OTTAWA - Canadian spies closely eyed existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, tracking his planned trip to Quebec in support of people arrested during a crackdown on separatist threats, newly released documents show.
The declassified Royal Canadian Mounted Police dossier on Sartre also reveals that Mountie intelligence officers pored over translations of the French writer's pronouncements, monitored his links to the peace movement and noted the academic rebel's brushes with the law.
The two-volume file, spanning 234 pages, was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act from Library and Archives Canada.
Personal files compiled by the RCMP security branch, a forerunner of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, can be made public 20 years after a person's death. Portions of Sartre's file remain secret.
The prolific essayist and playwright is perhaps best known for his thoughts on existentialism, the notion that man has no predetermined nature but defines his essence through belief and actions.
In 1964 he was awarded — but refused to accept — the Nobel Prize for literature.
Sartre transcended the rarefied world of political philosophy, becoming a touchstone of popular culture embodied by the chain-smoking hipster ennui of the 1960s.
RCMP interest in Sartre dates from at least October 1952 when the Mounties took note of a speech he had given to the French Parliament.
The RCMP monitored a wide range of groups and individuals during the Cold War in an attempt to identify left-wing subversives.
Memos from the 1960s indicate the Mounties learned from confidential sources that the Fair Play for Cuba Committee's Toronto chapter and Quebec students protesting the Vietnam War wanted Sartre to travel from Paris to address them.
Concern really began stirring in early 1971 with word that Sartre, Irish politician Bernadette Devlin and outspoken actress Jane Fonda would come to Montreal to help protest the trials of people arrested under the War Measures Act.
The federal government ushered in the legislation outlawing the separatist Front de liberation du Quebec in October 1970 following the kidnapping of public officials. In all, 497 people were arrested and 62 charged under the law.
A top secret January 1971 memo pointed out the protests were gaining momentum and there was a prospect of more, larger demonstrations.
Though Sarte was unable to come to Quebec, he took part in a videotaped interview in Paris for a group allied with the province's Movement for the Defence of Political Prisoners.
In the interview, Sartre painted Quebecers as colonized people under the thumb of the anglophone minority, adding that socialist independence could be achieved only through violence.
"There are no other solutions: unless we make war, they will."
Canadian officials were still concerned that Sartre might turn up in Canada.
The philosopher was expected to visit Montreal in March 1971, en route to California to attend the criminal trial of activist Angela Davis, the RCMP's director of security and intelligence, L.R. Parent, advised the External Affairs Department.
The Mounties had set about obtaining information about Sartre's criminal record for the Immigration Department "should they wish to take any action to ban Sartre from entering Canada," Parent wrote.
"At last word, the Paris police incurred the wrath of Sartre because they refused to arrest him along with his Maoist friends," he added. "In this way the police have effectively isolated him."
Sartre's detailed political and personal history, dispatched from Paris, chronicled his employment, finances, media interviews and involvement with various projects and causes.
In April of that year, the RCMP duly informed External Affairs that the force had "not heard anything further" about Sartre's intentions.
But early that summer Sartre had other concerns. Authorities finally tired of the literary icon's rather public agitation, indicting him for criminal libel over his involvement with upstart French publications — one of which ran articles alleging police brutality.
When he died in 1980 at age 74, thousands of Parisians filled the streets to say farewell.