Sometime in the late 80s-early 90s I got addicted to spy novels, yes I have a problem. I started on the fluffier/reader friendly stuff written by Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy. Fun, patriotic adventures that don’t challenge the reader very much. I wondered why their was no Canadian versions of James Bond or Jack Ryan. I was then introduced into the darker less clear spy world of Len Deighton, where the Canadian spy was working for the KGB. The way Canadians get portrayed seems to be little buddy or useful idiots. I thought maybe I should write a Canadian spy and did a few horrid short stories.
I started on the harder spy fiction of John Le Carré after giving up on my own work or about the same time. I couldn’t get through much of Le Carré at first, maybe I wasn’t ready yet. While reading spy fiction I went on to spy history. Any book on MI6 or the KGB I could get my hands on I read. It went nicely with already developed obsession reading about the British Special Air Service.
Being undiagnosed with ADD meant I was adrift and trying/failing at lots of things and succeeding only in depression. The spy novel fixation was no longer satisfied with reading but writing was required. I wrote down ideas and started doing some serious research into Canadian espionage history. A subject that hasn’t the research resources weirdos like me could hope for but still found four books I took notes from. Though one of which might require a grain of salt followed by cheap tequila and a lemon wedge. More may have been written in the last ten years and more back when I was doing some very rough research, limited to Woodstock Ontario’s public library system.
All Canadians should know about Laura Secord (beware of pregnant women driving cattle) eavesdropping on two US generals and their plans to advance up the Niagara Peninsula to surprise the main British camp. Her information nearly lead to the massacre of the entire US force. It would be wrong to think of espionage in any country to be a preserve of a small cadre of super humans with years of training. Baden-Powell, the founder of Boy Scouting, thought of it as gentlemen’s pursuit and that was the prevailing view pre-World War One.
Between about 1864 and about 1922 Canada fought a war against the Irish Republican Army. Although the Fenian Raids ended in the 1870s the IRA still threatened Canada, not with invasion but with what today would be called terrorist attacks. When the Honourable Thomas D’Arcy McGee was killed by an IRA member Sir John A. McDonald immediately requested assistance from the British, created the Dominion Police (Dominion Police + North West Mounted Police = Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and hired Pinkerton’s Detective Agency to keep track of the IRA in the United States.
Commissioner Gilbert McMicken wasn’t just wearing Canada’s top cop he was also Canada’s spy master. McMicken previous to being commissioner had lead a team of agents into the United States during the Civil War. He planted stories in the American press calling for an end to Fenian attacks on Canada, had his agents make casual contacts and recruited/ran what might have been one of Canada’s most legend worthy unknown people. The IRA was split into broad regional groups based in San Francisco, Chicago et cetera. In San Francisco was the home of a woman only known as Agent X, she sent her information through a law firm and her identity is not found in any publicly available Canadian records. She started operating in the 1890s providing information on Irish Secret Societies, California elites and even hosted these people in her home.
Agent X prevented terrorist attacks against the Royal Navy base in Esquimalt British Colombia and canals in Montreal and Welland. She briefly got close to some of the most brutal Irish terror leaders in Chicago. When the United States and Spain went to war in 1898 Agent X used her network to report on Spanish intrigue in California which Ottawa passed to Washington. In 1899 the Spanish – American war was over but Canada became part of the Second Boer War and Boer’s in America and their sympathizers worked with the IRA to attack Canada. Agent X helped stop a few more attacks. She went on as agent to help prevent attacks in World War One when the still angry Boers and the IRA were joined by German saboteurs. Honestly someone should make a movie about this woman or a miniseries. (not another Victorian/Edwardian corset pic!) The most important lesson in Agent X’s story is the US is a good launch base for committing terror attacks in Canada.
Most of what is available in Canadian spy history is the foreign spy services operating here. One form or another of Indian intelligence has been operating in Canada since the 1890s and may be in small part responsible for the Komagata Maru incident. (no, that’s the Kobayashi Maru test in Star Trek. This is a ship turned away because it was full of Sikhs). With Canada’s electronic spy agency in the news right now it is interesting to note that although it was founded in 1946 (according to CBC report last night) it had revealed Japanese agents in Russia during World War Two. Of course it was named the Wartime Examination Unit. (sounds like a group of tedious test proctors)
Canada has always been the junior partner with allies even when we apparently spy on our allies’ spy agencies. We don’t officially have a foreign human intelligence service, but the Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service wasn’t official until the 70s and the revelations of the Cambridge Group of agents working in it and other British government agencies. Their maybe cases where humble Canada allows others to take credit in order to remain hidden. Secrecy is and has been the main vice and obsession in the Canadian Civil Service since the beginning.
On the domestic front I disagree with some of the unsavoury behaviour targeting minorities or environmental groups and the recent practice of spying on anyone who disagrees with the Harper Government or Washington. It allows real threats to go unchecked while our meagre resources are watching a Drum Circle or Margaret Atwood reading. Let’s as Canadians provide a Parliament capable of oversight and the resources to spy on threats abroad before they come to Canada.
“There is no place espionage is not used.”
Best book to start with if looking for more is Canada’s Enemies: Spies & Spying in the Peaceable Kingdom by Graeme Mount