In June, the Trudeau government tabled bill C-59, legislation aimed at adding new oversight and control of Canada’s national security and intelligence agencies. It is, arguably, the biggest push to increase accountability and oversight for those services since 1984.
But the story of how, and why, Canada’s national security system was overhauled 33 years ago is one worth remembering.
It involves stolen dynamite, the Black Panther Party, Quebec separatists, and a burned-down barn. It’s a story about cops behaving badly, and politicians learning the importance of oversight.
The scope and breadth of the illegal and unethical behaviour only came to light thanks to dogged work from scores of investigative journalists; at least one authoritative book on the matter; and the 1981 government-ordered Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, more commonly known as the McDonald Commission. Many of the details also came out in court and during the commission, and were collected in the 1979 book Nobody Said No: The Real Story About How the Mounties Always Get Their Man, by reporter Jeff Sallot.
Over the course of the summer, to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, VICE News will be digging into some of the forgotten sagas from the past century-and-a-half. Happy birthday, Canada.
It was 1972, just two years since the October Crisis, when revolutionary Quebec separatists in the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped a provincial cabinet minister and a British diplomat, prompting the federal government to suspend civil liberties, dispatch troops to the streets and round up Quebecers sympathetic to the terrorist group’s cause.
The conspirators of the kidnappings — which left minister Pierre Laporte dead — would eventually be arrested or given passage to Cuba. But the revolutionary sovereigntist movement continued for years afterward. It was emblematic of just how much Quebec had split from English Canada, as mistrust and rancour crossed the border, heading in both directions.
The RCMP, which had been caught unprepared by the October Crisis, faced pressure from their political bosses to step up surveillance and disruption of radical elements in Quebec.
There were bombings, thefts of dynamite, stories emerging of the FLQ training with Palestinian militants in Jordan. The powderkeg prompted the RCMP and their local counterparts to start playing fast-and-loose with the rules.
In the years that followed the October Crisis, an officer with the security division of the RCMP would work with Quebec and Montreal police to do whatever it took, in their eyes, to stop the threat of radical separatists.
At the centre of all of this was the “dirty tricks department,” as one of its key members would later admit to in an internal RCMP memo. The internal record would detail that the secretive team conducted at least one kidnapping, burned down a barn, and stole large quantities of dynamite.
“Don’t get the idea we were a bunch of hoodlums running around burning down barns.”
The question of the dynamite is an odd one. The RCMP never did anything with the 14 cases of explosives stolen from a shed on a construction site in the spring of 1972. They carted it from one spot to the next, initially leaving it in an unmarked squad car, then storing it in one officer’s house, then moving it to their commander’s summer home, before finally burying it underground on a rural patch of field. One officer would later say he was terrified of being rear-ended in Montreal rush-hour traffic, for he would likely take out half a city block.
One of the officers involved in the operation would go on to suggest that the plan had been to use the dynamite to frame the FLQ — or to make it look like their fingerprints were on the explosives. Either way, a clear explanation never arose as to why the force wanted the large amount of dynamite.
The cache of bombs was ultimately destroyed. The time underground had exposed the explosives to moisture, making them unstable and highly dangerous. The dirty tricks department detonated the dynamite themselves.
On October 7, 1972, a rag-tag team of three police forces, including the RCMP, broke into the offices of the Agence de Presse Libre du Québec, a left-wing publishing house, under an elaborate plan to steal a raft of documents and plant them on a rival separatist organization, in the hopes of fostering discord amongst the radical left in Montreal. They called it Operation Bricole — which translates roughly to “handyman” or “odd job.” It never quite worked out that way. The break-in was reported nearly immediately, and the handymen simply destroyed the documents.
But the one thing that everyone who knows anything about the dirty tricks era remembers is the barn. It’s become symbolic.
It sat on a farm, tucked away, south of Montreal and near the American border, owned by relatives of the FLQ kidnappers who had been responsible for the October, 1970 murder. The force obtained intelligence that the barn was to be used as a meeting place for the separatists and their ideologically compatible friends from the American Black Panther Party.
“I was in the security service twenty years and there was only one barn burned.”
By 1972, the once infamous American radical group was on the decline, coming off of years of bombings and attacks on American police, aimed at advancing the cause of black liberation. Nevertheless, the RCMP worried the black activists would educate the separatists on the use of firearms and bombs.
Sergeant Donald McCleary was the one to order the operation, sending four men to torch the barn. The whole thing was a disaster from the get-go. On the first attempt, the officers’ car broke down and had to be towed back. On the second voyage, the officers drank pints in a tavern waiting for nightfall. One of the officers appeared to have food poisoning. A heavy downpour put out the first fire they set. Their car broke down again.
It wasn’t until the quartet made it back to Montreal the next morning that they learned the whole thing, unexpectedly, worked: The barn went up in smoke, after all.
“Don’t get the idea we were a bunch of hoodlums running around burning down barns,” McCleery would later testify: “I was in the security service twenty years and there was only one barn burned.”
Perhaps the most damning evidence unearthed by the McDonald commission, beyond the acts themselves, was the level of cover-up and conspiracy that went into trying to elude public scrutiny. A damage report after Operation Bricole noted that it was a “PUMA operation” — codeword for an illegal break-and-enter. It wouldn’t be until nearly five years after the 1972 operation that the RCMP’s involvement finally came to light.
Rank-and-file officers went to jail. High-level resignations were tendered. The McDonald Commission filed thousands of pages of documents outlining where the RCMP failed, and where it needed to be fixed.
That ultimately led to the decision to split the RCMP’s security division into a new force altogether: The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, designed to gather intelligence, not to conduct active operations or make arrests.
Some thirty later, the federal government alarmed many students of the commission report when Ottawa, facing fears of lone wolf attacks inspired by the Islamic State, gifted CSIS with the power to “disrupt” threats.
The Trudeau government ultimately clipped the wings on those powers in June, adding increased oversight on both CSIS and the RCMP.
But the whole affair goes to show what happens when nobody’s watching.