The Praxis Affair

There’s a reason we put limits on spying within Canada
March 1, 2015

This is a cautionary story of what might happen if we return to the bad old days of the RCMP Security Service, which was caught disrupting and using dirty tricks against a wide range of unsuspecting groups before it was eventually disbanded, its spying responsibilities handed to a newly formed Canadian Security Intelligence Service. It is important to remember this period in light of proposed legislation that would expand CSIS’s investigative powers as well as the types of activities its agents, and the RCMP, will consider as threats to the country. 


Let’s start in late 1968, at the height of ‘60s idealism, when two University of Toronto professors, Stephen Clarkson and Abraham Rotstein, kick-started a Toronto-based research institute called Praxis. Their intent was to spark political discussion and debate within the wider community (outside academe) on issues like poverty and democracy, through research, pamphlets, books and public seminars.

“Very briefly the idea is to create an Institute of Social Studies whose raison d’être would be to encourage research and long-range imaginative thinking on the various aspects of the future development of our society,” Clarkson wrote in the minutes of an initial “brown bag” Praxis discussion.   

In some ways, then, Praxis is a precursor to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, but with a less secure funding base. Clarkson and Rotstein’s creation lived solely on grants, first from the Toronto Star newspaper and later from consulting and research contracts with government. The money flowed until 1972 when Praxis was forced to shut down. 

There is some indication from RCMP files at the Library and Archives Canada that the Security Service was pushing government managers to avoid Praxis, that the organization was spied on, and that Canada’s national police had a murky and still not fully explained relationship with those who broke into the group’s Toronto offices in December 1970. The background for all of this, gleaned from more than 6,000 pages from those archived documents, is the subject of this story. 

Researching the researchers

During its short existence, Praxis was always small, largely made up of researchers, community organizers and graduate students. It quickly became a magnet for cutting-edge work on housing and welfare, leading to contracts with clients such as Canada Mortgage and Housing and the Manitoba government. 

Praxis was at the same time plugged into the late-1960s upsurge of citizen advocacy by and in support of low-income groups. So it was not surprising that the research organization was recruited by the federally funded National Council of Welfare to organize a controversial national poor people’s conference in Toronto for January 1971. Statements by the delegates about capitalism and the plight of the poor garnered a lot of press and only intensified the suspicions of the RCMP Security Service. 

Attention from the Mounties came early. In 1969, Clarkson innocently wrote a letter to the Department of External Affairs in Ottawa requesting that employees, particularly diplomats, consider taking a year off for research and study (a sabbatical) at Praxis. 

“This would have to be conditional on our accepting the man [sic] and the project as sufficiently interesting. But there is a need to let top grade diplomats return to academic reality and this might provide a useful experiment,” Clarkson wrote. 

The proposal created a bit of a furor in Ottawa. The department official who received Clarkson’s inquiry turned it over to W.L. Higgitt, a senior officer at the RCMP Security Service, who urged co-operation in order to find out what Praxis was up to. 

“It would be a considerable advantage for the government if the currents and possible direction from the subversive elements within the corporation could be established,” Higgitt wrote in an April 14, 1969 memo.

But what really raised the research institute’s profile was its campaign in March 1970, expressed during a packed meeting in Toronto, to run an alternative slate of candidates to the board of the city’s Social Planning Council (SPC). The objective was to encourage the rather stuffy social agency to engage in a more ambitious range of research into social problems. Howard Buchbinder, a new hire at Praxis, took the lead. His background as a former community organizer in the U.S. War on Poverty, and a popular (at least among students) radical social work professor from St. Louis, probably helped him nail the job. 

“The primary area of activity seems to be centred around that of attempting to infiltrate, dominate or take over control of the Metro Toronto Social Planning Council,” said a somewhat conspiratorial-minded RCMP source inside Praxis. 

Praxis was, in the minds of the Security Service, an éminence grise, manipulating well-meaning activist groups behind the scenes. One anonymous analyst described the research institute as the “central nervous system” for the extra-parliamentary opposition (EPO)—a term borrowed from the New Left—of disloyal and whistle-blowing civil servants in the federal government.

What also had the Mounties concerned, according to historian Kevin Brushett, author of The Uncomfortable Few: The Company of Young Canadians and the Politics of Youth, 1965-1975 (forthcoming),was the propensity of certain government ministers in the early years of the Trudeau government, Gerard Pelletier being one of them, to encourage young people to join the civil service as “shit-disturbers,” to introduce fresh ideas and innovation. Journalist Sandra Gwyn called them the “guerrilla bureaucrats.”

Break and enter

This obsession with Praxis took on a darker hue one wintery Toronto evening. On December 18, 1970, unknown (and still unidentified) burglars crept into the back of a semi-detached house at 373 Huron Avenue, which served as an office for Praxis, making off with a load of internal documents. The records of other groups based in the same dwelling, including the Just Society (a welfare recipient group) as well as a community group fighting the proposed Spadina expressway, were also taken. 

In addition to theft, the intruders set fire to the house, causing the landlord, the University of Toronto, to have the damaged structure torn down almost immediately. There is still only greenspace where the house once stood. 

Two sets of stolen Praxis document ended up in the hands of the RCMP Security Service in early 1971. One came from right-wing Toronto Telegram journalist Peter Worthington, who had, in the weeks prior to the burglary, written a series of articles critical of a “radical” research institute living off federal government contracts. His references to a “microbe” like Praxis, “getting inside the establishment structure,” could have come right out of RCMP literature on the EPO. 

To discourage federal government managers from hiring Praxis, the Mounties circulated copies of Worthington’s articles to specific federal cabinet ministers, including Robert Andras, minister of state for urban affairs. RCMP Security Service inspector G. Belgalki started a December 1, 1970 memo this way:

“Dear Bob, Attached for your information are two articles by Peter Worthington on the Praxis Corporation, set up at 373 Huron Street, which clearly define the objectives of this organization providing they can get government funds to carry on.” 

The inspector then ramped up the hyperbole.

“[Praxis] are very vociferous and they are backed by a great many people who have not taken the time to find out what is behind their activities and the innocents are sucked in to act as shields who believe they are serving the cause of democracy in the interests of poor people in our society.” 

The plot thickened when, after the Praxis break-in, Worthington found himself in possession of the stolen documents—a gift from the burglars themselves—which he delivered to the receptive Mounties after the Metro Toronto Police refused to take them. 

Worthington kept all this close to his chest for several years until writing about it in a Toronto Sun column on February 4, 1977 that was headlined, “I gave RCMP Praxis files.” It explained how “a couple of guys arrived one morning” at the Telegram (the columnist’s former newspaper) bearing a large stack of files weighing 20 to 30 pounds that were “unceremoniously shoved in my arms.

“I went through them and they related to Praxis, Just Society, Stop Spadina, Metro Tenants and the Poor People’s Conference,” wrote Worthington.

The second batch of stolen Praxis files was given to two RCMP officers, G.K. Grant and Ron Pankew, by an intermediary in the vicinity of the RCMP office near Jarvis Street in Toronto. Pankew had been previously in touch with the go-between, who turned out to be an informant for the Mounties inside the Edmund Burke Society who was suspected of carrying out the break in and arson.

One of the officers, Grant, wrote a June 13, 1977 memorandum about the Praxis experience. He described masquerading as a member of an extreme-right group from New York State in order to get a meeting with one of the possible burglars, who turned out to be a “hardened, ‘street-wise,’ young, political thug.” Grant noted the “radical right” group (i.e., the Burkers) in Toronto was quite capable of carryout out violent acts. 

“It was also my position that the revelation of the original informant’s identity to the MTPD (Metro Toronto Police Department) would place him in extreme jeopardy at the hands of the boy and his confederate(s).”  

Memoranda on a burglary

Seven years later, the RCMP Security Service was in trouble from revelations of illegal acts and dirty tricks against Quebec separatists and the Canadian left in the late-1960s and early-1970s. Trudeau established a royal commission, led by Judge David McDonald, to investigate solutions for a wayward Security Service. Its findings would lead to the establishment, in 1984, of a civilian spy agency (CSIS) limited to collecting intelligence and analysis. 

In the run-up to the McDonald hearings, and certainly justifying their outcome, the RCMP Security Service panicked, destroying records of its operations involving the disruption of certain groups. This was done to avoid what had happened to the FBI in the U.S., where public revelations of a similar though much larger covert counter-intelligence program, better known as COINTELPRO, had recently surfaced. 

“As the McDonald Commission found, this was clearly an attempt to destroy evidence of wrongdoing,” said Reg Whitaker, security analyst, professor, and co-author of the 2012 book Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America.

The RCMP asked Superintendant John Venner, operations manager for the Security Service in Toronto, to investigate allegations that the Mounties had either instigated the burglary and arson at Praxis or encouraged surrogates to do the deed. After some inquires, Venner determined the crime had been committed by freelancers without support from any police force. 

But other issues still loomed. Namely, that the Security Service had accepted, and retained for seven years, the proceeds of a crime without informing the victim and owner of the stolen goods.

“Superintendent Venner stated that the Security Service could very well be destroyed over this issue (Praxis Affair),” said Grant in his June 1977 memorandum. He and Pankew were especially worried that they might take the fall for their role in the Praxis affair rather than the higher-ups in the Security Service. 

Grant wrote that the two of them were being coached on what had transpired in early 1971, and had been asked to undergo a “tailored” half-hour question-and-answer process that felt at times, he said, like a rehearsal for a future appearance before the McDonald inquiry.

“[We] would be supplied with questions and the corresponding answers. This was what the Force [blank space] wanted to hear,” Grant wrote. “Our primary concern was that we were being counselled to participate in what we considered to be a scheme to obstruct justice.” 

Grant said he and Pankew were also informed that a civil action pursued by former Praxis staffer Buchbinder against the illegal holding of Praxis property by the RCMP Security Service would be effectively blocked. The “judicial system would place barriers in the way, making it impossible for Buchbinder to lay charges,” wrote the officer. 

One of the senior officers, who was also a legal advisor, dubbed the process a “bureaucratic containment,” according to Grant. “He said it was sort of sad that the system could do this.” (In the end, neither Grant nor Pankew had to testify before the inquiry.)

Competing versions of events

On July 4, 1977, Venner issued a counter-memorandum suggesting Grant had “distorted the facts very seriously several times.” Venner did not challenge any of the details reported by Grant on the pickup of the Praxis documents or the encounter with one of the burglars. But he disputed any suggestion of coaching statements or fixing the judicial process. 

Grant and Pankew were wrong to state “I was somehow trying to shift all the blame to them and thereby spare others, senior to them, from any criticism,” Venner wrote. 

“It is hard to know what to make of the ‘he said, he said’ recriminations, in terms of which of these guys was telling the truth or any approximation of it,” Whitaker told me. But he said it’s clear that once the RCMP had the stolen Praxis documents, they were going to make use of them. 

“The Mounties knew they had a problem, receiving and retaining stolen documents, not to speak of potential connection, via their undercover sources, with arson. Covering their asses in the face of several investigations was their prime directive,” said Whitaker, adding he has not seen any evidence of direct Mountie involvement in the Praxis break-in. 

But veteran Toronto lawyer Paul Copeland, a former Praxis counsel during its unsuccessful legal actions against the RCMP Security Service, does not rule out the possibility. He finds the June 1977 statement by Grant credible. 

“It is probably an accurate rendition of what the RCMP was doing. I am surprised about how nervous they were. The conspiratorial nature of this is unbelievable. I don't think the security mindset in CSIS and the RCMP today has changed a whole lot,” he said.

One thing the two men—Grant and Venner—agreed on in 1977 was that the RCMP’s priority was protecting its informant inside the Edmund Burke Society, thus no charges could be laid against the Praxis burglars by Toronto police. “You don't burn a source,” was how Venner put it. Copeland finds this unacceptable. 

“I am not surprised that they claim they did not want to expose the informant. Given the activities of the Burkers, in my view they should have arrested them and, if necessary, put their informant in the witness protection program.” 

Much later, in 1998, the federal government agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to the former Praxis board as a settlement in the case, perhaps acknowledging, in a subtle way, some responsibility for what happened in late 1970. 

The final word comes from an unrepentant Worthington, who, in an email to me a few years ago, denied he might have inspired the Praxis burglars, or that he knew them: 

I don’t think the police—local or RCMP—were in the least interested in catching the burglars. I didn’t know them, and was mainly anxious to distance myself from whoever did [the Praxis break-in]. Just didn't want to know. And the cops never questioned me—just were happy to accept the documents which, as I remember, didn’t amount to much.

G.K. Grant and Peter Worthington are deceased. Pankew and Venner declined to be interviewed for this story. 

Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton-based freelance writer. His work appears in and NOW magazine.