who is now an MP. The Vidal Group drew other support from the payroll of the Privy Council Office (PCO) and reported to Marc Lalonde, then Trudeau’s chief of staff and now minister of energy.

In the early stages, the PMO-PCO group proposed to trade information with the security service. But the scheme, advanced without the knowledge of some PCO officials dealing with intelligence, was aborted by security service director Starnes. He convinced Trudeau that secret state police should not be bundling with members of a political party who, in turn, controlled a powerful government.

It was a time when Bourne’s group was preparing a list of officials suspected of leaking state secrets, and which then-solicitor-general JeanPierre Goyer was circulating to cabinet colleagues and friendly allies around the globe. It was a time, opposition MPs charged, when Ottawa intelligence about suspected separatists was being passed to the Quebec government of Premier Robert Bourassa, aimed at forcing their ouster from his bureaucracy.

The McDonald commission looked into the Vidal Group, along with a hundred other revelations. But it concluded after testimony in camera that there had not been an illicit compact between the governors and the sleuths. In the end, McDonald did not even mention the Vidal Group in his reports.

One issue McDonald does address is whether or not the Trudeau cabinet sanctioned illegal acts back in the 1970s—and whether, in the 1980s, the security service can operate outside existing laws. The issue arose when the commission—over objections from government lawyers—obtained confidential documents from Trudeau’s cabinet committee on priorities and planning (P&P). A memo submitted a month after the October Crisis noted that there was an “inherent contradiction” between the roles of the RCMP as law enforcement agency and as intelligence-gatherer. Sometimes members had to “undertake activities that are contrary to law and which would prove to be unacceptable and embarrassing.” The security service wanted protection for members attempting to infiltrate terrorist cells who were forced to commit crimes “to prove themselves and gain acceptance”—say, by stealing dynamite and guns, or by inciting violence and forging documents.

P&P bounced the tricky matter to the committee on security and intelligence, also chaired by Trudeau. At a December, 1970, meeting the RCMP appealed for changes in the law and “immunity from arrest and punishment for [paid agents] who have to break the law in order successfully to infiltrate movements like the FLQ.” The public record shows only that cabinet deferred a decision.

Starnes and then-RCMP commissioner William Higgitt testified that the government, in ordering a crackdown on the FLQ, had to know that laws were being broken. Ministers vehemently denied the allegation. McDonald took key evidence on the point in secret, so details of who-knew-what may never survive the official edit of the reports. Former cabinet secretary Gordon Robertson, who headed the top-level “security panel” at the time, told Maclean’s last week: “There was never any decision taken by cabinet. The policy was not changed. The policy was—they could not commit crimes.”

Another possibility is that ministers didn’t ask because they knew what they didn’t want to hear. Says George Mcllraith, solicitor-general responsible for the RCMP between 1968 and 1970: “We encouraged them not to put anything in writing, for national security purposes.” Murray Sexsmith, a former deputy-director of the security service, told the McDonald commission that a minister probably couldn’t “live with” the knowledge that one of his organizations was “committing illegalities.” Added Sexsmith: “You had to advise the minister as completely as possible, and hope that the minister did not ask embarrassing questions.” Hiding the truth? “Yes,” Sexsmith replied, “I suppose you could put it that way.”

Security service hands are dubious that a royal commission composed of a judge and two lawyers can bring itself to sanction violations of the law by police-even though they believe that it is sometimes necessary in the pursuit of spies and subversives.“The notion of an intrusive, secret force is inimical to a democratic, Western society,” notes one security service officer. “But we aren’t going to be making those decisions any more. For months there has been a parade of people before McDonald who were nailed for doing just that.”

For those implicated in a series of potential illegalities—the burning of a barn, the theft of dynamite, the forced “recruitment” of FLQ informers, unauthorized entries, mail openings and telephone taps—the months ahead will be filled with fear and loathing. Under provisions of section 13 of the Inquiries Act, they have been informed only that they could come in for critical mention in McDonald’s reports. The list ranges from Donald McCleery, former security service operative in Montreal’s G section, which was the source of many of the capers, to Mcllraith and Goyer.

For the future, McDonald might opt, in effect, to institutionalize violations of the law by the security service. The Quebec inquiry into the RCMP, under Chairman Jean Keable, recommended in its report last March that the legislature formally adopt the terms and conditions under which intelligence work should be carried out. McDonald might further suggest a security oversight panel composed of bipartisan notables on the British or American models. He is certainly going to urge the government to get a grip on the murky trade and, reportedly, recommends the establishment of a civilian service outside the RCMP.

Making a civilian service accountable to the government or Parliament may be one answer to the legacy of suspicion between politicians and police. The McDonald commission record is complete with examples of attempts by the RCMP to conceal its involvement in illicit operations from its masters—and of masters looking away when things went bump in the night. Reflecting on the litany of lapses, ex-Mountie McCleery once observed: “It was the biggest cover-up since the blanket was invented.”

Little wonder that relations between ministers and the Mounties were marred by almost constant conflict. Jean-Pierre Goyer was part of a long line of ministers who failed to grasp the reins of the mounted. For example, he asked Commissioner Higgitt to stop plans for a rifle to commemorate the force’s 1973 centennial—horrified at the prospect that it could be used in crime. Higgitt was undeterred. He personally approved the design and special medallion on the butt of the limited-edition .30-30 Winchester Model 94 RCMP Commemorative. Today such a rifle, with a low serial number (sold originally for less than $200), fetches up to $1,500. Goyer, meanwhile, is back practising law in Montreal, wondering if the other boot is going to drop.