Volume 92, Issue 51

Thursday, December 3, 1998

shifting alignment


Students under surveillance

Gazette file photo compilation

Gazette Staff

It sounds like something out of a spy thriller red coats meet purple pride.

As Western students and faculty dabbled in socialist theories and debated the pros and cons of communism during the Cold War, newly released documents show the Royal Canadian Mounted Police kept a close eye on the campus, gathering intelligence on student clubs, activities and speeches.

The RCMP, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, followed campus activities from as early as 1948. From tuition sit-ins to Vietnam War debates to student demands for more representation on Western's Board of Governors, the RCMP filed records.

The documents are part of 366 pages of investigative reports on the university obtained by The Gazette under the Access to Information Act. The National Archives in conjunction with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service released the pages, which have significant portions blackened out. They would not release another 390 pages which are still considered classified.

The RCMP gathered its information from surveillance made by members of its London office as well as through clippings of various newspapers, including The Gazette.

Their largest concern seemed to be the emergence of radical political groups on campus.

Under the heading "subversive activities at UWO" an officer wrote in 1950 that attempts were being made by students who harboured left-wing sentiments to organize left-wing groups at the university.

From 1951 to 1961 several "known communists" tried to start movements at Western but were unsuccessful. "The student body as a whole, on most issues placed before it, exhibit a strong anti-communist view-point, as did the university publication The Gazette," a 1961 report states.

However, the RCMP's fears came true in 1963 when two third-year students decided to start a Communist Party on campus.

That year, the Communist flag was hung from the Natural Science building by the new Communist Party, apparently to protest apathy at the school, an act which was criticized by some students.

Wrote one officer in a 1966 record, "Since the subject has indicated that he intends to form a Communist Club on the campus of the University of Western Ontario, I wonder what his status is in this country?"

When the Society of Graduate Students held a lecture series called Dialogue '67 about the processes of social change, it was filed under the heading "Communist Infiltration of Educational Process." Surveillance of the event occurred until a reception in the Graduate Student Lounge began.

The society's series criticized capitalism, blasted American involvement in the Vietnam War and featured a speaker from the American Institute for Marxist Studies.

Other clubs were also investigated. In 1965, the RCMP noted the activities of the New Democratic Party's club, which condemned American policy in Cuba as a violation of Cuban rights. Information about the NDP was filed under the heading "Trotskyist Activities in Political Parties."

Political science professor Sid Noel says he is not surprised the RCMP had a file on Western since it was the force's job to collect information. "Any presence they had must have been pretty discreet."

Noel says communist groups tended to break up over philosophical differences, but at Western they were bitterly split over whether they should be allowed to smoke at meetings.

But not all student activity was frivolous or comic, Noel says. There was industrial unrest and during the '70s students joined workers on picket lines. "The serious stuff didn't take place on campus," he says.

Personal comments by Mounties also provide an insight into the general student interest in politics on campus. RCMP files make several references to student apathy towards University Students' Council politics, even among student council members.

The sarcasm in this 1974 report is revealing: "In observing many of the members of the university community, they appear infatuated with their own little campus world, feel quite secure within the hallowed halls of the university and seem to feel immune and oblivious to the real world outside.

"Given the current situation and barring unforeseen circumstances, if the University of Western Ontario is to be the hotbed of revolution in Canada or southwestern Ontario, the revolution is probably scheduled for some date following the celebration of our force's second centenary."

The RCMP was also interested in internal university politics student events such as forming a history council, lobbying for more representation on Western's Board of Governors and protesting a $12 parking fee in the 1960s.

The Mounties even took interest in several student council elections, noting how many students voted and obtaining information about the candidates.

In June 1968, an officer predicted, "Life at the university is going to be very unpleasant in September." The writer was referring to student unrest over a $25 tuition increase and a student housing project which would not be completed on schedule because of labour strikes. In protest, students held a mass tent-in, erecting tents all over the campus.

Ironically, there were rumours in the '60s that the RCMP were investigating students rumours documented in RCMP files.

In 1963, Canadian University Press announced it would start a survey of campus newspapers to determine if the alleged RCMP investigations of student activities were true. At least one student was critical of the survey. "Let us support the RCMP in its efforts to preserve our precious freedom," the letter to The Gazette said.

The Association of University Teachers was also concerned about rumours and believed investigations could hamper academic freedom. In a newspaper article the association stated, "the whole basis of academic freedom will be impaired if the student is aware that what he says or does in exercising an inquiring mind... may at some later date prejudice his future because reports of his opinions have found their way into an RCMP file."

An ironic clipping came from the London Free Press in 1963 about the formation of a Communist Party club on campus. The story states, "an RCMP spokesman said today that RCMP are aware of [the club] 'but we are not interested in it.'"

Most of the newspaper clippings on file are from The Gazette. The force not only used the student paper for information about events, but articles themselves became subjects for concern. In 1965, The Gazette published an editorial poem which condemned the Progressive Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats. "It's time for a change. Vote Communist. It's worth a try," the editorial said.

The Gazette called for an end to Remembrance Day in 1966, stating the day had become a time to glorify war and had outlived its purpose. And in 1971, it published an editorial which blasted the War Measures Act, under the headline "Oppression."

The released documents record RCMP activities until 1977.

The CSIS was created in 1984 and took over intelligence duties from the RCMP that year. CSIS spokesperson Marcia Wetherup says the group has a very restricted mandate. When asked if Western was still being investigated today, her answer was direct.

"That would be ludicrous," Wetherup said. "We only investigate individuals involved in acts of terrorism and espionage."

To Contact The Focus Department: gazette.focus@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998