Risk on Sethna and Hewitt, 'Just Watch Us: RCMP Surveillance of the Women's Liberation Movement in Cold War Canada' [review]

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Christabelle Sethna, Steve Hewitt. Just Watch Us: RCMP Surveillance of the Women's Liberation Movement in Cold War Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2018. 318 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-5282-1.

Reviewed by Shannon Risk (Niagara University) Published on H-War (October, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53811

Christabelle Sethna and Steve Hewitt’s work charts Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Security Service and its “red-tinged prism” of surveillance toward women’s liberation and feminist groups in the 1960s and 1970s (p. 4). The authors argue that the RCMP was “a political police force charged with investigating ideological deviations from the state-approved norm” (p. 149). To chronicle the connections between state and surveillance, the authors faced a mountain of redacted documents and ephemera.

This book demonstrates the critical work done by historians. Analytical interpretation is essential when looking at redacted historical documents. Read at face value, the RCMP’s archive seems to indicate a “Trotskyist” domination of the women’s movement in Canada and a real threat to its institutions. The RCMP had developed its surveillance methodology during Canada’s western expansion on such groups as the Métis. The emergence of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) in 1921 further drove RCMP pursuit of what they perceived as “subversives,” indeed, often failing to distinguish between dissenters, labeling all as generic “Communists.” After the Second World War, as the Cold War kicked into high gear, Igor Gouzenko, a defected Soviet embassy worker in Canada, revealed a treasure trove of documents that worried members of the Canadian government and the RCMP. This further motivated the RCMP to surveil its own citizens. While there were certainly ties between some women’s liberation groups—of the “Old Left” and “New Left” varieties—and Communist, Marxist, and Trotskyist agitators, not all participants committed to a socialist outcome for their movement. Context about the motivations of women’s groups under surveillance is crucial, as is studying the ways that the state justified surveillance over these citizens. The end result was that the Canadian government spied on groups like the Voice of Women, New Feminists, League for Socialist Action/Ligue socialiste ouvriére, Montreal Women’s Liberation (Anglophone), the Ligue des femmes du Quebec, Front de libération des femmes, Women Against Soaring Prices, Canadian Union of Students, and other local and regional groups. The RCMP’s agents attempted to disrupt and sow confusion among these groups and saw them as deviants—not as healthy harbingers of a strong democracy where dissent is elemental. As the authors note in their introduction, “women’s liberation demanded not the violent overthrow of liberal-democratic governments but an end to the oppression of women” (p. 5). In the Cold War, the RCMP rivaled the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the British MI5 and MI6 in its probes of so-called dissidents, though with considerably fewer resources.

Sethna and Hewitt accessed archives from the women’s movement groups found at Library and Archives Canada, provincial archives, and university special collections, as well as government documents, published by Royal Commissions, for example, and unpublished documents, like many of the “Counter-Subversion” files (p. 258). They consulted participants in the women’s movements of those times, and their offspring and partners, to get at the interstices and the silences that archival documents do not always reveal. They surveyed more recent histories that incorporate discussions of race and alternate sexuality as deviant to the state and of minority groups that desired more autonomy to justify surveillance. The authors investigated histories of policing, including those about women in the RCMP, and of surveillance on the CPC, Housewives Consumers Association, women’s auxiliaries, queer Canadians, Francophones, Indigenous people, and those who endorsed Black Power. Their work corresponds to that of American scholar and activist Ruth Rosen, who chronicled the US FBI persecution of leftist groups. Key to Sethna and Hewitt’s research, certainly, are documents from the RCMP and the North West RCMP, some of which they bring to public light for the first time. Still, some primary source document collections eluded them for politically troubling reasons. They suspected the destruction of documents related to the Front de libération des femmes. The authors considered all of these factors, placing their research firmly into transnational evaluations of the surveillance state, including especially the United Kingdom and the United States. Canadian authorities provided intelligence to other countries and received some information in return. The RCMP, according to the authors, engaged in a kind of “archive fever,” gathering as much ephemera from those they surveilled as possible, without any sense of synthesis or solid interpretation, often to the point of placing an extreme burden on staff, filing, and storage resources. The process of gathering intelligence and the RCMP’s attempts to reform its own data collection systems over the years became part of Sethna and Hewitt’s narrative as well.

The red-tinged prism of the RCMP—which had emphasized a white, male viewpoint as normal and all other perspectives as abnormal—meant that women were not tentatively admitted to their ranks until 1974. The record for hiring people of color was dismal as well. Because of this, the RCMP’s analysis of women’s movement activities presented a “gender gap,” read through the narrow view of a white male gaze, hostile to any challenges to the status quo (pp. 6, 22). It was easier for RCMP officials to believe there was a grand Communist threat to Canadian legal institutions than to see that most of these groups were arguing for things they perceived would improve the lives of Canadian women and girls. Often, RCMP informants (including some women) described meetings, consciousness-raising events, protests, and even informal get-togethers of liberal women’s groups in misogynistic ways, dismissing the participants as “dykes,” and as slovenly, man-hating, unsatisfied women who had simply been left behind by society (p. 139). “Women’s Liberation,” an RCMP informant wrote in 1977, “like all other mass movements, is directed at, and appeals to the lower echelon of society (the worker, the disfavoured).... The movement is spotted, throughout with red”—clearly referring to both Communism as “reds,” as well as to women’s menstrual cycles (frontispiece images, pp. xi, 156).

Added to this construct were the struggles that women’s movement groups experienced within. They may have felt that they were swimming upstream in the early years, when members of the Old Left still drove protests against nuclear armament, Canadian complicity in manufacturing weapons for the Vietnam War, and other “maternalist” concerns. By the middle of the 1960s, however, dramatic shifts, introduced by a New Left, brought what moderate and conservative Canadians saw as “militance.” Some Old Left men and women changed with the times and worked with the upcoming generation of feminists who hoped to secure universal access to abortion as well as improved access to birth control, equal pay for equal work, wages for housewives, introduction and improvement of childcare and daycare options, support of labor union initiatives, and in some circles, a recognizance of the common humanity of Indigenous Canadians and people of color. For Francophone women in Quebec and elsewhere, there was also a desire to fight against Anglophone dominance—to them, a form of imperialism.

Groups like the New Feminists in Canada organized on a national and international scale a push for women’s access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion services in May 1970, sponsoring an Abortion Caravan, which saw groups originate in British Columbia and make their way toward Ottawa. Though limited abortion had been legalized by 1969, the process was still quite subjective and restrictive. The RCMP was fast on the Abortion Caravan’s heels, forever painting them contradictorily as both “subversive” and “harmless” (because they were merely women). This portrayal brought real security lapses from the RCMP, ultimately indicating that the male-centered agency fixated on supposed “red” connections, while dismissing women’s political saliency. The women marched to Parliament and then onto Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s front yard to call attention to their desire for wider access to abortion. Further, in 1971, during the American occupation and war in Vietnam, Canadian women’s liberation groups staged an International Women’s Day program that brought the Indochinese Women’s Delegation to the country for an Indochinese Conference, heightening RCMP spying. While the RCMP saw any political conversations controlled by anyone other than elite white males as subversive, the International Women’s Day program split open the divisions within the women’s ranks. The main problem at the conference was that many Canadian participants failed to recognize the anti-imperialist message brought by the Vietnamese women as their chief goal. To the Vietnamese visitors, and certainly Indigenous groups at home in Canada, Western imperialism was the bigger problem. The RCMP added racial profiling to the mix during these events whenever activists of color prominently appeared or called for unity of African, Asian, LatinX, and Indigenous diasporas. The RCMP did the same to those identifying with gay rights, believing that homosexuality compromised an orderly society. The authors write that the RCMP were “expecting ... to yield juicy proof of subversive” actions by “Communists, Trotskyists, Maoists, or New Left activists,” in this case connected to the Indochinese Conference, but “captured instead the broken promise of global sisterhood” (p. 114).

Sethna and Hewitt chart the intergenerational transitions amid the backdrop of the Cold War atmosphere, considering the ties of Canadian women’s movement groups to various leftist initiatives as well as groups in the United States, such as the Black Panthers. The historians acknowledge the dearth of documents on some groups, as archives might have been destroyed or withheld from public record. They note that it was impossible to write a comprehensive history given the redacted nature of the documents they reviewed. Still, they address the complex goals and self-narratives of international groups, as well as national, regional, provincial, municipal, and rural organizations that sought to better the lives of women and girls, as well as the backlash, itself in no way unified, to such proposals. The authors explain the denouement of RCMP surveillance on feminist and women’s liberation groups by the mid-to-late 1970s, pointing to actual terrorist acts committed by other groups, wider societal acceptance of some of the women’s goals, governmental commissions to study issues that affect women and girls, efforts to improve women’s legal status during the revision of the constitution in 1982, and greater, destigmatized access to birth control and abortion.

Sethna and Hewitt are modern historians who tussle with the ethics of conducting a study based on formerly classified materials whose subjects or their loved ones may still be alive. The last chapter of their work concentrates on the moral concerns of those who conduct research with live subjects and addresses the issue of how to deal with the “Mountie Bounty”—scores of archival material gathered by the RCMP that “is neither impartial nor untainted,” whose accuracy must be constantly questioned (pp. 34, 198). They ask: Whose identity should they protect? Should they inform those who might still be living that they were under surveillance? Might they attempt to expose corrupt Canadian governmental and RCMP figures? What if they discover that some RCMP informants for these groups actually comprised top leadership within the women’s movement themselves? And, finally, was their highest priority to protect the identities of those whose actions were chronicled by the state in often painstaking detail? They note that informants’ privacy was tightly concealed, but those under surveillance did not have that luxury. Because of this, there were real consequences for those surveilled, including a government blacklist that denied individuals jobs, loans, and access to programs.

This book should unsettle the reader. Indeed, the last chapter of this work resonates, forming the main pillars of thought: Why are the calls for equal treatment from women and minority groups perceived—then and now—as subversive? How much state surveillance of change makers is acceptable in a modern democracy? How does the red-tinged prism transfer in the age of terror (the authors demonstrate that the contemporary RCMP is up to its old tricks)? And what moral obligations do historians have to their subjects of study? There are no easy answers to these quandaries; however, historians seek a closer truth in order to facilitate tangible dialogues and policies shaped to the times in which we live. But even the avenues for activists and academics can be shaped by the power of the state. Their work, exposing and criticizing the methods of state surveillance, in turn, received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, a vessel of governmental funding. This research has real-time concerns. Sethna and Hewitt compromise their own safety as private citizens in order to pursue these coveted documents. In this sense, they as historians become activists, engaging their fellow citizens in dialogue about our role in maintaining a just and equitable society. What, indeed, is the “impact of surveillance on civil liberties” in our own times (p. 6)?

Citation: Shannon Risk. Review of Sethna, Christabelle; Hewitt, Steve, Just Watch Us: RCMP Surveillance of the Women's Liberation Movement in Cold War Canada. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53811

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