Saturday, March 5, 2011

Tommy Douglas and the spies

Who would have thought that Tommy Douglas, the prairie socialist, Saskatchewan premier, founding spirit of the NDP, father of Canadian health care legislation and so much more during a long and momentous political career, would have one more arrow to his bow?

Douglas died in 1986. Twentyfive years later he is set to do one more good deed, from beyond the grave. Among the many political battles that Douglas fought was one dedicated to the idea that Canadians needed to be informed by their government of the nature of security threats and that the apparatus of security needed to be held accountable to Parliament and the people.

In a memorable speech in the House of Commons in 1963, Douglas called for the creation of a parliamentary committee to "look into the whole procedure for dealing with subversion and maintaining the security of this nation." Using language that should resonate with all Canadians in a post-9/11 age, Douglas went on to say, "I admit that in the kind of world in which we live today, security is important. However, I contend that, equally important with maintaining security, is the maintenance of those basic democratic institutions upon which this country is built." We are, incidentally, still waiting for that parliamentary committee and still searching for the right equilibrium between security and rights.

The apparatus of security, the then RCMP Security Service, responded to these unwanted ideas by compiling an elaborate surveillance file on Douglas, on some vague notion that he was involved in subversive activities or was a crypto Communist. Such thinking was, unfortunately, all too typical of the RCMP's approach to national security threats during the Cold War, and was one reason that the McDonald Commission of Inquiry decided it was intellectually unsuited to the task and should be stripped of such responsibilities.

But however misplaced was the RCMP Security Service's zeal in compiling a massive dossier on Tommy Douglas, they inadvertently did Canadians one favour, by creating a historical treasure trove of records that not only reveal the Security Service's attitudes toward the threat of Communist subversion during the Cold War but tell us a great deal about the political climate of Canada that would otherwise have been lost to memory. All those RCMP informants at political rallies and conventions that Douglas attended would prove to be history's spies.

The Douglas file was kept close to the bosom of the RCMP Security Service's successor, CSIS, until it was transferred to that bastion of our collective history, Library and Archives Canada, in 2000. The file was transferred, but remained closed to research. In 2005 an enterprising journalist, Jim Bronskill of The Canadian Press, made an Access to Information request to have the dossier opened for public research. Here the story takes yet another surprising turn. Bronskill's request was deliberated on at length by CSIS, who decided that only one third of the voluminous 1,142-page file could be safely read by the public; the rest had to be protected as potentially injurious to Canadian national security. This head-scratcher of a decision was also supported, after further lengthy delay, by none other that the Information Commissioner, whose job it is to guard the workings of the Access to Information Act. The system was living up to its benighted reputation as the "Non-Access to Information Act."

The Douglas file ended up in the hands of the Federal Court of Canada, where it now rests, awaiting a determination on the legitimacy of the government's claims to keep secret a substantial portion of the Douglas file, whose musty surveillance records are now as much as 72 years old; the most recent document in that file is a youthful 31 years old.

The Federal Court has the power, in this case, to fundamentally reshape our understanding of the importance of public records, of public knowledge about the workings of government, and to reaffirm the essence of our freedom of information legislation. The Access to Information Act needs rescuing from its status as a bad joke, hobbled by delays, inefficiencies, and monstrous and perpetual over-classification of government records. Library and Archives Canada needs to be reminded of its primary mandate, which is to make the historical record of Canada available to Canadians. The custodians of aged national security records, which in the Douglas case is CSIS, also need to wake up to the value of public knowledge, and their responsibility not just to keep secrets, but to let secrets go when their expiry date has passed.

Stung perhaps by the public response to the Douglas file story and by the Federal Court's response to this matter, CSIS has begun, we are told, to change its policy about how it handles Access requests. But a reactive change, done behind closed doors, may yet prove unsatisfactory. Tommy Douglas would, I suspect, have savoured the idea of the court coming to the rescue of the citizenry's right to know about national security practices. It would be, at least, a partial fulfilment of an unheeded demand made 48 years ago in a speech to the House of Commons.

Wesley Wark prepared an expert report on behalf of James Bronskill's legal team, led by Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ, who are challenging the closure of the Tommy Douglas records.

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