Secret Service

Title:                      Secret Service

Author:                 Reg Whitaker

Whitaker, Reg (2012), Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America. Toronto : University of Toronto Press

LCCN:    2012545006

HV8157 .W45 2012


  • “Secret Service provides the first comprehensive history of political policing in Canada – from its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, through two world wars and the Cold War to the more recent ‘war on terror.’ This book reveals the extent, focus, and politics of government-sponsored surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations.
  • Drawing on previously classified government records, the authors reveal that for over 150 years, Canada has run spy operations largely hidden from public or parliamentary scrutiny – complete with undercover agents, secret sources, agent provocateurs, coded communications, elaborate files, and all the usual apparatus of deception and betrayal so familiar to fans of spy fiction. As they argue, what makes Canada unique among Western countries is its insistent focus of its surveillance inwards, and usually against Canadian citizens.
  • Secret Service highlights the many tensions that arise when undercover police and their covert methods are deployed too freely in a liberal democratic society. It will prove invaluable to readers attuned to contemporary debates about policing, national security, and civil rights in a post-9/11 world.”–Pub. desc.


  • Part I: Origins — Chapter 1: The Empire Strikes Back — Chapter 2: ‘You drive us Hindus out of Canada and we will drive every white man out of India!’ — Chapter 3: A War on Two Fronts — Part II: Survival and Revival — Chapter 4: The RCMP, the Communist Party, and the Consolidation of Canada’s Cold War — Chapter 5: ‘Redder Than Ever’: Political Policing During the Great Depression — Chapter 6: Keep the Home Fires Burning, 1939-1945 — Part III: Cold War Canada — Chapter 7: The Ice Age: Mounties on the Cold War Front Line, 1945-1969 — Chapter 8: The Coyote, the Roadrunner, and the Reds under the Bed: Communist Espionage and Subversion — Part IV: Separatists, Scandals, and Reform — Chapter 9: National Unity, National Security: the Quebec Conundrum — Chapter 10: ‘I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!’: The Creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service — Chapter 11:Old Wine into New Bottles: CSIS, 1984-2001 — Part V: After the Twin Towers — Chapter 12: After the Deluge: In the Shadow of the Twin Towers, 2001-2010 — Chapter 13: No More Mr. Nice Spy: CSIS and the Dark Side of the War on Terror.


Date Posted:      October 6, 2015

The three Canadian professors who published Secret Service in 2012 shared the 2013 Canada Prize in the Social Sciences for this comprehensive history of the Canadian security and intelligence services. The central theme of the book is political policing, “usually against Canadian citizens.” And the authors argue that “Other countries do this as well-the FBI spies on Americans; MI5 and Special Branch spies on Britons; the French have … agencies … that spy on French citizens.” (p. 7) In the US case, they invoke the preposterous metaphor of the early-1950s, “witch-hunts,” which they imply were in some respects illegal and unnecessarily repressive attempts to control subversion, a conclusion that may startle those who have read the work of Harvey Klehr and John Haynes.[1] Political repression in Canada, according to the authors, “has been confined to the legitimate auspices of the state.” (p. 9) Thus), the authors candidly continue, “Canada has persistently spied on its own people, run undercover agents, and maintained secret sources of information [and] categorized people in terms of their personal beliefs … with serious consequences.” (p. 10) Secret Service describes this Canadian-style “political policing” from 19th-century British colonial days to the present.

Colonial Canada faced social unrest from radicals in the Irish Fenian brotherhood and from Hindu groups advocating Indian self-rule. The authors write that “Violence was part and parcel.. .of both move-ments.” (p. 57) The need to keep order led to “the creation of the secret service in the 1860s” (p. 59) and in 1873, as labor unrest continued, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). (p. 80) Security demands increased substantially with the onset of WWI. The enemy was no longer Irish or South Asian. Germans, Socialists and then the Bolsheviks assumed that role. After some initial postwar cutbacks in the security services, subversive activities increased as communism “replaced anti-imperialism as the source of the nation’s security anxieties,” and the RCMP was tasked with “surveillance and intelligence gathering operations.” (p. 142)

The authors characterize WWII as a “good war for the Mounties,” (p. 175) because they expanded security operations and responsibilities. They failed, however, to detect Soviet intelligence agents working in Canada until GRU code clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in September 1945. The fallout from his rev-elations became the focus of RCMP operations until the collapse of the Soviet Union. The authors provide a lengthy, meticulous, and critical analysis of security service operations during the Cold War and the major organizational changes that occurred when questions of performance, accountability, and oversight arose.

In 1984, the Canadian Parliament authorized the creation of a new civilian security organization, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). At the same time, an independent, external review body—the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC)—was created to provide parliamentary oversight of CSIS operations. This structure is in place today.

A shift to antiterrorism operations took place rapidly after 9/11. What had been a domestic security service suddenly assumed overseas responsibilities just as requirements for domestic threat assessments increased and procedures for handling suspected terrorists were being developed. Some political challenges with the United States followed, and the authors explain how the Canadian version of the US Patriot Act was passed to deal with these issues.

The final chapter in Secret Service is a useful summary of the book and, when read directly after the introduction, will give readers a good overview of Canadian intelligence history. Issues raised in those essays can then be examined in detail in the intervening chapters.

While the authors document their story well, they also impart a point of view that questions whether many of the operations described were acts of repression or proper measures any security service would undertake to counter subversion and espionage. In any case, the book is an impressive history of the Canadian intelligence services.


[1] See, for example, Haynes, John Earl (2009), Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev. Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,

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