For the sake of argument

Is the RCMP a threat to our liberty?

ARTHUR LOWER July 6 1957
For the sake of argument

Is the RCMP a threat to our liberty?

ARTHUR LOWER July 6 1957

Is the RCMP a threat to our liberty?

For the sake of argument

ARTHUR LOWER

Canadians have the habit of assuming that they are on the side of the angels and that Americans rush in where angels fear to tread. Consequently when something dramatic occurs like Herbert Norman's suicide, we usually take for granted that Canada is right and the United States wrong.

I wonder if many of us stop to ask what results we expect from righteous indignation. Do we expect to put things right, to change American conduct, the course of American action, American policy? Or are we just letting off steam? If we would only pause a moment to reflect, we would have to admit that however much indignation we generate, few Americans will be aware of it; and especially that the conduct of American congressional committees will not be affected by it. It takes little firsthand knowledge of the United States to make anyone understand that.

Hearsay has tragic results

So if we expect to influence American processes of government (except at the highest levels, where our government can make direct representations), we might just as well save our breath.

What we ought to do and what most of the time we don't do is to see that our government and its servants behave themselves. We are supposed to be a self-governing people. I wonder if we really are — that is, beyond electioneering and the outbursts on sensational issues. The Norman affair revealed to us an important branch of our government handing on rumor and hearsay to the American secret police. Being American secret police, the latter find it difficult to keep secrets. And so our officially collected hearsay pops up in a congressional committee, with the tragic result we all know.

Whose fault is that?

The circumstances are still fresh in memory. According to the press (and that is just about the only source of information for the ordinary citizen):

In October 1950, the RCMP informed the appropriate U. S. security agencies that it had a report from one of its secret agents mentioning Mr. Norman as a member of the Canadian Communist party in 1940. But three months later, the RCMP. after extensive enquiries, reported to the U. S. security agencies that its secret agent’s information was a case of “mistaken identity or unfounded rumor by an unidentified sub-source” and it was therefore deleting the earlier reference to Mr. Norman being a Communist party member ten years earlier.

—Canadian Press, April 17, 1957

Few more damning statements about an agency of government can ever have been published. Here is a responsible branch collecting any and all types of hearsay and rumor from “unidentified sub-sources”— in other words, tittle-tattle passed on by irresponsible gossiping—and handing it over to the American secret police, whence it later turns up in congressional committees which, whatever their purpose, publicize it throughout the world. And then over there in alien Egypt, a young Canadian diplomat, this strain added to others, takes his own life!

Again, one may ask, where is the onus of Mr. Norman’s death, insofar as the public has been allowed to know the facts, to be placed?

Why blame the Americans?

The budget of the RCMP has increased many times over during recent years; so has its strength:

OUTSPOKEN AUTHOR (COLONY TO NATION, ETC.) ARTHUR R. M. LOWER IS PROFESSOR OF CANADIAN HISTORY AT QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY.

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“Apparently the RCMP collects rumors. Then it hands this trash over to a foreign power”

Uniformed Budget Strength Specials 1925-26 $ 2.251,000 876 87 1935-36 6,165.000 2,364 136 1945-46 12.059.000 2.456 173 1955-56 36.557.000 4.569 362

What is all this money and all these men being used for? The RCMP has a fine tradition, inherited from old North West Mounted Police days. But traditions do not just go on: they have to be maintained. And now that the RCMP has become a universal police force it cannot expect to retain the dashing military reputation it had when it was a frontier constabulary. It is still in part a frontier constabulary, but it is also a municipal police force, a provincial police force (eight provinces out of ten), an anti-drugtratfic organization, and a secret police. Its service as a municipal and provincial police force brings a dangerous degree of centralization in our police forces. A government that had a long-range vision of popular liberty would not allow' it: that, however, is another story. It is as a secret police that the RCMP’s role contrasts most sharply with its old functions. Musical rides and brilliant uniforms do not go well with the habits of the investigator and the spy. When the police collect rumor from “unidentified subsources” and treat it seriously (fancy the stacks of it that must be filed away in Ottawa), it is hard to see how they can be distinguished from secret police in other countries, most of them of evil repute.

The gun wasn’t loaded

Yet apparently rumor-collecting is one of the RCMP’s functions. Worse still, it hands this trash over to representatives of a foreign power, for them to use at their discretion. Surely such activity is more dangerous to our liberty than the threats it is supposed to guard us against.

Those who have watched Canadian affairs over the years will probably date the beginnings of the decline of the RCMP from the depression years.

1 remember calling at a government building in Ottawa during the Imperial Economic Conference of 1932. The old ex-Dominion policeman on the door was all dressed up in a new uniform, with a heavy revolver at his side. I said to him: “You look very dangerous with that weapon; have you tried it on anybody yet?” “No,” he replied, drawing it from its holster, “as a matter of fact, they didn't issue us any ammunition for it.” We both laughed.

One can still laugh with the policeman in most of our Ottawa buildings, for the pleasant old atmosphere of confidence is by no means gone. And, moreover, w'hen one has official business with the RCMP, he is invariably politely and correctly received. But an incident from the later 1930s perhaps indicates the trend. A friend of mine told me at the time that he had been meeting with a few other men—privately—in a municipal building to discuss foreign affairs. One day the janitor said to him that a Mountie had been round inviting him to listen at the keyhole, as it were, on the allegation that “those fellows are Communists.” So apparently things were changing.

And then came the emphasis on “security” during the war, with the people ready to give unlimited elbow-room to the military and the police, because of

the threats from Hitler. With the atmosphere like that, there came at the end of the war the famous “spy trials" which predisposed a large section of the public to decisive action against suspects. After those held for inquisition had been kept

incommunicado for some time, a man said to me. "They must be guilty or they wouldn’t have arrested them." How much did it mean to him that one of the finest of our traditions is that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty?

Has all this tempted us Canadians to begin taking leaves out of Nazi and Communist books?

1 once had an interview with the Russian Ogpu. at that time the name for their secret police: two, in fact; one at a station

halfway between Moscow and Leningrad about two in the morning, the other on the Finnish border. I certainly would not wish to fall into the clutches of those lads!

We do not expect our federal police to turn into an Ogpu. But we would be poor citizens if we were not aware of the direction in which a police force leads which is maintained mainly for political purposes. It leads, and perhaps speedily, toward the dreaded secret police of these older, un free countries, and it must be pretty hard to keep out of it all the practices associated with such forces — the secret interviews, the agents provocateurs, the spies, the midnight arrests, the inquisitions. And these must sooner or later drag in their wake the whole list of horrors—the cruelties to extort confessions (that is, torture), the brain-washing, all that against which we are ready to fight. Wouldn’t it be ironic if we found ourselves fighting for it? “Can it happen here?” Of course it can, and the greater our ignorance of what goes on behind closed official doors, the more quickly it is likely to happen.

Here again, it is possible that the tradition of the RCMP may be our salvation and its own, for in its origins it was more a military than a police force. We assume that our soldiers are citizens, imbued with the same attitude as the rest of us, and I think we are right. Let us hope that we can make the same assumption about our political police.

But then, there is this business of collecting hearsay. Is that soldierly conduct? Collecting careless and casual hearsay? From “unidentified sub-sources”? Then, inability to trace the rumor, casualness in reporting it to the American political police. Meanwhile an able servant of

Canadian diplomacy takes his own life.

One wonders how far this tie-in with the FBI has gone. Have our police been playing the same subordinate role to it as our Teamsters’ unions have played to Dave Beck? One gets used to labor unions being controlled from across the line but it comes with something of a shock to think the same sort of thing may be happening to branches of our government.

But, says the reader, the RCMP is under the minister of justice, a responsible cabinet minister. The answer to that one is simple: many modern branches of government, thanks to the complexity of their affairs, are virtually laws unto themselves and ministerial interference can neither be frequent nor effective. It would take a strong minister indeed to assert himself against the organized police. Let him. for example, try to cut down the money they demand from him! As often as not, now that bureaucracy has grown so portentously, the servant of the state, whether civil servant or policeman, is not in reality so much responsible to the minister as the minister is to him. So the RCMP, a powerful and wealthy branch of government, for practical purposes can be assumed to be an autonomous body; as long as some general ministerial assent lies somewhere in the background, it is probably not far from a law unto itself.

The sooner this state of things is ended the better. Only a vigilant public opinion, reflected in genuine parliamentary control, will end it. The sooner we citizens insist that our servants cease to disseminate hearsay under the guise of official duty, the better it will be for this country of ours, ir