The RCMP kept files on Paul Robeson, Maurice Chevalier and Pablo Picasso under a cabinet order to keep Communist subversives out of the country. Newly-released memos show cabinet rated Robeson risky, but feared looking “ridiculous” if it banned Picasso from visiting Canada.
Fifties-era Communist files of the RCMP Security Service and federal departments were released through Access To Information. Records show in 1956 the cabinet intervened to cancel a 17-city tour by Paul Robeson as a “United States Communist” though the singer had performed in Canada in 1945, 1946 and 1947.
Then-Immigration Minister Jack Pickersgill “raised this matter in cabinet on March 29 and his proposal to refuse entry was approved,” read a 1956 memo. The immigration department concluded Robeson’s Montréal agent Jerome Concerts & Artists Ltd. “is thought to be communist-controlled.”
“This was to be a straight concert tour and it was understood that Robeson would not attend meetings of any kind,” noted one memo; “Half the house has already been sold for the Ottawa appearance.”
A 1948 cabinet order permitted authorities to refuse a visa to anyone “seeking admission to Canada for the purpose of engaging in subversive propaganda” under the Immigration Act. The blacklist remains censored.
Jerome Myers, Robeson’s agent, protested the ban in private appeals to the Department of External Affairs. “To our knowledge not a single country in the British Commonwealth would today prevent Mr. Robeson from coming to present a concert tour,” Myers wrote. “We consider the Department ruling a high-handed and arbitrary interference in the concert management business and a denial of a renowned artist’s right to perform before the Canadian people.”
Files on Robeson date from 1952, when he scheduled a concert date in Vancouver. “I emphatically protest the entry of this man into Canada,” wrote Liberal MP Tom Goode of Burnaby, B.C. The department replied Robeson would be watched “if there is any suggestion he is going outside his sphere as a singer.”
“We’d Make Ourselves Ridiculous”
A 1950 invitation to Pablo Picasso to attend a Toronto convention of the Canadian Peace Congress prompted similar protests. “A confidential source reports that plans are being made,” the RCMP reported in a March 6, 1950 memo; “An unnamed ‘speaker from France’ has been promised.”
“The Communists have played a leading role in both the World Peace Congress and the Canadian Peace Congress and probably control both,” the Mounties said; “These movements follow the Communist line on international politics.”
“It is possible that Picasso may attempt to secure a Canadian visa and come to Canada to attend the conference,” the memo continued, describing Picasso as a “well-known artist”. Picasso never applied for a visa, to the relief of External Affairs Department staff.
“If…Picasso came to Canada he would presumably be engaged in addressing meetings and other public activities. He could obviously do less harm than a Communist who entered Canada secretly,” staff wrote; “We would make ourselves ridiculous in these matters as our friends south of the border so frequently do.”
The RCMP agreed to let Maurice Chevalier visit Montréal in 1951 though he was banned from entering the U.S. that year as a suspected Communist sympathizer. Chevalier had signed a Peace Congress-sponsored petition to ban the atomic bomb.
The Mounties in a June 19, 1951 memo depicted Chevalier as a harmless crooner duped by Reds: “Mr. Chevalier stated that he regretted having signed this petition, having done so without realizing its significance. This dishonest document has deceived a large number of people, including Canadian and United States citizens, and in view of these facts Mr. Chevalier’s signature to the document was not considered sufficient to prevent his temporary stay in the country.”
In Montréal Chevalier told reporters that “millions of Frenchmen have signed” the petition, and insisted he had no interest in politics. “Somebody came around asking if I was against the bomb, no matter who used it,” he said. “Well, nobody likes the atom bomb.”
The RCMP Security Service was formally disbanded in 1984 following disclosure of illegal activities.
By Tom Korski