RCMP spied on Rita MacNeil, feminists in 1970s
Published Monday, August 4, 2008 10:04PM EDT
OTTAWA- RCMP spies infiltrated the women's movement in the early 1970s, monitoring marches and rallies to keep an eye on feminists including Rita MacNeil, who would become a much-admired Maritime songstress.
An undercover source reporting on a March 1972 gathering of women's liberation groups in Winnipeg compiled biographical sketches of several delegates, noting MacNeil was in attendance from the Toronto Women's Caucus.
"She's the one who composes and sings women's lib songs," says the RCMP memo, portions of which remain secret.
MacNeil, who lent her musical talents to the feminist cause before turning to music full-time, was among dozens of women from across the country who came under Mountie scrutiny, new research reveals.
The entertainer was not immediately available for comment, nor was her manager.
Historians Steve Hewitt and Christabelle Sethna sifted through hundreds of pages of declassified files detailing the RCMP Security Service's interest in women's groups that began flowering in the late 1960s.
Hewitt, a longtime chronicler of RCMP intelligence efforts, and Sethna, who specializes in women's studies, married their respective academic interests in jointly delving into the little-explored subject.
They have collaborated on three papers describing a strange collision of worlds that saw the highly regimented and male-dominated RCMP security branch struggle to understand a new generation of women who shunned traditional female roles to agitate for equal pay, sex education in schools and access to abortion.
It has long been known that the now-defunct Security Service spied on a vast array of groups -- from trade unionists to student associations -- during the Cold War with the aim of gauging the potential threat from left-wing subversives, possibly linked to hostile foreign powers.
The force opened the file "Women's Liberation Groups -- Canada" on May 13, 1969.
The Mounties pored over pamphlets, position papers, announcements and meeting minutes. They also relied on informants -- females by necessity at closed-door meetings, but either male or female spies at open sessions.
While the Mounties recognized the groups were out to "stop so-called exploitation of women," as one officer put it, the force was much more concerned about the apparent infiltration of the movement by avowed Communist interests.
"They were more interested in the political angles and whether these were leftists that were involved in these groups," said Hewitt, a Canadian lecturer at the University of Birmingham in England. "And meanwhile there's this really dramatic social change going on almost right under the noses of the police."
The memo on the Winnipeg conference describes one session as "consisting of about one hundred sweating uncombed women standing around in the middle of the floor with their arms around each other crying sisterhood and dancing."
Women's groups emerging from the New Left rejected standard notions of leadership as elitist, turned public protest into playful performances, took issue with capitalism and dismissed conformist ideas of middle-class femininity, the authors note.
The Mounties, used to keeping tabs on organizations run by men, didn't know quite what to make of the long-haired women in scruffy blue jeans.
"They were at a loss to understand their strategies, their goals, their tactics," said Sethna, who teaches at the University of Ottawa.
The RCMP took a keen interest in the Vancouver Women's Caucus and the group's 1970 Abortion Caravan, which trekked across the country to protest the law regulating termination of pregnancies.
Despite the fact Mountie spies kept close watch on the Caravan, participants who made the journey to Ottawa would outwit the force, successfully occupying the lawn of the prime minister's residence and depositing a symbolic coffin at the door. Later they would sneak bicycle chains into the House of Commons, lock themselves to seats and loudly denounce the abortion law.
Hewitt and Sethna conclude the Security Service did not consider a rag-tag band of feminists of sufficient importance to warrant beefing up police ranks. The RCMP simply didn't take the women they were spying on as seriously as male targets
"The Mounties couldn't break free of the sort of sexist stereotypes they had of them," said Hewitt, author of Spying 101, about RCMP surveillance of Canadian university campuses over the decades.
Dr. Henry Morgentaler, instrumental in the fight for access to abortion, surfaces in the RCMP memos, though in one early-1970s instance he is referred to as "a Dr. Morgenthaller" -- another reflection of the relative mystery surrounding the movement at the time.
But for the RCMP, the focus was the lurking Red Menace.
After the Mounties acquired League for Socialist Action leaflets about the Caravan, the head of the Security Service pointed out the connection to a senior security official in the Privy Council Office in Ottawa.
The missive said word of the Trotskyist links to the Caravan "may be disseminated at your discretion, however, the RCMP is not be named as the source" -- a thinly veiled invitation to pass the information to politicians and the media .
Ultimately, the authors point out, the women's movement would help bring about revolutionary social change far surpassing the predictions of even the wary Mounties. It would soon transform the all-male force itself, paving the way for female officers.
Sethna stresses women at the time were fighting for nothing less than equality in society. "Their project is massive. It's more massive than the RCMP, or many people in Canada for that matter, could really understand."