Mountie security agents, wary of late-1960s campus turmoil, kept a close eye on the University of Toronto student council — apparently relying on a secret informant to glean information about Rae and other council members.
The RCMP Security Service conducted widespread surveillance of universities, unions, peace groups and myriad other organizations during the Cold War in an effort to identify left-wing subversives.
A surprised Rae says he had no idea the RCMP was watching him.
"The notion that any of this posed a kind of a threat to the established order certainly would have come as news to all of us," he said in an interview.
"The only thing sinister, frankly, in all of this is how much of it was being recorded and reported and presumably being put in a file somewhere."
Hundreds of pages of RCMP files on the Students' Administrative Council at the University of Toronto were released to The Canadian Press by Library and Archives Canada.
The RCMP's intelligence branch was disbanded in 1984 following a series of scandals, and a new civilian agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, took over most domestic spying duties.
In 1968-69, Rae was a member of the student council led by Steven Langdon who, like Rae, would later serve as a New Democrat MP. The two were seen as moderates on a council that included more extreme representatives on both the left and right of the political spectrum.
Rae also helped put together large conferences, known as teach-ins — one on China and a followup on religion and politics for which Michael Ignatieff, another Liberal leader in the making, served as a principal organizer.
"It was an exciting time," Rae recalled. "We did manage to reform the governance of the University of Toronto. There was a lot of activism and discussion about ideas and about politics.
"That's what you do in university. The idea that there's a cop at the back of the room who's writing everything down — I guess that was also a reality of the time."
Rae became interim Liberal leader following Ignatieff's resignation from the post last year. As the party prepares for a biennial conference in Ottawa this weekend, there is renewed speculation that Rae is eyeing a run at the permanent leadership next year.
As a budding student politician, Rae was seized with issues including the university's plans for increasing graduate program enrolment and renovations to campus residences.
A secret and heavily redacted memo prepared by an RCMP sergeant on Nov. 4, 1968 — likely based on details from an informant — notes seven individuals including Rae were planning to meet to discuss student business.
A space after Rae's name is blacked out — almost certainly cloaking the number of the personal file the RCMP would have opened on him, said Steve Hewitt, author of Spying 101: The RCMP's Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917-1997.
"So they're obviously interested in monitoring student politicians — who are the ones they need to keep a longer-term watch on, who are the real radicals?" said Hewitt.
For privacy reasons, the public is allowed access to RCMP files on individuals only 20 years after the person's death. While a number of files of historical value — including a large one on former NDP leader Tommy Douglas — were transferred to Library and Archives, many were destroyed.
Hewitt believes the RCMP file on Rae would have been preserved for posterity given that he was a young member of Parliament in the early 1980s before going on to become the first NDP premier of Ontario.
In an odd twist, Rae would later serve on the Security Intelligence Review Committee — the federally appointed watchdog that keeps an eye on CSIS — before re-entering politics as a Liberal. At the review committee he directly wrestled with the tension between the legitimate right to protest and security officials' fears of extremist activity.
In the 1960s, the RCMP worried the student unrest that had rocked universities in the United States, riven by the Vietnam War, could explode on Canadian campuses.
"We didn't have the draft and we didn't the war, in a sense, on our doorstep," said Rae. "And I think there was a much greater degree of radicalism among the American students than there was among the Canadians."
Hewitt, who teaches at the University of Birmingham in England, believes the Mounties were concerned about both violent protest and the emergence of radical leaders who could eventually have a significant impact beyond the campus.
But he characterizes the RCMP efforts as a "fishing expedition" — in effect "trying to get a handle on who needs to be watched."