Yesterday, November 16, 2023, we held the final session in this year’s Cold War Speaker Series. Where we were pleased to welcome Dr. Christabelle Sethna, a historian and Full Professor in the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa, and Dr. Steve Hewitt, an Associate Professor in North American history at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. Dr. Sethna teaches courses on feminist methodologies, anti-racism, colonialism, and critical animal studies, and has published widely on sex education, contraception, and abortion transnational histories, with a focus on Canada. Dr. Hewitt has written extensively on topics related to security and intelligence in the past and present. Together, the pair presented their topic, Spies, Lies, and Macho Guys: Documenting RCMP Surveillance against the Women’s Liberation Movement in Canada.
Dr. Sethna and Dr. Hewitt began their discussion by introducing the book that they co-authored called Just Watch Us: RCMP Surveillance of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Cold War Canada, which features an inside look at RCMP documents from the late 1960s to 80s during the Cold War and second-wave feminism. Their book covers the fragmentary nature of these files and offers a non-redacted glimpse into these official documents that were initially censored to protect sources. Dr. Sethna and Dr. Hewitt explained that they were able to pull back the curtain through the Access to Information Act — a Canadian federal law enacted in 1983 that regulates the right of access to government records and the publication of information by government institutions.
In their presentation, Dr. Sethna and Dr. Hewitt focused primarily on the RCMP monitoring and infiltration of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Canada. They investigated why this movement was targeted and Dr. Sethna explained that it was likely prompted due to the RCMP’s fears of left-wing and communist subversion and of foreign interference. In reality, new groups and movements were beginning to emerge from the left including the 1970 Abortion Caravan, which arrived in Ottawa on Mother’s Day in 1970 seeking legal pregnancy termination in Canada. The RCMP was actively spying on these movements by using three main methods: open source (newspaper clippings, magazines, flyers); surveillance by police themselves at public rallies and events; and — given that the RCMP was an all–male unit until 1974 — the recruitment of undercover women to attend all-female gatherings and report back with findings.
These surveillance methods on social justice activism groups were widespread in Canada from the 1960s to 80s in Cold War Canada. It is through the declassified RCMP documents that we can begin to understand the extensive spy policies and tactics, and their impacts on citizens.
Learn more about Cold War espionage in Canada by watching the recording of Dr. Sethna and Dr. Hewitt’s presentation here:
Thank you Dr. Sethna and Dr. Hewitt for your thought-provoking discussion on Spies, Lies, and Macho Guys: Documenting RCMP Surveillance against the Women’s Liberation Movement in Canada. If you would like to learn more about their extensive work, you can connect with Dr. Sethna here and Dr. Hewitt here.
More from the 2023 Cold War Speaker Series
September 28, 2023: Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer discusses “When the Skies Rained Boxes”: Nothern Canadians and Continental Defence during the Cold War.
October 12, 2023: Joanna Smolko and Tim Smolko discusses How Popular Musicians Addressed the Cold War in the US and Canada.