NEWS
11/10/2011 06:05 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

RCMP Spy Files On Tommy Douglas Begin As Early As 1936: Declassified Documents

OTTAWA - Newly declassified records show the RCMP began spying on pioneering politician Tommy Douglas as early as 1936 — three years sooner than previously known — but portions of the 75-year-old memos remain secret.

Numerous other pages in the 1,149-page Douglas file compiled by the Mounties are still under wraps despite a federal judge's order that Library and Archives Canada must reconsider keeping them from the public.

Paul Champ, the lawyer who fought the case, says he has no idea why material is still being held back after so much time has passed.

The archives, which holds the nine-volume dossier on the socialist trailblazer, rejected Federal Court Justice Simon Noel's suggestion that it strongly consider releasing many specific pages in the file — including RCMP assessments and opinions about Douglas.

Noel said in an August ruling that the archives did not live up to its obligations under the Access to Information Act when The Canadian Press requested files six years ago on the first national NDP leader and one-time Saskatchewan premier.

"It is disappointing that the act's intent and the (archives') mandate have not been given their true scope, notably as this file concerns an influential and prominent Canadian," Noel wrote in the 90-page judgment.

The material released to date shows the RCMP's security branch shadowed the tub-thumping orator for more than four decades, attending his speeches, analyzing his writings and eavesdropping on private conversations.

His links to the peace movement and Communist party members especially piqued the Mounties' interest. Douglas, who died in 1986, openly rejected Communism but freely associated with many on the far left.

In 2006, the Library and Archives released just over 450 heavily censored pages in response to a request by Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill under the Access to Information Act.

Following a fruitless complaint to the information commissioner, Bronskill and The Canadian Press took the issue to Federal Court in 2009.

The government argues that full disclosure of the Douglas file would jeopardize the country's ability to detect, prevent or suppress "subversive or hostile activities" and could give away secrets of the spy trade.

But it partially lifted the shroud of secrecy a week before a court hearing into the matter began last February and disclosed hundreds of additional pages. It marked a new, more open policy on the release of historically significant documents.

Noel said in his recent judgment that the government did not go far enough. He gave the Library and Archives 90 days to carry out a new review of the file based on his ruling and a page-by-page analysis that made suggestions for further disclosure.

Hundreds of pages remain blacked out, to the frustration of Champ, who argued the case on behalf of Bronskill and The Canadian Press. Champ said Noel essentially ruled the government could withhold material about current operational interests and human sources.

"That's it, otherwise the court said they should be releasing everything."

Champ said he can't think of a good reason to keep the documents secret.

"Unless the government of Canada thinks that Communists are still plotting against our government in 2011, I don't see any reason why they're still withholding most of this information," said Champ.

"There's no contemporary concerns that Communists are still active in Canada or in any way a threat to Canada's national security, particularly Communists who were active 40, 50 and 60 years ago. But evidently the government takes a different view."

The names of the Mounties who spied on Douglas decades ago are also blacked out, even though the court said there was no reason to protect the identities.

The newly released materials reveal Douglas came under RCMP scrutiny in March 1936 while he was an MP of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, an NDP forerunner. A Mountie relayed word from a source that Douglas "was quite sympathetic and showed signs of coming much closer to the Communist Party," says a heavily censored memo.

Overall, 215 pages — about one-fifth of the file — remain completely secret, while many others have significant redactions.

Among the portions still partially withheld are analyses of Douglas drafted by the Mounties in the late 1970s or early '80s.

Champ said he's looking at what legal recourse is left to free more information.

"There may still be other avenues such as contempt of court." he said.

"We are obviously going to be asking the government for an explanation of why they are still withholding all of this information in the face of the court's really clear ruling. I don't know, maybe they have a good reason or a good explanation, but I just can't imagine it right now."

He said the case is about transparency in Canadian history. Why would the security service want to cover up history?

"I have no idea."