The McDonald inquiry into the RCMP, after four mystery months of testimony behind closed doors,
is finally expected back in the sun next week. As a kind of prelude to the spring opener, last week the commission released a heavily vetted transcript of secret testimony taken Nov. 15 from former Security Service director John Starnes. What emerged was a glimpse of a career bureaucrat prepared to
take the heat for his political masters.
The matter in question was Operation HAM, the clandestine removal of Parti Québécois membership lists in January, 1973, from a Montreal office. Using a key supplied by a friendly source, SS operatives sneaked into the building, removed computer tapes and had the print-outs produced at another plant in an attempt to prove suspicions of foreign financing of the PQ and infiltration of the federal government, police and armed forces by separatists.
Starnes, who authorized the night raid, conceded in testimony that HAM was “a delicate operation which involved political risks.” But because a key was supplied and the tapes were returned, Starnes argued, it was not an illegal act. Starnes said he never told the cabinet because “if it ever became public, it would be extremely
damaging to the government.”
Starnes submitted that the climate for the operation actually was set at a meeting of the cabinet committee on security and intelligence in December, 1969. A note taken at that time by former commissioner William Higgitt reads: “RCMP asked to provide a detailed report on the present state of separatism in Quebec in terms of organization, numbers involved ...” Starnes, who said he never received specific instructions from the Trudeau government, nonetheless concluded: “If you are talking of numbers involved and separatist organizations, you are obviously referring to party lists.”
HAM, as Starnes testified in public, was a failure. The six-foot stack of print-outs didn’t prove anything and the documents were incinerated in July, 1975—at the time Prime Minister
Pierre Trudeau ordered the SS to stop surveillance of a legitimate political party. Details of HAM were first revealed by then solicitor-general Francis Fox in the Commons on Oct. 28, 1977, shortly after the government says it learned of the raid.*
Starnes also provides a peek at the siege mentality that existed a decade ago about the threat of Quebec separatism. Starnes testified that “the government had decided by late ’69 that separatism should be considered a subversive movement.” That the Security Service failed to anticipate the October Crisis in 1970 thus is a matter for further exploration by the McDonald inquiry. That the Parti Québécois is in power now is a problem for the top officers and ministers who gave the march-
*An internal RCMP report on possible SS irregularities, submitted to McDonald before HAM was revealed,, made no mention of the operation, although one of the authors, Inspector Joseph Nowlan, was involved in the planning.
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