On Aug 4, 2008, the Canadian Press ran a story that revealed the RCMP spied on feminists from 1969 into the ’80s. Terrified by the threat of Rita MacNeil (that’s right, Rita MacNeil) and other “sweating uncombed women” (as described in declassified files), our national security service surveilled “Women’s Liberation Groups.” The news service describes how the Mounties not only “relied upon informants” but also “poured over pamphlets, position papers, announcements and meeting minutes.”
Can you image? The Cold War rages, nuclear annihilation looms, and our men in red are busy reading early feminist position papers? And staking out events like a March 1972 women’s conference in Winnipeg, only to find (and once again I quote declassified files), “women standing around in the middle of the floor with their arms around each other crying sisterhood and dancing”? Frightening!
Surely, if there was ever a way to tie a national security service in knots, it would be to make its officers infiltrate every burgeoning women’s group. The meetings alone can take hours, even days. Everyone has to speak, everyone has to cry, everyone has to offend and be offended, and then — what? No vote? Nooooooo! Then the consensus building begins! It can be really, really hard to figure out what is being accomplished. No wonder our spy service thought that something sneaky was a-foot.
It’s a good thing that the Soviet Union wasn’t planning a Canadian take-over while the Mounties and their informants sat in circles with us, holding crystals. Our potlucks were keeping Dudley Do-Right very busy.
I don’t mean to infer that feminism isn’t powerful. But it certainly never posed what could be perceived as a national security risk. We worked to elect more women to government, lobbied to make laws more equitable, marched to have the right to choose whether we would carry a pregnancy to term. Aside from a couple of hotheads who bombed porn shops in BC, feminism has been a peaceful revolution, wreaking less havoc than salmonella contaminated organic spinach or lead-painted Thomas the Tank Engine toys.
And yet they feared us. Wow. I guess it is a lesson in never underestimating how threatening smart, uncompromising women can be to a patriarchal culture. And a reminder that there are good reasons to be cynical and paranoid. I guess I’m not crazy! We might not live in a fascist state but sometimes it bears a striking resemblance.
That our national police force would expend its energies monitoring the legal activities of its own citizens who sought nothing more and nothing less than equality, speaks volumes. Our democratic freedom to organize, to agitate, and to advocate for change might not have been quite as “free” as were led to believe.
And really, have things changed? The Harper government’s decimation of the Status of Women was not merely a cost-saving measure. The feds revealed their intentions when, at the time of the $5 million budget cut, they insisted that the word “equality” be removed from the organization’s mandate. The recent elimination of international touring funds for Canadian artists is likewise ideological. Conservative Party talking points on the issue referred to the so-called leftist viewpoints we artists have been spouting on world stages. Systematic suppression of ideas continues.
Whether they are keeping files on the likes of Rita MacNeil, killing our information-sharing and advocacy institutions, or silencing our artists, the thought police live on.