Mounted police always get their 'radicals'

February 16, 1996

Canada. A student's curiosity has led him to break open a file revealing that the University of Saskatchewan in Canada was the subject of undercover surveillance for over 50 years.

In the summer of 1994, while Steve Hewitt was working on his doctoral research into Royal Canadian Mounted Police activities, he fell upon an interesting note. The force, which until 1982 was both a constabulary and a national security service, had been spying on unsuspecting political activists on Canadian university campuses. "As a lark", Mr Hewitt decided to make an access-to-information request to the federal government to find out if the mounties had staked out his school, the University of Saskatchewan.

The history student expected a few files to come back. But the information office not only confirmed the spy agency's presence at both campuses in the prairie towns of Saskatoon and Regina (now the University of Regina) but it also revealed it had 2,200 pages of detailed reports of university activity culled from as far back as 1920 and up to 1971. No information has yet surfaced concerning other Canadian universities being spied upon by the force.

After going through the 1,500 pages released to him, Mr Hewitt wrote in a paper published in the autumn 1995 issue of Saskatchewan History that "no institution with even a hint of radicalism escaped the RCMP security forces".

Most reports centred on left-leaning activities and suspected communists. Aboriginal associations were also tracked for their alliances with other sympathetic political groups. student associations were monitored through RCMP informants.

One painstaking report details a full-day account of the comings and goings of a group who had come to the University of Saskatchewan in 1966 to set up a booth on campus. The fact passers-by were not that interested in the group who sympathised with Venezuelan guerrillas did not stop the intelligence gathering. Whether it was following a 1920 lecture given by a labour activist or keeping on top of a 1969 Black Panther visit, the RCMP surveillance teams kept busy. With their clipped student newspaper articles and annotated bibliographies they were very thorough, wrote Mr Hewitt.

The student saw a repeated theme throughout the 50 years: the authority's fear of youth being indoctrinated. One RCMP commissioner wrote that "youth by nature is radical and therefore receptive to subversive propaganda".

Professors were not immune to the surveillance either. Suspected members of "the radical left faculty" were also tailed. Mr Hewitt believes the force even influenced hirings.

And all this, says Mr Hewitt, was waged on two small-town campuses with few radicals. The RCMP even admitted in 1947 the "leftists" numbered 30. Historian Michael Hayden, quoted in Mr Hewitt's article, also concludes there was more smoke than fire when it came to student dissent at Saskatchewan. Mr Hayden said: "A few picketings, several speeches, a few tentative invasions of faculty meetings, one short strike and one almost friendly sit-in do not a revolution make."

Mr Hewitt, in an interview with the Saskatchewan daily, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, said he finds the spying troubling."My impression is they didn't understand what a university is for. Unpopular ideas being talked about doesn't mean you hit the streets and start throwing bricks."

In the same article, a spokesman for the national security force, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service admitted that the province, known mostly for its wheat farms, is not the hub of terrorism but at the University of Saskatchewan "there may be activities that warrant investigation".

The RCMP, who Mr Hewitt calls "a powerful symbol in Canada" and their predecessor CSIS should be clearer with their mandate, he says.

Mr Hewitt, who has made requests for unreleased documentation, told The THES he is thinking of turning his research into a book. "I will call it The Secret History of Canada's Universities As Told By The Mounted Police."

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