Investigates·CBC Investigates

Documents reveal how St-Laurent government extended secret Cold War wiretapping

On June 11, 1954, Bell Telephone Company president Thomas Eadie held a "top secret" meeting at his Montreal headquarters with Justice Minister Stuart Garson to discuss the government's plan to extend the RCMP's secret wiretapping program.

Government sought Bell Telephone Company's help to keep it going after Korean War

Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent's government secretly authorized the RCMP's first wiretapping operation, code-named Picnic. (Canadian Press)

On June 11, 1954, Bell Telephone Company president Thomas Eadie held a "top secret" meeting at his Montreal headquarters with Justice Minister Stuart Garson to discuss a looming problem. 

For three years, Bell had helped the RCMP run Canada's first covert wiretapping program, code-named Picnic, according to documents discovered by Trent University historian Dennis Molinaro.

He says police conducted surveillance on suspected Soviet spies, communist sympathizers and "subversives," including gays and lesbians working in the public service, who were thought to be vulnerable to blackmail and used wiretapping on some — all under secret authority signed off at the highest levels of the Canadian government.

Historian Dennis Molinaro of Trent University has found documents detailing the RCMP's Cold War wiretapping program. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

The original "secret order" was approved by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent's cabinet in 1951 under the Emergency Powers Act, which was invoked during the Korean War.

Details of the program were withheld from the public, the courts and other members of Parliament.

But by 1954, the fighting was over and the act was set to expire, leaving the RCMP's surveillance program in jeopardy.

The justice minister was in Montreal to try to convince Bell Telephone to agree to a new arrangement to extend the secret wiretapping during peacetime.

It was a big request given the political climate at the time and Bell would insist on some cover.

House debate 

The government's rivals in Ottawa had long been agitating for an end to the wartime Emergency Powers Act. 

In a House of Commons debate in 1953, Progressive Conservative Leader George Drew called on the government to end "any activities the nature of which Members of Parliament are not aware of."

St-Laurent told the House of Commons he'd briefed Drew on the general purpose of the secret order. But St-Laurent offered Parliament no details other than stating the special measure allowed Canada to do "what all governments of the NATO countries are doing."

Historian Molinaro, who found the documents to piece together what we know of the wiretapping program and the existence of the secret order, says the RCMP was eager to continue its counter-espionage Picnic program.

In a letter to the Privy Council in April 1954, RCMP Supt. J.R. Lemieux said Picnic is "of the greatest value" and proposed an extension. He also drafted a secret letter for St-Laurent to provide to telephone companies as "assurance" of the propriety and legality of the wiretaps.

RCMP Supt. J.R. Lemieux's letter to the Privy Council in April 1954. He said operation Picnic is 'of the greatest value' and proposed an extension. (CBC)

Molinaro found documents that show the wiretapping authorization was used 63 times between 1951 and 1954, and 58 of those wiretaps involved Bell Telephone Company.

British ex-spy advises government

Peter Michael Dwyer, who had worked for Britain's MI6 spy agency, was employed in Canada's Privy Council Office in Ottawa at the time. 

The former spy provided cabinet with six pages of analysis. He said "a wiretap is simply a clandestine method of acquiring information vital to the security of Canada."

He said the practice is "distasteful" but necessary because Canada's foreign intelligence adversaries are "ruthless and amoral."

Bell demands rent, letter

The St-Laurent government decided to extend secret authorization to the RCMP using the search warrant provisions of the Official Secrets Act.

Bell Telephone president Thomas Eadie ultimately agreed to co-operate, but demanded several concessions and guarantees from Ottawa, according to the minutes of the meeting with Garson in Montreal.

First, Bell demanded the RCMP pay rent for using Bell's "monitoring facilities."

Second, Bell would only accept a search warrant issued by the RCMP commissioner himself (in those days, senior Mounties served as justices of the peace).

Third, Bell insisted the warrants only be served at its offices in Ottawa and only to the assistant to the president.

Fourth, Bell demanded the deputy justice minister provide a letter stating the government was confident the wiretapping was legal.

Finally, Bell insisted the RCMP keep the "arrangement" secret from other police forces lest Bell be swamped with requests.

In a statement to CBC News, Bell spokeswoman Jacqueline Michelis said the documents Molinaro discovered "underscore that Bell has always complied with the law."

"Bell would provide government or law enforcement with access to information only with proper legal authority compelling us to do so."


Dave Seglins

CBC Investigations

Dave Seglins is an investigative journalist whose recent work includes exposés on global ticket scalping, offshore tax avoidance and government surveillance. He covers a range of domestic and international issues, including rail safety, policing, government and corporate corruption.