Canada’s Cold War – Part II

This is the second post in a series which examines Canada’s Cold War. In our first post, we provided a framework to situate Canada’s postwar interests within a North American security context. Canada’s foreign and domestic policy in this era was to a large degree predicated by its role in the Commonwealth, but the geo-strategic vulnerabilities of northern North America forced a reorientation of Canada’s national allegiances. The United States replaced Britain as Canada’s primary security partner, and the Cold War’s impact on Canada must be understood accordingly.

By definition the term “Cold War” is inherently misleading. Cold is the binary opposite of hot, and a hot war is one which includes open, armed military conflict. Yet it would be inaccurate to suggest that the Cold War was “cold” due to the lack of “hot” war. The Korean War (1950-53) and the Vietnam War (1959-75), although not global in scope, were both hot wars by definition that took place during the Cold War period. Historians generally agree that the temporal Cold War began in 1947 following the close of the Second World War in 1945, yet many who study in the field have suggested that the origins of postwar conflict can be traced back to European tensions of the interwar period (1919-38) or even to the First World War (1914-18). As the debate over temporal origins of the Cold War period continues, so too does the debate over its temporal end date. Did the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall – a barrier constructed by the German Democratic Republic in August 1961 to cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin – mark the end of the Cold War? Or should the end date be traced to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union?

The Cold War was a result of technological and ideological pressures of the Second World War, but the strain between the Soviet Union and the West that led to the Cold War partially began in the heart of Canada itself. On a cold night in September, 1945, a cipher clerk from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa trudged from one government building to another with an incredible claim. Igor Gouzenko had lived in Canada for two years and could not stand that a country that was so free and trusting was being spied on by his homeland. He walked the streets of Ottawa with 109 secret documents detailing Soviet spy networks in Canada stuffed in his jacket, determined to defect and remain in Canada. He went from the RCMP, who didn’t believe him, to the offices of the Ottawa Journal, who didn't care, to the Department of Justice, who had all gone home. Terrified, he and his family huddled in his neighbour’s apartment as they heard Soviet agents search his apartment for him and his stolen documents. It took two days for Gouzenko to be placed under the protection of the Canadian government. Prime Minister King, cautious as ever, debated with the Minister of Justice Louis St. Laurent and Deputy Minister of External Affairs Norman Robertson about letting Gouzenko commit suicide before taking the documents off his body. Eventually the Canadian government provided asylum to Gouzenko and his documents.

Gouzenko’s defection showed evidence of a Soviet espionage ring that had been set up in Canada and brought international attention to Western government infiltration. By the end of the 1940s, international hostilities were high, as the West was confronted by a much different enemy than it had defeated during the Second World War. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator and former wartime ally, was prepared to lead a Communist bloc which included all of Eastern Europe as well as China. A fear of Communism – otherwise known as a “red scare” – swept through Western countries, as democratic leaders proclaimed the dangers of potential communist ideology. Worse still was the fact that each side, West and East, were armed with atomic weapons and were in the midst of creating nuclear arsenals capable of global annihilation.

As the fear of nuclear attack loomed large, Canadians became increasingly wary about the Soviet bloc. South of the border, McCarthyism swept through the United States to root out “Communists” in what scholars have since called an all-out government initiated witch hunt. For Canadians, the events that unfolded in the United States were mesmerizing, and little did they know that their own government had set rules to screen out the Communist threat at home. In the late 1940s, Canadians generally thought of themselves and their government as more liberal, tolerant, and less erratic than their American counterparts. This may be the case, but in Canada Communism was perceived as a threat to society and the government (right or wrong) took action accordingly. The Canadian government purged left-wingers from the National Film Board of Canada in 1949 and tasked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to root through Canadian society as a democratic right-thinking police force. The RCMP targeted potential “Communists” as well as peoples who may or may not have had ties to the Soviet bloc. Canada’s Civil Service and trade unions throughout the country were targeted the most, as the RCMP suspended civil liberties to interrogate peoples with potential ties to the Communist East.

The Royal Commission to investigate the espionage was one of the most powerful commissions ever held in Canada since it operated under the auspices of the Canadian War Measures Act (which effectively said the Canadian government can do whatever it wants during war). The RCMP was allowed to investigate, arrest, and interrogate without regard to Canadians’ civil liberties. Partially as a result of that gross abuse of Canadians’ rights, Conservative MP John Diefenbaker would attack the Liberal government’s Commission and push for a Bill of Rights, which would be passed when he was Prime Minister in 1960 after more than a decade of Liberal resistance under King and St. Laurent. Later, a very different Liberal party would repatriate the Constitution and draft the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 to entrench the rights of Canadians to protect them against such actions.

Ultimately, the Gouzenko Affair exposed Soviet duplicity and sparked the Cold War. As a result, the late 1940s were a critical time for Canada. As an original signatory to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Canada agreed in 1949 to participate militarily against the Soviet bloc. In both political and public circles, Canadians had to come to terms with the reality that their pre-war isolationism was a thing of the past. Canada had just come out of one war only to enter an era of continued global conflict.