Eyes on Target: Military Domestic Surveillance in Canada - Guest Post by Trevor Ford

In wake of Bill C-51 being introduced in parliament, there has been much discussion about what kind of latitudes law enforcement agencies should have when it comes to terrorism prevention through the monitoring of Canadians. Today many Canadians know what CSIS is and how the RCMP complements their intelligence gathering abilities to combat all forms of perceived threats. Yet, in recent years there has been some alleged violations of their mandate by launching investigations on Aboriginal rights activists such as Associate Professor Cindy Blackstock who was researching welfare for Aboriginal children on reserves. Likewise, another Aboriginal rights activist Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer and professor at Ryerson University, has alleged that CSIS and the RCMP opened up investigations on her due to her association to the Idle No More protest movement. In both cases the entire story is unclear but it can be surmised from the available evidence that some form of investigation has taken place against both activists .

Idle No More 2013 by  Michelle Caron

Idle No More 2013 by Michelle Caron

In a historical context, these types of investigations are nothing new. Domestic intelligence in Canada has generally been understood as being conducted by civil-state organizations such as the RCMP and CSIS. One case has recently challenged this notion by implicating the Canadian military in conducting domestic spying on Canadians. This is interesting because the Canadian Forces mandate does not call for domestic surveillance of non-military Canadians. Although the power to do so exists, in recent decades it has seldom been used (unless it involved Canadian military installations or personnel). So it was surprising when this summer the National Post broke a story alleging that the Canadian Forces National Counter Intelligence Unit had exhausted its entire annual fiscal funding on the First Nations’ protest group, Idle No More.

Many Aboriginal protest organizers expressed shock that the Canadian Forces was monitoring the group so closely. But the military’s use of domestic surveillance against Canadians has a storied past. In fact, the Canadian military first began officially monitoring Canadian citizens as far back as the First World War. The Canadian Militia, as it was known then, operated a complex and entrenched system of intelligence gathering units across Canada during the Great War and afterwards to monitor any perceived threats. These threats ranged from German sympathizers and spies to union or socialist agitators. In the process of monitoring and interning these perceived threats, many innocent individuals and groups were unduly prosecuted.

Corps of Guides group at Niagara-on-the-lake  MIKAN PA-111891, Library and archives canada

Corps of Guides group at Niagara-on-the-lake  MIKAN PA-111891, Library and archives canada

The Department of Militia and Defence, the precursor to today’s Department of National Defence, was not originally willing to set up a domestic security force. Content to leave domestic security in the hands of the Royal North West Mounted Police, and Dominion Police, the military focused on evaluating Canada’s economic and industrial strength. Then in 1906, the Corps of Guides was formed. This organization was to be part of the non-permanent Militia whose duties involved accessing their assigned districts’ (Canada was broken up into a number of military districts) industrial and economic status. The Guides were also instructed on reconnaissance, and some minor intelligence duties like reading British intelligence pamphlets on foreign militaries.

Most importantly though, the Corps of Guides prided themselves on their equestrian traits, to the point that to become a member of the Corps, one had to be an expert in riding a horse in order to successfully compete in the annual Corps of Guides equestrian cup. In short, the Corps of Guides represented the upper echelons of society within the reserves of the Canadian Militia. Yet it was these part-time equestrian riders who were called on to form a domestic intelligence unit for the Canadian Militia at the outbreak of war in 1914. At the time, Canada was broken up into nine military districts. Each district in theory had a district intelligence officer from the Corps of Guides. It was these men who were suddenly ordered to take charge of their district’s internment operations in conjunction to the local police and open files on any known foreign military soldier. Not surprisingly, many false accusations were heard and the district intelligence officers imprisoned and monitored many innocent Canadians. That’s not to say that there were not any serious or legitimate threats. Unfortunately though, these newly minted spies began to learn their trade without any significant training.

It was soon recognized that many of these intelligence officers were acting too independently and without any clear direction. As such, in 1915 all Militia intelligence officers were amalgamated into the Military Intelligence Branch (MIB). Operating outside of the regular militia chain of command and in conjunction with civil police authorities, the MIB quickly grew in budget, size and strength. Unsurprisingly, the target of the MIB shifted through the war years, moving away from German agents and sympathizers and towards class provocateurs. The MIB had early on relied heavily on civilian informants to spy and report on people of interests. As bolshevism and socialism became a greater fear for the Canadian government, so did MIB’s intelligence network of informants on these groups. Little can be garnered from how many agents were used as their central intelligence files have simply disappeared. Nevertheless, a careful examination of the district intelligence files yield a great deal of information that point to the employment of hundreds of informants across the Dominion. If this is the case, it means that the MIB had more informants than either the RNWMP or the Dominion combined.

Captain, Corps of Guides. Courtesy Bryan Gagner

Captain, Corps of Guides. Courtesy Bryan Gagner

As the War years shifted into peace years, the MIB did not cease its operations, instead expanding them to the point that in 1920 the MIB was told to begin transferring their intelligence duties to the newly formed RCMP. Yet even this did not end their role in domestic intelligence. Files on organizations such as the KKK and Sinn Fein continued to be opened by district intelligence officers well into the 1930s.

Surprisingly, the Canadian military has a long history of watching Canadians for supposed security reasons. Whether their reasoning was justified is an unknown that can only be answered by proper research on the subject. Such is the job of the historian. Public awareness for these previous actions will be harder to galvanize. While there is a plethora of books on British, American, and Russian domestic surveillance on bookshelves of Chapters and other stores, there are practicably no popular history on Canadian domestic surveillance operations beyond the War on Terror. Blogs such as these are one way to inform the public of Canada’s shadowy past, but only the willing historian can reach back and shed light on it.