RCMP in 1983 secretly assigned undercover officers to shadow a teachers’ union president, newly-released records show. Access To Information files detail elaborate surveillance in British Columbia in 1983 and ’84 over fears of a general strike.
“It is absurd and totally inappropriate,” said Larry Kuehn, former president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation who was monitored by plainclothes Mounties. “It is not subversive to disagree with a government.”
Confidential files of the RCMP Security Service were released by Library & Archives Canada. Records indicate police believed the Communist Party had infiltrated union groups protesting 1983 budget cuts.
“I wasn’t aware of this surveillance,” said Kuehn, 72, now research director for the Teachers’ Federation. “Ten years ago I asked for documents the Archives had from the RCMP Security Service, and the records they sent me were mainly from the 1950s and 1960s,” said Kuehn.
Police eavesdropped on Kuehn’s conversations with protest organizers, and on November 2, 1983 assigned two police to follow Kuehn as he met at a Vancouver diner with a local Communist Party member. The two spoke for 20 minutes, according to a surveillance report. “The individuals were too far away for any of their conversation to be overheard,” said the memo.
Kuehn met with Fred Wilson, provincial Party labour secretary. “I knew Fred and saw him at meetings,” Kuehn said yesterday in an interview. “We did not have a close relationship.”
Union protests followed a 1983 austerity budget that saw the province fire some 1,600 public employees and introduce legislation impacting labour contracts. A resulting strike shut down schools, courts, liquor stores and provincial government offices.
“It was a period with very deep anger and a sense of betrayal,” said Kuehn. “What the government did was attempt to bring about an end to a social safety net and labour rights. They wanted to sanction firing without cause.”
Feared A General Strike
Police feared a general strike in British Columbia, the first in Canada since the 1919 Winnipeg strike. “The possibility of a general strike is considered high,” said a November 2, 1983 RCMP memo Subversive Involvement In The Current B.C. Labour Dispute.
The B.C. Federation of Labour at the time formed Operation Solidarity, a coalition of union organizers and community groups opposed to cutbacks. Police at first saw little evidence of Communist involvement, but grew increasingly alarmed over alleged subversion.
A November 1983 memo concluded, “None of the information currently available indicates anything other than a peripheral role for any of our target groups. They have in essence jumped on the bandwagon and have played no significant role.”
By January 1984, RCMP feared Communists had gained influence. “The subversive movement was developing a significant voice,” said one confidential memo. “There is no intent on our part to imply in this submission that the entire Solidarity Coalition is subversive, nor that the Communist Party of Canada has been the sole instigator of the recent labour unrest in British Columbia. We do however believe that the Communist Party of Canada and other target groups are actively trying to exacerbate unrest that exists, and use their current efforts to build political momentum for future advantage.”
A follow-up memo dated June 1984 claimed Communist infiltration had grown. “The depth of subversive involvement in the Solidarity Coalition is extensive with Party people holding major positions within the group,” police reported. “It is not expected to be violent, but feelings are running high amongst the labour people in the province.”
Documents disclosed RCMP investigators tracked license plates of vehicles driven by union executives, and checked protestors’ names against a database of Communist sympathizers dating from 1959. Several memos indicated tips on subversion were provided by sources within Operation Solidarity. The names were redacted.
By Tom Korski