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Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada From the Fenians to Fortress America

By Reginald Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby

Review By Jeremy Buddenhagen

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 182 Summer 2014  | p. 231-233

Secret Service is the first full-length narrative on security intelligence in Canada since Stan Horrall and Carl Betke’s 1978 official RCMP history, Canada’s Security Service: An Historical Outline, 1864-1966. This is a significant achievement for the study of intelligence in Canada. The book traces a variety of perceived threats to national security beginning with Fenians in the 1860s, extending to Bolshevism and communism in the early and mid-twentieth-century, and concluding with Separatism and Islamic fundamentalism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In the process of exploring these threats, the authors reveal that Canada has had a long and dramatic history with espionage. They suggest that Canadian elites have been able to maintain power by waging clandestine assaults against certain segments of the population they deemed “subversive,” thereby sidestepping the democratic process. The authors term this a “secret history of conservatism” (11) in Canada.

One of the strengths of this book is its ability to transform intelligence history from a sub-discipline to a lens from which to view broader historical themes in the history of Canada. Of particular interest for British Columbia historians will be the exploration, in Chapter 2, of Vancouver immigration officer William Hopkinson. While Hopkinson was officially an immigration officer, he was secretly working as a spy for the Canadian government to investigate Sikh radicalism on the west coast before and during the Komagata Maru crisis of 1914. The authors weave together the historical narrative of Hopkinson’s activities to show how anti-Asian sentiments were institutionalised by secret regimes within the Canadian state. This is just one fascinating and powerful example of how “secret police with extraordinary powers… are an ongoing problem for a healthy democracy” (15). As the authors point out, a disturbing question is why the existence of a secret police has not been controversial in Canada.

“Democracy” serves as a dominant theme in the book, and at one point the authors note that a comparison with the East German Stasi “reveals a mild Canadian version” (9-10) of the same tools employed by totalitarian states to maintain power. Unfortunately the authors do not expand on this observation to include recent scholarship on intelligence theory. Olivier Forcade and Sebastien Laurent pointed out in their work Secrets d’Etat Pouvoirs et renseignement dans le monde contemporain, (2005) that there is a “reluctance” on the part of “Anglo-Saxon” (44) scholars to examine the role of secret police in the construction of liberal democracies. However, they also argue that this does not mean secret services have not been just as important to the construction of liberal democracies as to totalitarian states. While a deeper engagement with intelligence theory would have given this work an added dimension, it does not diminish the overall achievement.

This is a must read for anyone interested in intelligence in Canada and will no doubt set the pace of scholarly inquiry into the history of intelligence in Canada for some time. It is also a very important study for those interested in how the boundaries of race, class, gender, and difference were coercively enforced by a “secret state within the state.”

Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada From the Fenians to Fortress America
By Reginald Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby 
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 720 pp. $39.95 paper