CSIS destroyed secret file on Pierre Trudeau, stunning historians
Canada’s spy service destroyed a Cold War dossier on Pierre Trudeau in 1989 instead of turning it over to the national archives, The Canadian Press has learned.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service says the secret file on the former prime minister was scrapped because it fell short of the legal threshold for retention by either the service or the archives.
News of the decision to purge the file, which is coming to light only three decades later, has stunned and disappointed historians.
“It’s just outrageous, there’s no other word to describe it,” said John English, who wrote an acclaimed biography of Trudeau. “It’s a tragedy that this has happened, and I think the explanation is weak.”
Steve Hewitt, who has spent years chronicling the country’s security services, called the destruction “a crime against Canadian history.”
“This wanton destruction cries out for parliamentary intervention to ensure that historically significant documents held by government agencies are preserved instead of being made to disappear down an Orwellian memory hole,” said Hewitt, a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham.
The Trudeau file was among hundreds of thousands the Mounties inherited in the 1980s after the RCMP Security Service was dissolved following a series of scandals.
In a bid to uncover subversives out to disrupt the established order, RCMP spies eyed a staggering variety of groups and individuals, from academics and unions to environmentalists, peace groups and even politicians.
In 1988, James Kelleher, the federal minister responsible for CSIS at the time, directed the spy service to sort through the resulting heap of files.
Some RCMP records — including voluminous files on Quebec premier Rene Levesque and NDP leaders David Lewis and Tommy Douglas — were sent to the national archives.
Others were destroyed, including dossiers on prime ministers John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson. Still other files, judged to have current value at the time, went to CSIS’s active intelligence holdings.
Security records on individuals become eligible for disclosure under the Access to Information Act only 20 years after a person’s death. Until then, even the existence of a file is secret due to privacy considerations.
Rumours of a file on Trudeau, Canada’s third-longest serving prime minister, have circulated for decades.
A 1959 memo in the RCMP’s Levesque file indicates undercover officers duly noted Trudeau’s attendance at a gathering hosted by a Montreal artist.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has long worked closely with the Mounties, kept watch on Trudeau for more than 30 years, charting his path from globetrotting public intellectual who visited the Soviet Union in the early 1950s through his time as a Liberal prime minister.
The bureau’s heavily censored, 151-page dossier was released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act just months after Trudeau’s death in September 2000, in keeping with American disclosure practices.
The Canadian Press recently requested the former prime minister’s RCMP file under the access law from Library and Archives Canada and CSIS prior to the 20th anniversary of his passing next year, given that it can take many months to process such applications.
The archives swiftly replied that it does not have a Trudeau dossier. CSIS said its records indicate the file was destroyed on Jan. 30, 1989.
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