It seems Ottawa hasn’t always been the Sleepy Hollow of popular mythology. Spies, double-agents and counter-spooks stalk the cheerless Sparks Street Mall along with ministerial aides and sombre bureaucrats. Your friendly local mail sorter, unless he’s a Marxist or on strike, can be an agent for the Mounties, slipping from his sack letters he suspects might carry microdots with miniaturized coded messages. This, at least, is the underside view of the town described this month by senior members of the RCMP Security Service during the federal royal commission into the force.
The tantalizing details emerged as the Security Service (ss) mounted its public defense of Operation Cathedral—the opening and photographing of mail that took place for at least 20 years in violation of the Post Office Act. The Mounties made an effective pitch before the inquiry under Commissioner David McDonald for a change in the law that would legalize mail tampering in pursuit of spies, terrorists and drug smugglers. But what emerged, as well, was broader and more disturbing: the RCMP sincerely believed that successive solicitors general responsible for the force had no right to know about Operation Cathedral—even after the Mounties were asked last summer if there were any other illegalities in addition to a 1972 breaking at offices of three leftwing groups in Montreal.
Keeping the higher-ups in the dark is a pattern emerging in the series of allegations of wrongdoings that have been made against members of the ss. The top officers knew they were approving possible illegalities, so the burden of their instructions to the troops was: don’t get caught. This approach dovetailed neatly with the desire not to know on the part of the government, which at the time was more concerned about the success of stopping terrorism— and perhaps the Parti Québécois—than the means. During the early 1970s, ministers and senior officials responsible for security and intelligence, in the words of one officer, regarded counterintelligence as “a nasty business about which you didn’t ask, so you wouldn't have to be told any lies.” Prime Minister Trudeau enshrined that attitude as government policy, even before the McDonald commission was fully underway, when he insisted: “Politicians who happen to form the government should be kept in ignorance of the day-to-day operations of the police force and even of the Security Service.” On the basis of the evidence so far, at least, achieving ignorance was blissfully easy.
Since the series of operations by the ss became public, Solicitor General Francis Fox repeatedly has pleaded that the Mounties should not be judged harshly since they thought they were merely doing their job. Fox’s embrace of the RCMP, however, is striking in light of the hostility that has existed between the Trudeau government and the force. Only last year then-solicitor general Warren Allmand had to force then-RCMP commissioner Maurice Nadon to show him an advance copy of a statement the Mountie planned to deliver on gun control before a parliamentary committee. JeanPierre Goyer, Allmand’s predecessor, was acutely mistrustful of the force. Once, for example, Goyer ordered the RCMP to cancel a plan to have the Winchester company issue a model of the RCMP’S rifle as a Centennial Year project, out of fear that the symbol might end up as the weapon in a shooting. Then-commissioner William Higgitt, however, ignored the instruction and the gun was issued.
One conceivable reason for the government’s support of the RCMP is that, in the Mounties’ voluminous personal files on politicians, there is damaging information on members of the government. The Featherbed file, for example, is said to contain embarrassing information on the private pastimes of senior ministers. A more obvious reason for the government’s stance is the Quebec inquiry by Jean Keable, which Ottawa views as a PQ plot to get the RCMP out of their province.
With this concern as the motivation. Fox has challenged—so far unsuccessfully— the right of the Keable inquiry to expand its probe beyond individual illegalities in Quebec into a full-scale examination of RCMP training procedures and methods of operation and sources. Fox argues that the entire RCMP file is open to the McDonald commission, which will be able to plumb the depths of the Security Service. On the basis of its first two weeks of hearings, however, the McDonald commission had in no way indicated a mastery of its subject-matter. Crucial questions are continually glossed over or reserved for secret hearings. Even on minor points the commission, which rejected a bid by civil liberties groups and the Conservative Party to have lawyers present, shows a surprising lack of curiosity.
Far more substantial questions await the commission in the months ahead, among them:
• Since no Ottawa officers and no independent agency authorized ss activities in Quebec, how did operatives distinguish between terrorists and subversives, on the one hand, and legitimate dissenters? The testimony of RCMP officers so far has skipped rather facilely from suspected bomb planters and plane hijackers to members of the separatist parties, as if they are all one and the same.
• What did then-ss director John Starnes tell Goyer and/or Trudeau—if anything— after he learned about the breakin at offices of l’Agence de Presse Libre du Québec in 1972? Starnes had cabled the Montreal office to say he was “considerably irritated” not to have been informed in advance and that, had he known of RCMP involvement, he “probably would have urged a far more passive role for the RCMP . . . especially since it was being timed to take place so soon before the federal election” later that month. So far it is not clear what Starnes did—if he did anything—
when he received a full report on the case.
• What role did the Department of National Defense play in domestic counterintelligence and disruptive tactics in the early Seventies? The army certainly conducted surveillance on college campuses, and is believed to have compiled information on labor groups in Quebec and British
Columbia. The man who was responsible for some of those activities was Brig.-General Walter Dabros, now head of army intelligence and security. From August 1971 to July 1973 Dabros worked in a special office created in the solicitor general’s department, the police and security planning and analysis group headed up by retired colonel Robin Bourne. Bourne and Dabros now, respectively, are in charge of the domestic and foreign intelligence committees of the federal cabinet and are close friends who served together at the Petawawa, Ontario, military camp. Both also did separate tours of duty in West Germany, a key Western intelligence post, where Starnes also served as ambassador át a different period.
It is not clear whether McDonald’s mandate will allow him to explore the BourneDabros-Starnes connections, although McDonald told Maclean’s in a recent interview: “If we find some other agency that is doing some security work, we would have to know something about that to make recommendations.”
Meanwhile Garth Hampson, singer with the RCMP band, stands in the klieg lights on stage to dispense their annual Christmas cheer at the National Arts Centre on a sunny afternoon as the symbol of all that is right with the national police force. He thanks the public for their “patient and understanding support” despite what “the journalists” have been writing. The full house of band fans breaks into warm applause and Hampson—a handsome, latter-day Nelson Eddy— lapses into a medley of Bing Crosby hits as artificial snow tumbles down against a skyblue background. Behind him is a 40 member troupe in scarlet tunics. After the show the members of the band jump down off the stage and pass out candy canes to the delighted children.
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