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BTL 2022

Documents reveal RCMP targeted health care activists in 1960s Saskatchewan

Declassified files show how Canada’s Cold Warriors took the fight to health care activists to protect the economic status quo

Canadian PoliticsHuman RightsSocial Movements

Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas speaking at the opening of the University Hospital in Saskatoon, May 14, 1955. Photo courtesy Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.

In early July, Ottawa-based author and former MP Dennis Gruending acquired a series of documents pertaining to the campaign for universal health care in 1960s Saskatchewan. The documents, which Gruending obtained through an access to information request, reveal that the RCMP considered supporters of the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act—“the first government-controlled, universal, comprehensive single-payer medical insurance plan in North America”—to be communist subversives and kept files on leading advocates of the bill, including former Premier Tommy Douglas.

Gruending explains that “the RCMP throughout that time spied on members of the Communist Party, but the police also cast a much wider net to basically spy on pretty well anybody with progressive tendencies.” This surveillance also targeted supporters of universal health care in the Prairies. They were tracked, monitored, and their activities recorded in an RCMP file titled “Medicare Plan Saskatchewan — Communist Activities Within.”

During this same period, the RCMP initiated a clandestine operation called PROFUNC, an acronym for “PROminent FUNCtionaries of the Communist Party.” PROFUNC was a “secret contingency plan” in which police would “round up and indefinitely detain Canadians believed to be Communist sympathizers.” The RCMP kept the names of approximately 66,000 suspected communists and “sympathizers” who, in the event of a “national security threat,” were to be separated from their families and locked in internment camps indefinitely. Detainees who attempted to escape would be shot.

The RCMP kept a sizeable file on each person on the PROFUNC list, routinely updated with their physical description, age, vehicle and housing information, and even the location of doors in their homes. Potential internees were by no means left-wing militants. One of them was a 13-year-old girl who attended an anti-nuclear protest in 1964. Another was Tommy Douglas himself.

While Canada often flies under the radar in Cold War retrospectives, deflecting criticism for its aggressive anti-left and pro-colonial activities onto the more brutely militarist United States, PROFUNC documents and those recently acquired by Dennis Gruending show that the Canadian government in fact administered widespread surveillance and repression against domestic communist, socialist, and simply progressive political forces. Under the banner of combatting “Soviet imperialism,” Canada’s Cold Warriors took the fight to health care activists, trade unions, LGBTQ+ people and advocates for their rights, and more. Parts of the civil service were purged of “subversives” (a category that included everyone from gay people to anti-war organizers), the routines of politically active leftists were monitored, and the RCMP traded lists of “suspected” communists with the CIA.

Meanwhile, Yves Engler’s Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping details how the celebrated former prime minister and Nobel Laureate led state attacks on the Canadian Peace Congress, deriding peace advocacy as a “Communist-inspired campaign” and members of the Congress as “the completely willing and skillful instruments…of a ruthless conspiracy which is intent on destroying the free world.” As Tyler Shipley writes, “The goal was to tar progressive values—from social equality to anti-racism to fair wages to peace…to ensure that the postwar arrangement was favourable to capital and to social conservatism.” In other words, the goal was to prop up the Canadian elite and their imperatives amidst the rising ride of social, economic, and political consciousness that followed the Second World War. Universal health care was one of the state’s targets.

During the fight for Medicare in the early 1960s, the organized medical establishment sided with the Canadian state and its enforcers, eventually collecting $100,000 to send anti-Medicare propaganda to every household in Saskatchewan. In July 1962, the doctors at the peak of the medical hierarchy went on strike, smearing Medicare as “socialized” medicine in a classic example of red-baiting that was meant to destroy public support for a de-commodified health care alternative. The public responded by organizing citizen-led community health clinics during a series of meetings in the summer of 1962. RCMP informants were present at these meetings. An internal report from June 27, 1962 lists the names of attendees and notes: “A very close watch is being kept on this group’s activities.”

During the doctors’ strike, locals recruited physicians from Europe to service their community-run clinics. The RCMP monitored these foreign doctors and communicated with their liaison office in Britain to gather information on new arrivals.

When the strike ended on July 23, the RCMP continued to monitor the activities of health care activists and local clinics. “In January, 1963,” reports Gruending, “two teams of officers staked out a Regina home during an evening meeting of individuals…who were organizing a provincial network of clinics. There was also surveillance on clinic organizers in Swift Current, Estevan, the Battlefords and other centres.”

In Gruending’s report on the declassified documents, he displays horror at the depths that the repressive apparatuses of Canadian capitalism sunk to in order to protect the province’s economic and political status quo—but this horror is coupled with a genuine surprise that the institution of the RCMP would act in such a hypocritical manner. “It is remarkable that the RCMP perceived medicare [sic] as suspicious, even communistic,” he writes. “The genesis and introduction of the plan were a testament to the democratic process.”

The RCMP’s response is not so remarkable when one remembers that the force began as the Northwest Mounted Police, a paramilitary dispossession brigade that operated in service of the Canadian colonial project, and to this day “engage[s] in regular acts of racial profiling, harassment, over-arrests, brutality, sexualized violence…killings of Indigenous [and Black] peoples at grossly disproportionate rates,” and the invasive monitoring of land defenders and anti-pipeline activists. At its core, it is an institution that exists to defend the current order against not only radical but even limited progressive change. The documents acquired by Gruending clearly illustrate this fact.

Sally Mahood, the daughter of two health care activists in 1960s Saskatchewan, told Gruending that her parents would not have been surprised to learn that they were targeted by the RCMP. “They were involved in an all-consuming political struggle at the time,” she said. “But they would not have been surprised. What distresses me is that the RCMP never has to account for why it harasses ordinary citizens engaged in political activity for good ends.”

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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