History of CSIS

CSIS Begins

In 1984, the Government of Canada passed an Act of Parliament for the creation of a civilian security intelligence service. This legislation not only gave birth to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), it also clarified the differences between security intelligence activities and law-enforcement work, bringing to an end the 120-year interlocking of Canada's security intelligence service with the federal police force.

The evolution that led to the formation of CSIS began when Sir John A. Macdonald created the Western Frontier Constabulary in 1864. This was to be a "...detective and preventive police force, for the purpose of watching and patrolling the whole frontier from Toronto to Sarnia." The Constabulary operated along the Upper Canada borders and rail lines, reporting on activities related first to the American Civil War, then to Fenians whose goal was to overthrow English rule in Ireland. Eastern Canada was looked after by the Montreal Water Police, a federal agency like the Constabulary. Both forces reported to Macdonald.

In 1868 the government set up a 12-member Dominion Police force that was in charge of guarding public buildings and carrying out the previous responsibilities of the Western Frontier Constabulary. This force, under Gilbert McMicken and Joseph Coursol, assigned people to a security intelligence function when it was necessary, returning them to regular duties afterwards.

By the beginning of the First World War, the Dominion Police comprised 140 members.

  • Picture of Thomas D'Arcy McGee
  • Visual representation of Fenian invasions at Cook's Corners, Quebec, in 1870. Sketch by artist Adolphe Vogt 1842-1871.
  • Picture of Henri Le Caron, born Thomas Miller Beach.
  • Picture of the Secret Service office of the Dominion Police, Ottawa, 1909. The officer in charge was Inspector J. Parkinson, seated left in the foreground.

Within the RCMP

The Dominion Police, with its developing security intelligence function, was amalgamated with the 2,500 members of the Royal North West Mounted Police in 1920 to form the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Between the two world wars, the security intelligence function remained small and inconspicuous. At headquarters in 1939, it employed three members and two stenographers, with field units in the larger cities investigating threats such as the fascist movement. The espionage activity related to the Second World War, and the subsequent defection of Soviet cypher clerk Igor Gouzenko in September 1945, removed any thoughts the government might have had about reducing the security intelligence function to pre-war levels.

Gouzenko's revelations of elaborate Soviet espionage networks operating in Canada ushered in the modern era of Canadian security intelligence. Previously, the "communist menace" had been viewed by authorities in terms of its threat to the labour movement. Gouzenko's information showed that the Soviets of the day were interested in more than cultivating disaffected workers: they were intent on acquiring military, scientific, and technological information by whatever means available to them. Such knowledge had become the key to advancement, and the Soviets intended to progress. Thus, as the post-war period gave way to the Cold War, Canadian security intelligence operations grew in response to this new threat.

  • Picture of RCMP Superintendent John Leopold (1890-1952)
  • Picture of press clipping.
  • Igor Gouzenko (1919-1982)

New Approach

Espionage, however, soon became only one aspect of the complex world facing those involved in Canadian intelligence work. The 1960s provided challenges of an entirely different kind. In Quebec, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) emerged and used assassination, kidnapping, bombing, and other acts of terrorism in attempting to achieve its political goal. Other events, such as the debate over the deployment of nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, the escalating involvement of the United States in Vietnam, and the evolution of a vigorous peace movement, carried a potential for politically motivated violence, foreign-influenced activities, and subversion. It was necessary to identify potential threats, but in order to fully maintain the democratic way of life of Canadians, it was also necessary to scrupulously protect the right to exercise legitimate political dissent.

These tasks were made all the more complex by the conflicting combination of priorities and responsibilities of security intelligence investigations as compared to police work. Two different Commissions, one chaired by Justice Mackenzie in 1969 and the other by Justice McDonald in 1977, recommended that the security intelligence functions be separated from the RCMP and that a civilian service be formed to carry out those functions. Both commissions recognized that the problem of balancing the need for accurate and effective security intelligence with the need to respect democratic rights and freedoms could not be adequately resolved as long as security intelligence responsibilities remained part of the federal police force.

  • Picture of the letter FLQ on a window.
  • Picture of 3 book's that introduced legislation for the creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Creating CSIS

In 1970, following the report of the MacKenzie Commission, John Starnes, a foreign service officer with the Department of External Affairs, became the first civilian Director General of the RCMP Security Service. Institutional links between the Security Service and the main body of the RCMP became more flexible, but problems, due to the different natures of security intelligence work and police work, remained. The establishment of a civilian security intelligence service came with the findings and recommendations of the McDonald Commission. In August 1981, the federal government announced that a security intelligence service, separate from the RCMP, would be created. A Security Intelligence Transition Group task force was formed to plan and oversee the establishment of the new organization.

The first legislation to establish the security intelligence service, Bill C-157, the Act, was introduced in Parliament in May 1983. In response to public concern about the legislation, a special committee of the Senate was established to examine the Bill. Chaired by Senator Michael Pitfield, it produced findings and recommendations in November 1983. Acting on suggestions in this report, the federal government tabled amended legislation, Bill C-9, in the House of Commons in January 1984. It was passed by both Houses of Parliament and given Royal Assent in June 1984. CSIS began its formal existence on July 16, 1984 with Thomas D'Arcy (Ted) Finn as Director. In addition to creating a civilian security intelligence service, the Act also created the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) and the Inspector General (IG) for CSIS to review the activities of CSIS and report to Parliament.

  • Visual graphic of the CSIS crest rests on a background of pale silver surrounded by a blue palisade, edged with gold; a red maple leaf is centred in the palisade. The Royal Crown sits atop the crest.
  • The CSIS Act received Royal Assent in June 1984 and came into force July 16 of the same year.
  • Picture of the CSIS National Headquarters, in Ottawa.

CSIS Adapts

In 1987, then Solicitor General of Canada James Kelleher directed former Clerk of the Privy Council, Gordon Osbaldeston, to review certain concerns raised by SIRC and present a plan of action. Osbaldeston's report recommended changes to the Executive Committee, proposed a new support infrastructure, and suggested elimination of the Counter-Subversion Branch. By 1988 the Service had a new Director, Reid Morden, and significant internal changes had been enacted, including the dismantling of the Counter-Subversion Branch, as had been suggested.

The Act that created CSIS also sought to ensure that the Service would continue to develop as an effective and responsible organization. To this end, section 56 called for a comprehensive review of the provisions and operations of the CSIS Act to be undertaken after July 1989. As required, the five-year review called for in the CSIS Act was completed by a Special Committee of the House of Commons under Chairman Blaine Thacker. The Committee's report, In Flux But Not In Crisis, completed in September of 1990, declared that the Service and the Act were essentially on course, but provided recommendations for improvement nonetheless. The then Solicitor General of Canada, Pierre Cadieux, responded to these recommendations in On Course, a study detailing the mandate and role of CSIS and Canada's national security requirements.

A third review of the dynamics of national security was completed during 1992. In view of the changed geo-political circumstances brought about by the end of the Cold War, the Solicitor General asked then Director of CSIS, Ray Protti, to review the changing security intelligence environment to determine whether the Service should restructure and what resources would be necessary to respond to the changing environment. The review concluded that the Service was essentially well-structured to respond to the changing security intelligence environment.

CSIS Today

More than twenty years after its creation, CSIS is a vastly different organization from the one that existed in 1984. The transition from a law-enforcement model to one focussing on intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism was done in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Under the leadership of Ward Elcock, from 1994 to 2004, the Service matured into an experienced, highly disciplined and effective intelligence organization. It adjusted its priorities to meet evolving threats both in North America and abroad. A premium was placed on intelligence information sharing. CSIS now has relationships with more than 200 agencies worldwide.

Meanwhile, the CSIS Act has survived the test of time. Just as it was intended, the Act continues to assure the human rights of Canadians.

In November 2004, Jim Judd was appointed Director of CSIS, replacing Acting Director Dale Neufeld. In June 2009, Richard B. Fadden was appointed Director of CSIS. In October 2013, Michel Coulombe was appointed Director.

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