Spying 101: The RCMP’s Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917-1997
Reviewer: Ozgur Balkilic (Tri-University Graduate Program in History)
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Hewitt’s Spying 101: The RCMP’s Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917-1997, analyses Canadian secret police activities against the perceived communist threat in Canadian universities. Indeed, Hewitt argues that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), established in 1917, singled-out universities as being of ‘central importance to Canadian society’ and, consequently, concentrated policing efforts on these institutions to counter the perceived threat of communist subversion. Yet, the RCMP’s policy towards Canadian universities was contradictory owing to incompatible theories that students were simultaneously passive recipients of communist propaganda and active initiators of social change (p. 5).
Hewitt’s research commences in the 1910s when communists and socialists gained considerable influence in Canada. For Hewitt, social discontent grew out of the impacts of WWI and the RCMP was constructed to limit possible social upheaval. Since communist radicals were effective in trade unions until the 1940s, the RCMP’s activities were concentrated in these places (pp. 40-52). When radicals targeted universities towards the second half of the 1930s, the RCMP followed suit.
During these times however, the RCMP was operating only haphazardly and began to suspect and attempt to prevent Communist subversion with motivation only after 1945. The RCMP’s unhealthy – and often ungrounded – concerns about Soviet espionage led to the exertion of heavy pressure against university professors and students alike, poisoning university environments (pp. 52-90). By the 1960s, the RCMP added university students and different social opposition groups to its “suspect lists” and enlarged the scale of activities. Hewitt argues that although the RCMP was aware that communists were playing a very limited role in the social movements of the 1960’s they somehow expected Communist penetration and, accordingly, sought to preempt. When this did not out-of-hand occur, the RCMP changed track and awaited university students to graduate and enter larger society. In other words, RCMP pressure and domestic espionage directed against university students and professors ebbed until such students left university life where the RCMP continued their operations. This shift occurred against the backdrop of a sharp spike in separatist nationalism in Quebec which, due to its violent nature, reprioritised the RCMP’s strategic thinking (pp. 173-184) and in some ways eroded its original mandate. This was especially clear as the RCMP was subordinated to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) which in the 1980’s assumed counter-subversion activities, thereby eclipsing the RCMP to the point of making it nearly obsolete and redundant. However, international circumstances conspired to breathe fresh life into the RCMP. The rise of Islamists groups seeking to deploy violence against Canadian, American and European citizens produced enhanced strategic relationships and brought the RCMP back into the fold of international security (pp. 203-207).
Although the subtitle of this book is the RCMP’s Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917-1997; for the period before 1945 Hewitt greatly emphasises those RCMP’s activities which concentrate on trade unions and political parties, rather than universities, begging the question as to why the work was named as it is. In this sense, Spying 101 seems to be a general history of the RCMP as an organisation and its struggle against so-called national security threats, rather than its activities in Canadian universities. Furthermore, Hewitt divides his book into chapters based on alterations of the source of perceived threats according to the RCMP, which are not always connected to university life and dissent.
Problems are also visible in Hewitt’s source selection since archival resources are often censored or based on multiple versions of the same document set. On the other hand, it seems that Hewitt successfully overcomes these obstacles and uses evidence and an abundance of examples to convince readers on the strength of his arguments. Furthermore, his method of providing specific case studies from the inspection of the RCMP makes the main argument of this book easily comprehensible. In other words, readers can easily grasp the main aims or methods of the RCMP by following each of the cases in the book.
Spying 101 presents an excellent account of the RCMP and its activities in universities. Hewitt’s presentation of the RCMP’s threat perception and the methods to overcome these is convincing. This presentation is effectively supported by the evidence from the archives of this institution. Furthermore, Hewitt presents his arguments on the RCMP within the changing social and political context of Canada and Canadian universities. In this sense, he efficiently captures the historical context behind the RCMP’s activities. Despite these strengths, Spying 101 mainly suffers from its unnecessary and confusing emphasis on the RCMP’s activities outside of universities and thus dilutes the main drive of the work.