Ottawa — Remember Sergeant Preston of the Yukon? Well, the Mountie who always got his man is about to trade his trusted dog, King, for a trenchcoat and some bugging equipment.
Canada plans to go into the spy business. The government is opening a security agency that is a mixture of the FBI and the CIA.
A bill that would establish the new agency is now before the House of Commons in Ottawa. The Liberal government has a majority, so it appears the agency is almost certain to be created this year.
Most Canadians don't mind the CIA part, but a lot are nervous about domestic prying: mail opening, probing into income tax records, wiretapping without warrants, etc.
Some have already labeled the proposed agency a secret police force. The official name is the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. True to cloak-and-dagger form, it is already known by its initials, CSIS, and the government has named a senior civil servant, Thomas D'Arcy Finn, as the new boss.
Mr. Finn is a lawyer who has been involved in overseeing intelligence work for the Cabinet. The staff will come from the security service of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which has been in charge of foreign espionage activities as well as keeping an eye on any domestic subversives.
The Mounties have always been in charge of Canada's counterintelligence. They have not done much foreign spy work. Their overseas activities have been limited to vetting immigrants and refugees at Canada's embassies and to investigating international drug-smuggling operations. In the past East-bloc spies, who think Canada is a great place from which to look in on the United States, eluded the eye of the Mounties.
The problem is that it is difficult for a police force to run an espionage service. A policeman's job is to catch criminals and get a conviction, whether the person is a thief or a spy. An espionage service wants to interrogate a spy and perhaps turn him around. That conflict between the cop and the spy, along with the bungling of the Mounties in domestic matters, led the government to push for a civilian security service.
It is the prospect of a secret police force prying where it should not that has caused the political fuss about the CSIS.
A government-sponsored inquiry, the MacDonald Commission, looked into the activities of the Mounties and uncovered illegal wiretapping and opening of mail while the police force was investigating the Quebec separatist group, the Parti Quebecois. Although some say the party is subversive by nature, because it advocates the breakup of Canada, it has always been a legitimate democratic organization, and since 1976 it has been the elected government of Quebec.
It was the MacDonald Commission that recommended the Mounties be relieved of their security duties. But the political furor has flared because the government is not following another recommendation of the commission - that the CSIS be overseen by a committee of senators and members of Parliament.
As the bill stands now, not even the solicitor-general - the Cabinet minister in charge of security matters - would necessarily get reports from the director of the CSIS.