September 2006: Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Canadians who trust our secret police should think again
September 1, 2006

An Innovative Research Group poll taken after the early June bust of “the Toronto 17” is cause for deep concern. The poll found that 62% of Canadians agreed with the proposition that without national security all other rights of Canadians were simply theoretical.

This was the argument presented by federal lawyers before the Supreme Court in an effort to defend the constitutionality of the use of “security certificates”-- i.e., the right of the secret police to incarcerate suspected terrorists for an indefinite time without laying charges or proceeding to trial.

Another 40% of Canadians declared a willingness to see our civil liberties eroded in the name of national security. One in three expressed worries that they could be personally victimized by terrorist acts, and one in four felt that they or someone close to them could have been killed or injured by the actions of “the Toronto 17.”

The campaign of terror and apprehension by our secret police and the Harper government is working. Fear is stalking the land, infecting our democracy.

Fear, deliberately provoked and orchestrated, has always been a favourite tool of governments seeking to win public support for questionable, controversial policies. In this particular case, the Harper government chose to mount arguably the biggest peacetime combined police and military operation since the 1970 War Measures Act to round up a gang of hapless, abjectly stupid ideological zealots suffering from terrorist fantasies and delusions of grandeur. Based on the evidence so far reported on “the Toronto 17,” they would have difficulty successfully organizing a community soccer tournament.

Given the Harper government’s political agenda, Canadians should resist giving instant credence to unsubstantiated claims made by our secret police and Harper’s Public Safety Minister, Stockwell Day. That agenda involves stampeding a reluctant Canadian public into supporting the deployment of Canadian troops in Afghanistan and yielding to the U.S. government’s demands that Canada more actively join the Bush administration’s global “war on terror.”

Buoyed by his success in scaring Canadians with the spectre of home-grown terrorists, no matter how inept, Harper went on to persuade the frightened majority to support a massive $15 billion increased defence spending program billed as essential for our participation in this “war.” And this $15 billion was not earmarked for military tools for the defence of Canada, or for UN peacekeeping abroad, but rather for acquiring the military equipment needed for wars of aggression, invasion, and occupation of foreign countries.

Let us remember the lessons about our secret police so painfully learned during Canada’s last brush with terrorism and its suppression: the 1970 FLQ crisis and the invocation of the War Measures Act. Public hysteria was whipped up then, too, by leaked claims of the secret police and politicians that FLQ terrorists had infiltrated all key institutions in Quebec; that 3,000 armed FLQ terrorists were ready to begin an insurrection; that the FLQ had a “hit list” of 200 Quebec leaders marked for assassination; that the kidnappings of the British diplomat and the Quebec Labour Minister were but the first step in a revolutionary plot; that a massive bombing campaign was in the works; that there would be a bloodbath of executions followed by the installation of a provisional government in Quebec.

It was all a pack of lies, of course, but it led to a wave of arrests and violations of civil liberties focused in Quebec, but affecting suspected individuals and groups all across Canada. And the suppression enjoyed almost universal public support.

In the years after the FLQ “crisis,” Canadians learned how they had been manipulated by the secret police and politicians in power, thanks to Ottawa’s Royal Commission of Inquiry Into Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the McDonald Commission) and Quebec’s Keeble Inquiry into Illegal Police Activities. These inquiries exposed the dirty tricks and illegal actions employed by the secret police against not only the FLQ, but the democratic sovereignty movement, as well as other individuals and groups on a list of “the politically suspect” (including MPs, election candidates, student groups, and trade unionists).

Seventeen past and present members of the RCMP’s Security Service were charged with 44 offences following the release of the Keeble Report (there would have been more, but the federal government stonewalled the Commission’s request for documents). The McDonald Commission also reported a long list of dirty tricks and illegal actions carried out by the secret police, though these did not result in charges and trials (and portions of the report have yet to be released). These included over 400 illegal break-ins, thefts of dynamite, theft of the membership list of the Parti Québécois, an act of arson, unauthorized mail openings, surveillance of MPs and candidates for office, investigations of the NDP’s Waffle group, illegal detentions involving psychological and physical violence to recruit informers, forging and releasing documents under the FLQ’s name calling for violence to win independence, the massive infiltration of the FLQ to the point where by 1972 secret police agents had a voting majority in the organization. The list goes on and on.

Most of the perpetrators of the dirty tricks and illegal activities among the ranks of the secret police were never charged, and those who were charged either received unconditional discharges upon pleading guilty, or the charges were later dropped. In other words, the secret police were, in practice, not subject to the laws of the land but could cynically violate them at will in the name of “national security.” As a result, the McDonald Royal Commission recommended that, in future, the police--including the secret police—cease all illegal activities, that mail openings and break-ins occur only under the oversight of a judge, and, allegedly most importantly, that the secret police be removed from the RCMP and that a civilian secret police agency be set up. In 1984, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was accordingly established.

This was an entirely cosmetic move that smeared the RCMP, suggesting that the secret police got out of control due to failures of the RCMP’s command structure. This is nonsense. The secret police were doing what the secret police always do, and continue to do under the CSIS structure. And they were doing it under the political direction of the government of the day. Indeed, it can be reasonably argued that the RCMP’s command structure, history and culture may well have imposed a bit of restraint on the activities of the secret police, a restraint that is absent in CSIS. Testimony before the McDonald Commission revealed that some rather bizarre plots proposed by secret police zealots were denied authorization at senior levels. So there’s reason to trust CSIS even less than the RCMP’s former Security Service.

And what about the directive from the McDonald Commission that the police, including the secret police, always act within the law? Such a directive, if scrupulously heeded, would make it very tough for the secret police to do what secret police do. Well, that problem has been solved. There is a new “doublethink” law allowing the police to act illegally while allegedly upholding the law. If that sounds a bit Orwellian, that’s because it is: a law making breaking the law legal while enforcing the law.

This new so-called Immunity Law was passed in February 2002, and it allows police agents of all sorts to commit crimes in the line of duty. Any crime can be committed except those involving obstructing justice, sex crimes, and violence causing bodily harm (making violence that leaves no marks or breaks no bones perfectly legal). During 2004-05, as Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day recently admitted, many crimes were committed by police covered by the immunity statute.

It is now permissible for secret police agents to actively work with suspects, or with individuals and groups targeted for political reasons, in order to encourage violations of the new, draconian anti-terrorist law, even to the point of encouraging would-be terrorists to plan elaborate attacks. So all those illegal actions carried out by secret police in the 1960s and ‘70s that were condemned by two government inquiries would now be perfectly legal.

With the secret police now unconstrained by law, our democracy and our civil liberties are in big trouble. The next sensational terrorist bust could well involve a “sleeper cell” made up of a majority of secret police agents.

(John Conway is a University of Regina political sociologist and the author of Debts to Pay: The Future of Federalism in Quebec and The West: The History of a Region in Confederation.)