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Canada CSIS suspected Soviet spies of stealing Mackenzie King’s diary

W.L. Mackenzie King speaking at a meeting in Woodstock, Ontario, August 13, 1935.

John Boyd/The Globe and Mail

Canada's spy agency surmised that Soviet agents stole a key volume of William Lyon Mackenzie King's fabled diary — a theory dissected in a new book about the intrigue surrounding Canada's longest-serving prime minister.

The missing diary volume covered much of the final two months of 1945, a period that included King's visit to Washington to confer with his U.S. and British counterparts about atomic secrets.

Historian Christopher Dummitt sifted through archival records to shed fresh light on the mystery in his newly published book Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King's Secret Life.

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Dummitt, an associate history professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., traces the evolution of the official narrative of King's public persona and how the man widely came to be seen as "Weird Willie" due to dalliances with the occult.

King's will seemed to indicate he wanted his candid diaries — which spanned more than half a century — destroyed following his death.

After much consideration, his literary executors turned over the detailed volumes to the national archives, and serial release to the public began in 1975. Canadians learned of the seemingly straitlaced leader's fascination with the spirit world and seances with the ghosts of figures ranging from artist Leonardo da Vinci to a number of his dead dogs.

But a series of binders containing King's notes on his seances were later burned by the executors — a nod to King's wishes for privacy.

In 1969, federal security agents learned of the missing diary volume and decided the matter must be investigated, but little came of it.

A 1984 newspaper story rekindled interest, and a declassified Canadian Security Intelligence Service memo early the following year canvassed several possibilities as to the wayward volume's fate.

Among them: theft of the diary by the Russian intelligence services or their agents to learn what King, Clement Attlee of Britain and Harry Truman, then U.S. president, discussed concerning the atomic bomb and, quite possibly, the unfolding American security efforts to identify Communists within government.

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However, if it were the Russians, CSIS reasoned, then why not also take the previous volume dating from the time of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko's defection in Ottawa?

CSIS thought someone else — such as a cook, butler or chauffeur — might have stolen the diary with a mind to sell the contents to the media.

Another possibility was that King, who died in 1950, had destroyed the volume himself given that the Washington discussions involved "the most sensitive of issues at that time, espionage and the atomic bomb," the spy service memo says.

Further muddying the matter were conflicting accounts about whether the volume remained at King's Laurier House residence in Ottawa as late as 1955.

If a Soviet spy made off with the volume, this might be why it has "never surfaced," the CSIS memo notes.

Ultimately, Dummitt suggests a more likely scenario — possible theft of the volume by archives employee Jean-Louis Daviault, who had been entrusted with photographing the diary.

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King's literary executors were alerted in 1955 to the fact Daviault had tried to peddle portions of the diary to a newspaper. He was confronted, but pleaded ignorance and continued working at the archives for many months.

As it happens, Dummitt notes, the very next volume in line to be photographed was the now-lost 1945 one. What if Daviault, now deceased, had squirrelled it away for future schemes?

"It just seems to be quite a coincidence that that's the one missing just at that moment," Dummitt said in an interview.

"Of course, this can only be speculation, guided by a few bits of evidence," he writes in "Unbuttoned."

But Dummitt considers it as well substantiated as any of the Canadian security agency's theories about the diary.

"Until this missing volume of the diary is found (if it ever will be), Mackenzie King still has a few more secrets to reveal."

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