Court rejects release of spy records on iconic Canadian politician

Canada’s highest court has rejected a legal argument in favor of releasing surveillance records on Tommy Douglas, an iconic Canadian politician who was monitored for most of his life by the security services. Douglas was a Scottish-born Baptist minister who later became the leader of the New Democratic Party and Premier of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Under his Premiership, which lasted from 1944 to 1961, Saskatchewan’s government became the first democratic socialist administration in North America and the first in the Americas to introduce a single-payer universal healthcare program. But Douglas, who is widely recognized as the father of Canada’s healthcare system, was under constant surveillance by Canadian intelligence throughout most of his life. Government records show that the now-defunct Security Service of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) began monitoring the socialist politician shortly before the outbreak of World War II. It appears that, in the political context of the Cold War, Douglas had drawn the attention of Canada’s security establishment by supporting antiwar causes, which led some to suspect him of holding pro-communist sympathies. The government surveillance, which was at times extensive, lasted until shortly before the politician’s death in 1986. Under Canada’s legal system, security dossiers on individuals are typically released 20 years after the target’s death. However, even though several hundred pages from Douglas’ dossier have already been released, many hundreds more remain secret. In 2005, Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill launched a legal campaign aimed at securing the release of the remaining pages in Douglas’ dossier. His campaign is supported by Douglas’ family, notably Douglas’ daughter, Shirley. But the Canadian government has resisted Bronskill’s effort from the very beginning. In 2010, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which inherited Douglas’ dossier after the RCMP’s Security Service was dissolved, filed an affidavit cautioning against the release of the secret pages. In the affidavit, the CSIS said that the release of the files on Douglas would “cause damage [despite] the passing of time and the age of the information”. It went on to add that “sources may still be active” and “some of the investigations are entities that [will] remain of interest for many decades”. On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed with the CSIS and ruled that the remaining pages in Douglas’ dossier would stay secret for the foreseeable future. The court refused to elaborate on the reasons for the ruling, but it is assumed it agreed with the position of the Canadian government. The latter argued that divulging Cold War-era techniques would imperil current intelligence work, including “covert investigations against terrorists”. Furthermore, the government claimed that the remaining pages in Douglas’ dossier contain “no issue of public importance”.

4 Responses to Court rejects release of spy records on iconic Canadian politician

  1. TFH says:

    Those on the opposite spectrum of the political sphere, on the other side of the world did also get monitored. But for a lot shorter time span.

  2. John Ferris says:

    Neither of the two political parties with which he was associated, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation ( CCF) or the New Democratic Party ( NDP) were “democratic socialist”–“social democratic” is a better fit. Given the nature of communist recruiting methods among dissident political movements on the left in 1939-40, it is not surprising that material was collected on Tommy Douglas then, while opening a file is easier than closing one.

  3. intelNews says:

    @John Ferris: Thanks for this note. Would you care to share your personal input as to the reasons why the Canadian government will not release the remainder of Douglas’ file? Have they to do with protecting sources and methods? And do you believe that declassification could eventually become an option for CSIS, perhaps in the next few years? [JF]

  4. TFH says:

    Intelnews must be in a strange position vis a vis the intelligence community. When it comes to old activity it might be viewed as a friend documenting old war tales, but when it comes to today’s or recent activity it must be viewed as foe

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