Monday, May 10, 2010

Creative anachronism, CSIS and l'affaire Douglas

More than twenty years after his death, CSIS is clinging to files on the legendary CCF/NDP leader T.C. "Tommy" Douglas, claiming that to release them would endanger "national security."

This is a family blog, but--bollocks.

Tommy was a fervent political activist who believed in social justice. He was a parliamentarian, not a revolutionary. But for decades, from the 1930s until the 1970s, he was shadowed by the RCMP. We are still not permitted to know why.

CSIS, the inheritor of the secret police functions that once belonged to the bungling, barn-burning Mounties, doesn't want the story told. And it is being assisted in this by a complaisant federal Office of the Information Commissioner.

Four years ago, a CP reporter named Jim Bronskill filed an Access to Information request with Library and Archives Canada to access the RCMP files. Under advice from CSIS, LAC refused to release a number of those records, on the grounds of privacy and--you guessed it--national security. Two and a half years later, the OIC agreed with the government that the documents, some of them 75 years old, "would put Canada's defence in jeopardy and hinder the 'detection, prevention or suppression of subversive or hostile activities.'"

The OIC has taken a heavy credibility hit since the departure of the combative John Reid and Harper's appointment in 2007 of Robert Marleau, by all accounts a biddable man:

During Marleau's tenure, two key bureaucrats who had aggressively challenged government secrecy were removed or left, and many seasoned investigators also quit.

Lawyer Michel Drapeau, who teaches access law at the University of Ottawa, said Marleau lacked the adversarial nature needed for an effective watchdog. Ken Rubin, a longtime user of the access law, argues that changes Marleau made in the office gutted its ability to investigate complaints.

Marleau quit in 2009 for "personal reasons," and was replaced on an interim basis by Suzanne Legault, who is carrying on the new lapdog tradition in style. No doubt she has little appetite for the Keening recently meted out to Paul Tinsley and Paul Kennedy. Under her watch, the Harper government has continued to interfere with access requests, stalling the process interminably. She hasn't lifted a finger. Hence the number of these requests has dropped off, and veteran investigator Ken Rubin doesn't even bother sending complaints of obstruction to the OIC any more.

The passive attitude of Legault's office and the active obstruction of Access requests by senior bureaucrats cannot even be challenged in court until the OIC process has been completed--and that can take years.

For the secrecy-obsessed Harper administration, things couldn't be better:

Typical of the draconian censorship was the government's decision six months ago to declare it couldn't release portions of a biography of Barack Obama that was included in briefing notes prepared for the prime minister. The government argued that the release of such details would put the defence of Canada or allied countries at risk.

"That's how ridiculous the situation has become," says Ken Rubin, a public-advocacy specialist who has been filing access requests for more than two decades.

Access users report that some departments now take between 150 and 240 days to release information. In one case, a union requesting information on changes to federal pay equity law was told it would take five years to get the documents.

But the Douglas matter is now before the courts--after four years, thanks to a lot of persistence and the help of a capable Ottawa lawyer, Paul Champ. And a wind assist has just been delivered: legislators, in a unanimously supported motion in the Saskatchewan legislature, last week demanded the release of the records.

The sin of anachronism has in the past been committed against Tommy by the Usual Suspects. A man of his time, he wrote a Master's thesis in 1933 supporting eugenics--well before the Nazis made it unfashionable. In 1967 he advocated helping homosexuals deal with their "mental illness" (the mainstream psychiatric view back then)--as opposed to throwing them into prison, which was happening at the time.

Now CSIS and the Office of the Information Commissioner are playing with anachronism as well. Unless it can be shown that Douglas was conspiring in the 1930's to help establish an Islamic Caliphate, everything we're now hearing from our secret police is utter nonsense.

What is far more likely--in fact, the only hypothesis that holds water--is that the RCMP was profoundly credulous and paranoid, and its ill-educated officers believed nearly anything their right-wing nutbar informants told them.* Those were the days, after all, when fluoridating water was held to be a Communist plot. In 1970, a young man who wrote a jokey letter to the Winnipeg Tribune claiming that Santa Claus was a Communist was visited by one of the boys in red, who warned him to abandon his subversive beliefs or face unemployment.

Nuts. Absolutely nuts.

Today this kind of gumshoe paranoia has been replaced with vast supercomputer networks monitoring global terror, spy technology out of science fiction, and all of the resources of the Internet. The release of records on a long-dead Canadian parliamentarian will neither give away current investigative methodologies nor provide aid and comfort to the long-dead Communist International, or to anyone else.

The potential for acute institutional embarrassment, on the other hand, is very high. Police do not like to be mocked. Our "tough on crime" government doesn't want to have the RCMP, its reputation already in the dumpster, look even worse. CSIS, badly battered after much questionable behaviour of its own of late, is no doubt concerned that the entire notion of "national security" might be brought into
further disrepute. Besides, keeping this absurd affair cloaked in secrecy helps to diminish or cloud the reputation of our greatest Canadian, something the screechy far right, currently being ardently courted by Harper, willingly embraces.

This case, I confidently predict, will go all the way to the Supreme Court. Hold your laughter until then, and let it build.

*Don't be surprised--and you read it here first--if this fellow turns up in the Douglas files. Pat Walsh was a political extremist, allied with fascist causes for years. He was an RCMP informant in the Herbert Norman case, although none too reliable (p.253).

1 comment:

knygathin_zhaum said...

apparently Martin Luther King's files are sealed until 2027, and the abdication files until 2036. Nothing too unusual here.