The gang that couldn’t spook straight

ROBERT LEWIS November 14 1977

The gang that couldn’t spook straight

ROBERT LEWIS November 14 1977

The gang that couldn’t spook straight


Not since the Rivard and Munsinger scandals of the mid-Sixties had there been such an uproar in parliament. The newly installed TV cameras had arrived just in time to spice daily newscasts with scenes from the House of Commons of allegations and smears, cat-calls and jeers, special debates and little sideshows related to one dominant theme: What have the Royal Canadian Mounted Police been up to and who is responsible? As the long-simmering Mountie question exploded on parliament this month, it had all the makings of becoming one of the biggest challenges Pierre Trudeau has faced since he became Prime Minister almost 10 years ago.

It’s impossible to pin down exactly when and where the turmoil began, but if one date stands out it is that now famous night of October 6-7, 1972, when the vacant Montreal offices of a left-wing news agency, L'Agence de Presse Libre du Québec (APLQ), were broken into by police from three forces—the RCMP, Quebec and Montreal. The facts of that case were kept under wraps for more than three years, until March, 1976. Then the embarrassed Trudeau government began insisting that the APLQ break-in was an “isolated incident”—until last July. That’s when Solic-

itor General Francis Fox learned about—but did not make public—two more illicit RCMP actions in Quebec in 1972 and named a Royal Commission, under Alberta Supreme Court Judge David McDonald, to investigate the force. The gory details of a barn burning and the theft of dynamite finally emerged this month during hearings by a Quebec government commission in Montreal, headed by lawyer Jean Keable.

Just as that news broke, the country was treated to a rapidfire sequence of fascinating events and allegations:

• Fox revealed yet a fourth illegal Mountie action, a break-in and theft of membership lists of the Parti Québécois from a Montreal office in January 1973.

• First Tory MP Elmer MacKay, then his party leader Joe Clark, found suspicious electronic devices—possibly bugs—in their parliamentary offices.

Worse was yet to come. While solicitorgeneral, Warren Allmand sought and obtained from the RCMP a report on a second incident at an APLQ office. This report, Maclean's has learned, involved the discovery on October 12, 1973, of a break-in and the planting of electronic bugging devices at an office into which the APLQ had moved after the first break-in. Maclean’s has also learned that four new, as yet-undisclosed, cases of illicit RCMP activity have been brought to the attention of the McDonald commission. All four took place in the same 1972-73 time period in Quebec and are not related to the APLQ. If they are confirmed, that would bring to nine the number of individual incidents involving the Mounties in Quebec. Fox himself, anxious to knock down suggestions of a political cover-up, says there also are allegations against the RCMP from the other nine provinces before McDonald, some of which “may be found to be true.” In addition, a third inquiry into the RCMP in Edmonton under Alberta Supreme Court Justice James Laycraft was due to resume hearings this month into potentially explosive charges of RCMP bugging of Edmonton policemen (see page 24).The third ring in the security circus is the Keable inquiry, which originally was established to look into the APLQ break-in but now has been expanded into a probe of the new charges against the Mounties in Quebec. The result of that inquiry is expected to be an unmitigated assault on the stature of the federal force in Quebec.

Who talks to whom: a security primer

The government stoutly insisted that it neither approved of, nor knew about, any clandestine activities by the RCMP and, indeed, so far there has been no firm proof that it did. In the weeks ahead, both Keable’s Quebec probe and a slow-starting McDonald inquiry will be hearing testimony under oath from the principal players and it is possible that protestations of innocence by federal ministers will be refuted by police officers who could be on their way to prison.

Of one thing there can be no doubt: the stock of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, one of the nation’s enduring mythologies, is at its lowest ebb in history—and with the situation in Quebec, possibly at the worst time in history.

On the basis of the sorry record to date, the root of the problem is the 1,900-member Security Service (ss) of the RCMP, formerly headed by John Starnes—a civilian handpicked for the job by Trudeau—and now under Lieut.-General Michael Dare. Despite an elaborate network of security agencies in Ottawa (see chart), the ss became, in the wake of the October Crisis of 1970, a force unto itself, operating outside the law. If ex-members of the high command and present members of the Trudeau government are to be taken at their word, the ss simply did not tell its superiors or its political masters what it was doing. The Trudeau government, having ordered the RCMP to step up domestic intelligence-gathering after 1970, when the force was sadly uninformed on domestic terrorism, seemed unconcerned about ss methods. When the Mountie intelligence started pouring in—lists of alleged subversives in government, lists of suspected “sympathizers,” and lists of PQ members— Trudeau and his ministers didn’t bother to ask how the information was obtained. The whole tumultuous debate raised profound—and still unanswered—questions about the constitutional responsibilities of cabinet to oversee and control the day-to-day activities of the national police force, but provided few insights into how far the Trudeau government might be prepared to go in allowing national security concerns to override civil liberties. The key elements in the process:

• Robert Samson, a former undercover Mountie, was on trial in Montreal in March, 1976, for planting a bomb outside the home of Steinberg’s grocery chain president Melvyn Dobrin. In the course of testimony, Samson blurted out that he had “done worse things for the RCMP than plant bombs,” and then revealed his central role in the APLQ break-in in 1972. Samson subsequently was convicted of the bomb charge and was sent to prison for seven years.

This, according to Trudeau and his ministers, was the first they learned about the break-in in 1972. They asserted that they were not informed by the RCMP. It was certainly the first time the matter became public. The opposition demanded a full inquiry into the affair. But Solicitor General Francis Fox rejected the call:

“The government received repeated and unequivocal assurances from the RCMP that the APLQ incident was exceptional and isolated ..June 17, 1977.

• Don McCleery, a 20-year veteran of the RCMP and the key figure in the discovery of kidnapped British diplomat James Cross in 1970, was dismissed from the force on December 6, 1973. The reason given: his association with Montreal businessman Mitchell Bronfman, of the Seagram dynasty, who was an acquaintance of reputed underworld figure Willie Obront. As part of his 3‘/2 year campaign for reinstatement, Maclean's has learned, McCleery decided to volunteer information to the federal government about illicit RCMP activities. Last June 23 he met for six hours in Montreal with Philippe Landry, assistant deputy attorney general, and Roger Tassé, then deputy solicitor general to Fox (now deputy minister of justice) and revealed for the first time his role in the barn-burning and dynamite theft in 1972.

According to details that emerged before the Keable inquiry this month during testimony by RCMP Sergeant Claude Brodeur, McCleery headed a special unit known as G-4 which played dirty tricks on suspected terrorists. One of the actions was to burn down a bam in Quebec’s Eastern Townships which was to have been used for a meeting between members of the FLQ and the U.S.-based Black Panthers. The meeting never took place. The unit also stole dynamite from a construction site which, sources reveal, was intended to be planted on suspected terrorists. Instead the RCMP duped their colleagues in the Quebec police force by anonymously alerting them to the stashed dynamite, which the provincial police then confiscated.

Brodeur’s stunning testimony about RCMP arson and theft landed as a bombshell on the Keable inquiry. Reading from a prepared statement and at times almost breaking down as he talked of his devotion to the force, Brodeur presented the picture of a Mountie who was willing to take on any task that would get him out of the office and onto the streets. When McCleery asked Brodeur in late 1970 or early 1971 if he wanted to join a special unit — G-4 — he leapt at the chance. The members were chosen, Brodeur said, “for their way of seeing things, their availability, their way of reacting in tight situations, their physical resistance—guys who were more operationals than administrators.”

At one point, Brodeur was asked how he reacted to the order to bum the barn. “No reaction,” he said. Why not? “The last guy who reacted in front of McCleery was transferred.”

As a result of McCleery’s revelations to federal authorities last June, Fox announced the formation of the McDonald Commission to examine the APLQ incident and the new allegations from McCleery. Said Fox: “The APLQ incident, according to those who made the allegations, was not of an isolated and exceptional character... "— July 6, 1977.

On September 20, two months after referring the barn-burning and theft to McDonald, Fox also informed Quebec Attorney General Marc-André Bédard of the incidents for possible criminal prosecution. Fox rebuts opposition criticism of the two-month delay by stating that federal justice officials advised him to send the charges to McDonald. But when it became clear that McDonald would not have his inquiry underway by September, as previously expected, federal officials reconsidered their decision.

• Lieut.-General Michael Dare, head of ss for the RCMP, attended a special meeting with Fox in Ottawa on October 21, at which Dare informed the Solicitor General that the Mountie brass had prelim i-

nary indications from an internal investigation of potential illegal RCMP activities against the Parti Québécois. Over the weekend the RCMP and federal officials developed details. On October 27 the charges that the RCMP had broken into a Montreal office and removed PQ membership lists were referred to the McDonald commission. The next day, as Fox started reading his statement on the affair to the Commons, a special courrier was in Quebec City to turn the same information over to Bédard.

The disclosure that the Security Service, acting on orders from the government to find out more about separatists, turned to spying on a democratic political party created a furor in parliament. But Trudeau, asked at a news conference whether in retrospect he wished he had ridden harder on the RCMP, said: “Even with hindsight any government has to tread a very narrow line between what would be

rightfully denounced as political interference on the one hand, and what would rightfully be denounced as political negligence on the other. We try to meet this dilemma by exercising general control of the Security Service but keeping out of its day-to-day operations.’

Despite the partisan uproar in parliament, Trudeau conceivably may have tapped a well of public support with his striking assertion that in matters of subversion and terrorism “the law has to be broken technically” by the Security Service.

The broader issue arising from the revelations and allegations is what kind of security service, with what powers, do Canadians want the RCMP to have? Inside the Canadian security establishment there is a deep concern that a new morality may handicap domestic security operations in an age of international terrorism and potential violence in Quebec.

For now, apparently, the spooks and agents provocateur have gone to their desks. With prospects of jail terms facing several security officers, says one senior intelligence official, operations in Quebec have ground to a halt: “They aren’t even opening a door knob now.”