The men who knew too much

Robert Lewis November 24 1980

The men who knew too much

Robert Lewis November 24 1980

The men who knew too much


Robert Lewis

As the McDonald Commission on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police entered its fourth year this summer, the inquiry into alleged Security Service misdeeds seemed to slip into oblivion with the ghostly inevitability of a ship going down in a North Atlantic gale—in this case, the storm over energy and the constitution. But while tales of barn-burning, dynamite theft and dirty tricks aimed at suspected subversives in the early 1970s receded from page one, the commission was at the centre of a series of simmering controversies behind the scenes. Among the dustups, Maclean’s has learned:

• An implied threat by RCMP Commissioner Robert Simmonds that he would resign unless the inquiry backed off plans—as it did—to publicly name members of the force suspected of misconduct. Instead, notices have gone out privately, to which some officers have responded.

• A roiling in the ranks about the length of the commission, which turned to rage after one troubled Mountie who testified before McDonald last summer committed suicide days later; and frustration which resulted in the heckling of Simmonds at a private meeting of the force in Toronto.

• Demands by government lawyers for a recent private hearing of allegations that Marc Lalonde, when he was principal secretary to Prime Minister Trudeau in the early ’70s, encouraged the Security Service to crack down on a leftwing news agency in Montreal, which subsequently was the target of a clandestine police raid in 1972. After hearing the evidence in camera—none from Lalonde—the commission dismissed it, and Lalonde, now minister of energy, flatly denies the charge.

The other matter of contention is the refusal by the commission and the federal government to turn over certain secret evidence to Ontario AttorneyGeneral Roy McMurtry, which he says is essential for a Toronto case against two Mounties. The details surfaced last week when the Toronto Globe and Mail revealed contents of an angry letter by McMurtry which stops just short of accusing the commission and the government in Ottawa of obstructing justice. In a subsequent interview with Maclean’s, in which he used uncharacteristically harsh language about a judge, McMurtry denounced Chairman David McDonald as “cavalier” and “just absolutely incomprehensible.”

Beneath all the sound and fury, signifying politics and personalities, the issue McMurtry raises goes to the very heart of the McDonald inquiry: what, if anything, were the Mounties ordered to do and who, if anyone, in the Trudeau cabinet and senior reaches of the force, said, “March”? Since the constitution charges provincial attorneys-general with the administration of justice, McMurtry submits that evidence bearing on “superior orders” is relevant to a case now before the Ontario courts, in which two Mounties stand accused of playing dirty tricks on the Trotskyist League for Socialist Action; that is, circulating a phoney letter in the name of a league member to the effect that the then-leader was nuts.

Under a deal worked out by SolicitorGeneral Robert Kaplan with McDonald, McMurtry was given access to secret testimony on operation CHECKMATE, an RCMP program in the early 1970s designed to disrupt suspected subversives in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, and including the Trotskyist League in Toronto. The actual files were destroyed by the Security Service when one member became jittery about revelations of similar tactics by the FBI in the United States.* The too-voluminous RCMP files, however, contained cross-references to CHECKMATE, and the officers therein named were called to account in camera.

What McMurtry didn’t get—what McDonald and Kaplan refused—was testimony bearing on whether or not the Trudeau cabinet ever responded to repeated requests by the RCMP in the early 1970s for authorization of activities outside the law; activities that flowed, in turn, from cabinet orders to crack down on dissidents after the October Crisis of 1970 and a wave of terrorist bombings and robberies. McDonald’s record reveals that senior ministers were asked on Nov. 27, 1970: “What should be done to eliminate inherent contradiction in existing security service which turns around the question of the commission of crime in the national interest?” McMurtry reasoned that, if cabinet authorized illicit or illegal acts, the gumshoes lower down could have had a defence. Pending that answer, McMurtry put off the case in Toronto. In his letter, McMurtry says the refusal by Ottawa “was not only wrong but also dangerous to the due administration of criminal justice in the province (of Ontario).”

Kaplan retorts that while McMurtry has authority for administration of justice, he wants McDonald to decide about “superior orders.” Adds Kaplan: “McMurtry is not the attorney-general of a unitary state. He’s not the only law enforcement officer with responsibility in this matter.” Besides, Kaplan notes, there is “conflicting evidence” on whether ministers authorized illegal acts, and he wants McDonald to decide.

*He can only hope the historical pattern doesn’t continue: earlier this month, the highest FBI officers tried so far were convicted for authorizing break-ins without warrants against the radical Weather Underground.

The telephone is no inhibition, nor is the 12-year-old boy in the background lobbing a football at Dad, as McMurtry responds: “The basic problem is that Robert has very little understanding of the fundamental issues. He’s very new to his portfolio and he has very little legal background since law school. He has to depend on very inadequate advice. A criminal investigation must take precedence over any other action, ineluding a royal commission.” As for McDonald, McMurtry continues: “He has a very cavalier, insensitive and irresponsible attitude about the role of provincial attorneys-general. I find his conduct just absolutely incomprehensible.” Kaplan jabs back: “McDonald’s posture becomes comprehensible when one understands the sovereign responsibilities of the federal government. We are not accountable to McMurtry, but to Parliament. McMurtry’s confused, so that’s why things are incomprehensible.” McDonald, a proud man, no doubt enraged, offers only a terse observation: “I’m just not going to comment on what some attorney-general has said to the press.”

McDonald displayed much less inhibition in the past. In fact, say his many (anonymous) detractors in government, McDonald has been too mindful of the press, especially in holding so many open hearings in the early days. The chairman’s theory is that publicity is the one guarantee that his final reports will be heeded. (McDonald plans a first volume in December, and under new government orders he must finish his inquiry by next April.) In the latter stages, McDonald has heard from senior government officials, like Gordon Robertson, former head of the old Security Panel, in camera. McDonald also has been more sympathetic to pleas by $l,000-a-day government and RCMP lawyers that testimony be taken in private—that is, behind a door with a push-button combination lock in a room high over the Sparks Street mall that is swept electronically at each adjournment.

Accordingly, when one witness recently proposed to testify that he had seen a document describing a meeting attended by Lalonde, McDonald agreed to secret sessions. He accepted the government’s argument that the credibility of the witness was dubious. Besides, the document, if ever it existed, could not be found, and the alleged participants denied attending any meeting to instruct the RCMP to crack down on Montreal’s l'Agence de Presse Libre du Québec (Maclean's, July 11, 1977). Lalonde told Maclean's last week that he had no knowledge of any alleged meeting and that, in any case, he had not ordered the Mounties to pull out the stops on the APLQ. “The first time I heard about the APLQ,” he declared, “was after it was raided.”*

One subject so far unexplored by McDonald is the impact the commission is having on the Security Service. For starters, clandestine operations have ground to a virtual halt. “The only people doing effective intelligence work in Canada,” muses one old security hand, “are the foreign agencies.” As for the morale of the sleuths, there is a sense that operatives have been “left hanging in the wind.” The suicide of a frazzled colleague brought the message home.

At the Toronto meeting last summer, when the straight-talking Simmonds took questions from the floor about RCMP use of undercover agents, the commissioner astounded his people by dismissing sources as finks. While the characterization fits many criminalside informants—Simmonds came up through the anti-drug stream of the force—Security Service officers resented the reference to people who, they feel, risk life for their country. Simmonds was heckled on the point and declared, one officer reported, he would walk out if the talk continued.

The October, 1971, APLQ break-in only came to light in 1976, at which time then-Solicitor-General Francis Fox dismissed it as an “isolated incident. ” With later revelations of Mountie misdeeds, the McDonald inquiry was established July 6, 1977.

On his return to Ottawa, Simmonds formally apologized to the Toronto troops. Later, with the Security Service breathing fire about McDonald’s plans last May to publicly cite operatives for misconduct—a prelude to possible criminal charges—Simmonds vigorously backed the plan for an RCMP court challenge to McDonald. Had that happened, Simmonds knew, he would have had to resign—and he was willing to go. Instead, McDonald reversed his plan in June.

It may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. While McDonald almost certainly will conclude that cabinet ministers heard only what they wanted to hear— in fact, they ducked the hard question of “inherent contradiction”—among the chapters in the commission’s longawaited report will be entries on the “failure on the part of the RCMP to render a full and true accounting to ministers” and details of acts by members “not authorized or provided for by law”; in other words, possible criminal charges against the police.