RCMP spies infiltrated Canada's women's movement in the early 1970s, monitoring meetings and rallies to keep an eye on feminists, including the popular Maritime singer-songwriter Rita MacNeil, new research into declassified documents shows.
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 representing 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 found the information as they sifted through hundreds of pages of declassified files detailing the RCMP Security Service's interest in women's groups that became active in the late 1960s.
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 — women by necessity at closed-door meetings but both male and 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 100 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.
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.