Has a Canadian passport become a preferred travel document for terrorists? This is a question being asked by the media (and apparently foreign governments) in the wake of the terrorist attack in Algeria involving a Canadian or Canadians and following the release of the report into the killing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in which a Canadian apparently had involvement.
The Harper government has added to this speculation with its proposal to strip naturalized Canadians of their citizenship if they become involved in terrorism. Although this rapid response will undoubtedly please many, the historical context suggests that a Canadian identity and passport will continue to be desired not just by terrorists but also by foreign intelligence agencies, and not for reasons to do with the ease with which Canadian citizenship and passports are obtained.
Concerns about citizen and passports and their use for nefarious purposes first rose in the 1930s when the RCMP reported to the government that members of the Communist Party of Canada were attempting to acquire the birth certificates of dead Canadians. These would then be passed on to Soviet intelligence to be used in the creation of identities for “illegals,” Soviet agents masquerading as Canadians while on espionage missions in North America and elsewhere. In 1940, such an agent, with a combined identity of two Canadians, including one who had died fighting in the Spanish Civil War, murdered Leon Trotsky in Mexico City.
In the aftermath of the Igor Gouzenko spy scandal a Royal Commission warned of the misuses of passports by Soviet intelligence, while an RCMP Commissioner noted that internationally Canadian passports were viewed as “useful in facilitating international travel and strangely easy to obtain.”
The RCMP pushed for decades for a tightening up of passport procedures, including the fingerprinting of all applicants to confirm identities. It also supported proposals to remove passports from Canadian Communists and even the citizenship of naturalized citizens if they engaged in subversive behaviour. Indeed, reforms to citizenship legislation in the early 1950s allowed Ottawa to strip naturalized Canadians of their citizenship if they had while abroad shown “by act or speech to be disaffected or disloyal to Her Majesty.” This power was never used before being repealed in 1958.
Nor was it just foreign intelligence agencies who sought Canadian passports for improper activities. In the 1960s, people smugglers acquired Canadian passports to facilitate the movement of their human cargo. And, notoriously, James Earl Ray obtained a Canadian passport as he fled the law after murdering Martin Luther King, Jr.
Friends of Canada have also helped themselves to Canadian passports. The Oscar favourite for best picture, Argo, documents a CIA operation involving the use of false Canadian identities and documents, albeit with the permission of Ottawa. The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, which reportedly has a passport factory, has famously used Canadian passports on assassination operations. In 1973, Mossad agents used Canadian passports in an operation in Norway which killed a Moroccan waiter who was mistaken for a Palestinian connected to the Munich Olympics terrorist attack. Twenty-four years later, two Mossad agents used perfectly forged Canadian passports in a failed assassination attempt against Khaled Meshaal, the political head of Hamas.
Soon after the Mossad debacle and until the present, the chief concern has been the use of Canadian identities and passports by terrorists. The case of Ahmed Ressam who attempted to enter the U.S. using a fraudulently obtained Canadian passport to carry out an al-Qaeda attack at LA International Airport being the best example of this until the recent incidents. The Ressam affair led Ottawa to introduce new measures to crack down on fraud. Making it more difficult to obtain a passport has not diminished the demand for it. Russian intelligence agents posing as fictitious Canadians were caught in 1996 and 2006 and deported.
And now the recent international terrorist incidents have renewed the discussion once again. In the past, Canadian identity and the passports that went with it were desired by a variety of interests because they allowed access to the United States and/or an ease of travel since moving about as a Canadian doesn’t require carrying the political and historical baggage that citizens of many other countries do. These factors still apply in the 21st century. They’ve now been joined by the amazing (and justifiably celebrated) diversity of the country through immigration to the point that there’s really not anyone in the world who can’t legitimately claim to be a citizen of Canada. Regardless of what measures the Harper government introduces to crack down on dual citizens, being Canadian will remain a desirable commodity.
Steve Hewitt is a senior lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. He is also the President of the British Association for Canadian Studies. He tweets @stevehewittuk.