A notorious spy case that resulted in the death of a former ambassador to Russia after weeks of intense questioning by two RCMP members has a new and unexpected main character: Lester Pearson.
The ambassador was John Watkins, whose posting to Moscow in the 1950s included unusually close relations with the Kremlin. The Mounties had reason to suspect he had been in the pocket of the KGB, the Soviet Union’s spy agency. When Mr. Watkins died of a heart attack during interrogation in 1964, the incident was covered up, the details hidden from public view for years.
An untapped trove of intelligence material now exposes an even deeper secret: Mr. Pearson, who was prime minister at the time of the Watkins investigation, was closely involved in the planning, conduct and cover-up of the case.
The documents, obtained under the Access to Information Act, significantly change the previously accepted narrative. What once appeared to be a Mountie-run spy probe that ended tragically is now revealed as a dubious inquisition into a gay man’s private life, overseen by the highest office in the land.
The paper trail pointing to Mr. Pearson was so effectively obscured that it has taken half a century to uncover. The files also expose deep currents of state-supported homophobia, from a time when the RCMP were working to purge gay employees from the civil service. Investigators’ fascination with Mr. Watkins’s past sexual encounters would turn his final weeks into a nightmare.
Mr. Watkins was a gifted Canadian diplomat. Educated, erudite and charming, he was posted to the Soviet Union during a brief thaw in the Cold War, in the immediate aftermath of the death of Joseph Stalin. His people skills were intended to give Canada a much-needed window into Russia. His dispatches about life in Moscow were literary gems.
In 1956, the KGB blackmailed him after he was photographed in a Moscow hotel room with a male lover. The RCMP Security Service discovered the blackmail attempt in the early 1960s. Two interrogators plucked Mr. Watkins from retirement in Paris and spent a month pressing him to confess that he had betrayed Canada under Soviet duress. After a final day of questioning in a Dorval, Que., motel room, he had his heart attack and died.
The RCMP falsified the circumstances, in part by misleading the local coroner, who rubber-stamped the death certificate. When bare-bones details of the tragedy leaked to the public in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was further effort in Ottawa to bury the blame.
In a book I published with William Kaplan in 1987, Moscow Despatches, we recounted the case as best we could, through interviews and available documentation. Notably missing was the interrogation report, denied to us for security reasons.
The story we were told was that Mr. Watkins’s debriefing was an RCMP initiative, with minimal political oversight. Mr. Watkins liked his interrogators, and enjoyed witty repartee and pleasant dining with them. He had cardiac trouble, but was reasonably healthy throughout the questioning – apart from that last day, Oct. 12, 1964.
Since then, I have extracted more than 1,000 pages from the RCMP’s 34-volume Watkins file. Though much remains redacted, there’s enough to show that every part of that story is misleading or wrong. And most surprising of all is the appearance of Lester Pearson.
Mr. Pearson was a world-renowned Canadian diplomat and statesman, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his intervention in the Suez Canal Crisis. He later led the Liberal party to minority governments in 1963 and 1965. His enduring achievements include introducing the Canada Pension Plan, universal health care and the Maple Leaf flag.
I already knew Mr. Pearson was informed in 1964 about Mr. Watkins’s untimely death. But the new material adds details – among them that RCMP Commissioner George McClellan called Mr. Pearson on Oct. 13, the day after, and later sent a note assuring him there would be no coroner’s inquest.
Mr. Pearson had himself pressed Mr. Watkins to go to Moscow in the first place, the documents show. The pair met in Paris in late 1953, when Mr. Pearson was external affairs minister under prime minister Louis St. Laurent, and Mr. Watkins was Canada’s diplomat to Norway.
“I was not keen to go because I had only been in Oslo for a short period of time and it does take time to establish your position,” Mr. Watkins told his RCMP interrogators, civilian Jim Bennett and Corporal Harry Brandes. “I really did not have a choice.”
Mr. McClellan’s call to Mr. Pearson on Oct. 13 could be seen as a courtesy to Mr. Watkins’s former mentor, as well as an alert to the prime minister about a potential political problem – not least the deception of a Quebec coroner. Except the new material clearly shows Mr. Pearson would not have been surprised by any of this: he had been directing the RCMP on the Watkins case for months.
Mr. Pearson was first briefed on Mr. Watkins by two senior bureaucrats on March 3, 1964, as the Mounties became certain that the former ambassador had been compromised. The prime minister instructed his informants that no cabinet ministers were to be kept in the loop.
Mr. McClellan met Mr. Pearson on April 14 to discuss options, summarized in a memo marked “Top Secret.”
“This case is potentially one of the most important that has ever arisen for Canada in both (a) the security field and (b) the field of public policy,” said the four-page document, signed by senior bureaucrat Marcel Cadieux. It urged an interrogation.
The memo cited risks. “If guilt exists, they involve to one degree or another the danger of precipitate action by defection, self destruction or disposal by other means.” In other words, Mr. Watkins might bolt to the Soviets, kill himself or be disposed of – presumably a reference to kidnapping or murder by the KGB.
Mr. McClellan and Mr. Cadieux, who was also at the meeting, asked for authorization to interrogate Mr. Watkins. Mr. Pearson agreed. Any comments he made are not in the released records.
The prime minster met again about the case with another senior RCMP officer and Mr. Cadieux on Aug. 25, about two weeks before the questioning of Mr. Watkins was to start in Paris. Whatever they discussed was withheld from the document release.
Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brandes told Mr. Watkins at the first Paris session, on Sept. 9, that the prime minister was monitoring the case and wanted it resolved. Later that month, the RCMP gave Mr. Pearson a detailed progress report, just after the force’s interrogators pressed Mr. Watkins to fly to Canada for more questioning.
After Mr. Watkins’s death, Mr. Pearson told Mr. McClellan that justice minister Guy Favreau was to be kept in the dark about the circumstances. This was an extraordinary decision. Mr. Favreau’s justice portfolio included oversight of the RCMP. He was a Quebec MP, whose riding in Montreal was a few kilometres from where Mr. Watkins had died. Mr. Favreau was also Mr. Pearson’s Quebec lieutenant – his political liaison with a province whose coroner had just been gaslighted. The prime minister wanted the lid on very tight.
Mr. Pearson had an even deeper connection with the case.
Mr. Watkins’s blackmail in Moscow was orchestrated by two high-ranking KGB officers, disguised as academics keen on improving relations with Canada. They dangled backchannel access to the Kremlin, and sought “semi-clandestine” meetings with the ambassador. Mr. Watkins was suspicious. He alerted Mr. Pearson, who was then external affairs minister, about these unusual contacts, asking whether to pursue them.
“Mr. PEARSON was not happy about them, [but] under the circumstances reluctant permission was granted. He [Watkins] was adamant that these meetings did not involve passing secrets,” said an RCMP report, “… and he told Mr. PEARSON of the full outcome of these talks.”
Mr. Pearson’s green light for these shadowy contacts was clearly given with no knowledge of the KGB trap being set. But his decision, which helped set the stage for blackmail, may have left him politically vulnerable.
. . .
Journalist John Sawatsky wrote about Mr. Watkins in his 1982 book For Services Rendered: Leslie James Bennett and the RCMP Security Service. Citing unidentified sources, Mr. Sawatsky described “Operation Rock Bottom,” the RCMP’s code name for their efforts to flush out the blackmail attempt. Soviet defectors from May, 1962, onward had alerted the West to the entrapment of an unidentified gay Canadian diplomat. Eventually, the evidence pointed to Mr. Watkins, who was given the code name Rockbottom. Mr. Sawatsky’s account of Mr. Watkins’s interrogation suggested a meticulous reveal over a month, as Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brandes assembled details like a jigsaw puzzle.
But the new material makes clear that this wasn’t the case. Mr. Watkins confessed to the entrapment the very first day.
Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brandes were introduced to Mr. Watkins by Canada’s ambassador to France, Jules Léger, in the library of Mr. Léger’s official residence in Paris, on Sept. 9 at 7:30 p.m. After more than an hour of preliminaries, they cut to the chase, asking about the “pink aspect” of the alleged blackmail attempt. Mr. Watkins immediately spilled the beans. He acknowledged his homosexuality and admitted to a fling with an agricultural worker in 1954 and 1955, while he was ambassador to Moscow. He also recounted the 1956 blackmail attempt, in which he was shown a KGB dossier documenting his indiscretion. Mr. Watkins said the KGB officer told him the incriminating file would disappear, but that in return he would need to “be friendly” to Dimitri Chuvakhin, Soviet ambassador to Canada – that is, support Russian interests from inside government. Mr. Watkins denied betraying Canada.
The 3½-hour session ended at 11 p.m., a success by any measure. Mr. Watkins had admitted his sexual proclivity, his indiscretions, the existence of the dossier and the attempted coercion by the KGB. Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brandes continued to question Mr. Watkins in Paris, London and suburban Montreal, for a total of 67 hours and 45 minutes. But that initial confession did not change.
Their daily reports record a near-obsession with Mr. Watkins’s sex life. They pressed for details of his occasional cruising for sex partners in Ottawa parks. How did he flirt with men? What kind of men did he prefer? What sexual practices did he enjoy? Mr. Watkins was embarrassed about his sexual preferences, and the file suggests these intimate discussions were deeply discomfiting. But Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brandes wanted the particulars of every sexual liaison, even trivial flirtations.
A draft account written a day after Mr. Watkins’s death describes a so-called breakthrough in the questioning. “His reluctance to reveal such [homosexual] involvement and practices was a comparative one being directly related to the criminal magnitude of the act, masturbation, fellatio and buggery, in that order,” they reported. “In this regard, it is pertinent to note that although he admitted without solicitation his homosexual affairs with [name blanked out] on the first day of interview, his revelation of buggery activities with this individual was not made until October 12, 1964, the last day of interview.”
The RCMP Security Service at the time was facilitating a purge of hundreds of homosexuals from Canada’s public service. Some of the victims recalled a prurient interest by officers in details of their sexual practices. It’s not clear what motive was at play during the Watkins interrogation. Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brandes have since died.
“A considerable effort was devoted during our interviews with ROCKBOTTOM towards obtaining a comprehensive account of his homosexual tendencies and practices,” said a draft summary. The pair learned that his sexual urges subsided after his teeth were pulled in 1957. That he did not like “feminine” men. That he preferred masturbation.
Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brandes composed a psychoanalysis of Mr. Watkins’s “character defect,” starting with the “prevalent air of femininity” in his childhood. “ROCKBOTTOM was brought-up in a household of women … His mother was a strong character with a dominating personality,” they wrote.
Living on a farm dominated by women, they added, “prevented him from the usual every-day healthy male associations. He has never been athletically inclined and he has developed little or no interest in sports. His days at the University of Toronto do not appear to have achieved any correction of the imbalances created by his childhood upbringing.”
. . .
Mr. Watkins, a smoker with a poor diet, was plagued by bad health. Diagnosed in 1960 with “arterial hypertension,” he took four months of sick leave from External Affairs. In retirement, he suffered from “cardiac fatigue” aggravated by diabetes. Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brandes knew his health history when they turned up in Paris, but they needed to keep him talking to resolve the case. They sometimes pushed back against Mr. Watkins’s protests about pains in his chest, arms and legs.
Mr. Watkins “began yesterday by saying talks proving too much for his physical condition (having recurring pain) and that he has had enough for the time being,” they reported from London. “He was obviously trying to discontinue the interview.”
The Quebec government in 1982 convened a special inquest to look into Mr. Watkins’s 1964 death, since the coroner at the time was clearly misled about the circumstances. Mr. Brandes had claimed to be Mr. Watkins’s “friend,” for example, and told officials the ex-ambassador was in Montreal on vacation.
Mr. Watkins’s doctor, Alex Capon, gave evidence, recalling that his patient was a “very sick man and could have died from a car honking in the street.” A cousin said Mr. Watkins had lost weight, “just dragged himself along,” “looked grey and he didn’t have any pep to him.”
The new files suggest the RCMP, despite Mr. Watkins’s apparent deterioration, raised the pressure. A day or two before the heart attack, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brandes warned him they intended to question him for another stressful week. Hours before his death, they launched what they called “sustained probing.”
“[Y]ou have not been telling us the whole story,” they pressed him. “How can we believe you? … How can anybody now believe you?”
Mr. Watkins “was fully cognizant of our dissatisfaction with the veracity of his revelations,” they recorded, referring to his reluctance to talk about sex.
The intensified questioning may have been designed to break his psychological defences. Mr. Watkins’s heart certainly broke that day.
. . .
Mr. Watkins was careless about his sexual behaviour during his two postings in the Soviet Union: 1948-51, as chargé d’affaires, and 1954-56, as ambassador. His anonymous gay liaisons at home and abroad, though infrequent, led to attempts by strangers to extort money from him. “I know that homos were often subjected to blackmail and I decided very early I would not be blackmailed in principle,” Mr. Watkins told the RCMP. “I would go to the police.”
He never did, though. Nor did he confess the KGB entrapment to his bosses. As with blackmail attempts in his personal life, he navigated a no man’s land between succumbing to coercion and alerting the police, both options unpalatable and even dangerous. Homosexual behaviour, after all, was a crime at the time.
Nothing in the files suggests Mr. Watkins was ever disloyal to Canada, but at least one document shows him buying time with Mr. Chuvakhin, the Russian ambassador, by being “friendly.” After his death, the RCMP interrogators wrote that Mr. Watkins “was adroitly and successfully manipulated to Soviet advantage.” But they soon changed their view, accepting that he had artfully finessed his predicament. “Quite a tight rope to walk, and, there is no doubt he managed it magnificently,” Mr. Bennett said later. Mr. Watkins, naturally skilled with words, talked his way out of trouble.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in 2017 for the odious gay purges in the public service, the police and the military from the 1950s forward, and the federal government created a compensation fund of up to $110-million. Mr. Watkins’s name never appeared on any RCMP lists of gay public servants. But when he was outed by the Security Service in 1964, he surely was a prize: a textbook example of a gay public servant compromised by the KGB, justifying years of RCMP warnings – a poster child of sorts for the homosexual witch hunt. Never mind his loyalty, his willing confession, his frail heart. The interrogators pursued the case to its tragic end, with a prime minister watching their back.
. . .
Mr. Pearson has a well-earned legacy as a skilled diplomat and prime minister who forged Canada’s reputation abroad as a peacekeeper and built durable social programs at home. Less understood are the compromises and dubious decisions he made during the messy business of governing. The new revelations from the Watkins file cast him in an unfavourable light: he personally directed an interrogation that quickly morphed into an inquisition, and he was complicit in the cover-up of a former colleague’s suspicious death.
Intelligence historian Wesley Wark suggests Mr. Pearson’s “nervous interest” in the Watkins case stemmed from an awareness that right-wing American figures viewed him as “implicated in red politics.” The new material also underlines “the depths to which homophobia influenced security witch hunts during the early decades of the Cold War,” Mr. Wark added. “Watkins emerges as a haunted but honourable man, who never succumbed to the pressures imposed on him by the KGB.”
(In a dash of irony, Mr. Watkins’s interrogator, Mr. Bennett, later left the RCMP under suspicion that he was a Soviet mole and possibly homosexual. Exonerated afterward, he received $100,000 in compensation.)
Gary Kinsman, a sociologist and historian of gay and lesbian purges in Canada, said the documents suggest the interrogation was used to broaden the RCMP’s knowledge of homosexuality, the better to identify targets. “RCMP actions were not rogue actions, but had approval at the highest state levels, including the prime minister,” Mr. Kinsman added.
The government and the RCMP need to accept responsibility, he said, and apologize for Mr. Watkins’s death.
Dean Beeby is an Ottawa author, journalist and specialist in freedom of information (www.deanbeeby.ca)
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