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Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Federal Justice Minister John Turner share a brief word during a break in the Constitutional Conference on Feb. 8, 1971. (CP PHOTO/ Chuck Mitchell)

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Federal Justice Minister John Turner share a brief word during a break in the Constitutional Conference on Feb. 8, 1971.CHUCK MITCHELL/The Canadian Press

New research based on previously classified documents has revealed a secret operation within the office of prime minister Pierre Trudeau to gather intelligence about Quebec separatists after the 1970 October Crisis through a task force that was strongly opposed by a senior RCMP official at the time.

The effort appears to have lasted only between 1971 and 1972, however, before it was undone by John Starnes, then head of the Mounties’ intelligence wing.

Mr. Starnes, the RCMP Security Service’s director-general, kept notes on his meetings with top political officials, documenting his warnings to them that a “political scandal of major proportions” could erupt – especially if the public ever learned that Mounties were encouraged to work with the Prime Minister’s Office.

Mr. Starnes’s accounts were accessed by Dennis Molinaro of Ontario Tech University and Philip Davies of Britain’s Brunel University through records released under access to information laws. Their paper, published this week by the journal Intelligence and National Security, is titled The FAN TAN File – a reference to the RCMP’s code name for the special task force established within the PMO. The PMO and the RCMP had no comment Tuesday on the paper.

The researchers, who say they plan to post the source documents online, say the released materials cover a period after October, 1970, when Mr. Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act to stop a kidnapping and bombing campaign by Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ).

FLQ operatives had murdered a Quebec cabinet minister and kidnapped a British diplomat. The FLQ threat then faded, but the rising electoral fortunes of the separatist Parti Québécois posed a new challenge to Canadian federalism.

The researchers say records reveal that, starting in early 1971, PMO officials held meetings that invited some select RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces commanders to a 15th-floor office building in downtown Ottawa. “The FAN TAN group was headed by Prime Minister Trudeau’s principal secretary Marc Lalonde,” they write. “It is important to stress ... this placed the group within the Prime Minister’s Office, that is to say, his party political office.”

One early attendee was RCMP sub-inspector Joseph Ferraris who later briefed his bosses – in writing – to say that the purpose of group was not just talk: It was “to coordinate all means of action against separatism.” According to the essay, he also wrote that the group’s goal would “obviously be a direct attack on separatism and subversion in Quebec through any means at their disposal.”

What means were to be employed are not clear. In broad strokes, the researchers write that the discussion was that the PMO could undertake to provide police tips about suspected subversives in Quebec. Meantime, the Mounties could circulate back high-level situation reports. The RCMP’s Mr. Ferraris characterized this as “a system of information gathering in the Province of Quebec making use, principally, of the Liberal Party organization.”

But records reveal that as soon as Mr. Starnes learned about the operation he wanted it shut down. “It seemed to me that the government could be seriously criticized for attempting to use the facilities of the Security Service to carry out political action,” he wrote in his notes.

According to the researchers, Mr. Starnes extracted a top-level political promise that the Mounties would not work directly with the PMO.

But he remained concerned about any indirect contact because the PMO is not a branch of government, but instead an arm of the governing party. Such partnerships, he alleged, risked co-opting security officers into surveillance that was political and not related to police work. “It was one thing for the Liberal Party to use its apparatus to oppose and defeat the aims of a political party such as the Parti Québécois,” Mr. Starnes wrote in a memo. “It was quite another matter for the [RCMP] Security Service to assist those efforts ...”

To express his initial concerns, Mr. Starnes met with then-RCMP commissioner William Higgitt and then-solicitor-general Jean-Pierre Goyer. But he later also met Canada’s chief of defence staff, General Frederick Sharp, to warn that a serving military officer was also attached to the PMO group. Later, he met with the PMO’s Mr. Lalonde to press his case that the whole effort be shut down.

FAN TAN was likely shut down after the 1972 election, although the researchers say it’s difficult to know exactly when.

In the late 1970s, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was elected to Quebec’s government. And the federal government placed Justice David McDonald in charge of a public inquiry into the RCMP’s campaigns against separatists.

One of the things Justice McDonald’s inquiry revealed is that Mr. Starnes had no problems with going after the PQ – so long as it was a Mountie mission.

The 1981 McDonald Report recalls “Operation Ham” as a 1973 break-in where the RCMP Security Service covertly entered a computer company to steal an electronic PQ membership list. This was authorized by Mr. Starnes himself with no political oversight. “It was precisely the sort of operation which he ought to have discussed with [then-solicitor-general Warren] Allmand in advance,” Justice McDonald found.

One outside researcher said the new essay fills in some key gaps in the public’s understanding of a highly secretive time.

Reg Whitaker, a political science professor at the University of Victoria who has written about this period, said he had never heard of FAN TAN.

But he knew Mr. Starnes, who died in 2015, and said the account about the released records fit what was going on in the Canadian government at the time.

“The [Pierre] Trudeau government was so deeply invested politically in fighting separatism – you know, never mind whether it was violent or peaceful,” Mr. Whitaker said.

He added that federalist politicians of the day had the strongest possible political stake in defeating separatism. “It’s hard to distinguish, in retrospect, the national security issues and national unity issues.”

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