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  • Just Watch Us: RCMP Surveillance of the Women's Liberation Movement in Cold War Canada by Christabelle Sethna and Steve Hewitt
  • Matthew S. Wiseman
Christabelle Sethna and Steve Hewitt, Just Watch Us: RCMP Surveillance of the Women's Liberation Movement in Cold War Canada (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press 2018)

In just watch Us, Christabelle Sethna and Steve Hewitt examine why and how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (rcmp) monitored and investigated persons and groups belonging to the women's liberation movement in Canada during a fifteen-year period beginning in the late 1960s. Concerned that feminism had close ties to communism and the New Left, the intelligence branch of the rcmp targeted women's organizations perceived as challenging traditional societal norms that empowered the Anglo-Canadian, middle-class white male status quo. The authors argue that the rcmp watched and investigated the women's liberation movement through a "red-tinged prism," ignorantly associating second-wave feminists with the spread and provocations of the so-called Red Menace. (18) Feminism per se did not concern the rcmp's security service. The rcmp was largely blind to the radical and just demands of the women's movement. Instead, a preoccupation with leftist organizations and causes fueled increased surveillance efforts aimed at rooting out "real and imagined" communists in Canada. (21) This resulted in widespread harassment and repression of individuals and groups tied to the New Left, ultimately alienating and marginalizing women who belonged to social movements perceived as counter to the national interest.

Sethna and Hewitt contend that the rcmp intelligence branch employed a binary communist/anti-communist frame to assess security threats, resulting in mass surveillance of leftist organizations and social movements. In December 1963, a federal cabinet directive defined a subversive as "a person whose loyalty to Canada and our system of government is diluted by loyalty to any communist, fascist, or other legal or illegal political organizations whose purpose is inimical to the processes of Parliamentary Democracy." (35–36) This broad definition enabled the rcmp to target Canadian citizens, [End Page 270] increasing, rather than decreasing, surveillance. Anxieties about communism prompted an aggressive stance toward people and groups positioned on the left of the political spectrum, thus explaining the targeted surveillance of the women's liberation movement.

Broad definitions of subversive underpinned discriminatory practices pursued in the name of national security. Categorizing women as subversive empowered the rcmp to promote and pursue conservative policies and practices, reflecting wider societal issues in Canada from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s. The rcmp's security service opened a general file for women's liberation groups in May 1969, secretly collecting pamphlets, press reports, promotional materials, and meeting minutes about various events and causes across the country. Government agents worked alongside undercover informants, and the rcmp used women to spy and gather information from within feminist organizations and groups. As the Voice of Women protested Canadian complicity in the Vietnam War or activists marched for access to safe and legal abortion services, the rcmp selectively monitored thousands of alleged subversives on behalf of the federal government.

The core argument will not surprise readers attuned to Canadian Cold War history. Reg Whitaker, Gary Marcuse, Patrizia Gentile, and Gary Kinsman, among others, have documented civil liberty abuses against Canadian citizens during the Cold War. Under the guise of national security, state-driven paranoia created enemies from within and the rcmp targeted, monitored, harassed, and repressed individuals and family members in a continuous hunt for subversives. The red-tinged prism proposed by Sethna and Hewitt provides a new analytical frame for investigating surveillance history in a Canadian context, but the findings of their work align closely with the established literature. The value of this book is its engagement with questions and issues of gender. While the existing scholarship considers discrimination based on race and sexual orientation as a motivator for Cold War surveillance in Canada, gender has yet served as the primary lens for investigating the motivations and methods of the rcmp's domestic intelligence and security activities. Sethna and Hewitt draw attention to institutionalized gender biases in Canada's police and security agencies, offering an...


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pp. 270-272
Launched on MUSE
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