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Louis S. St. Laurent National Historic Site of Canada

Gouzenko Affair

The Soviet hammer and sickle The Soviet hammer and sickle
© Parks Canada

A month after the capitulation of Japan, a slightly built 26-year-old man, Igor Sergeievich Gouzenko, fled the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. He took with him a number of documents, drafted in Russian for the most part, and proving the existence of a Soviet spy ring in Canada. Little did he realize that his action was going to set off a major post-war crisis.

In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, Gouzenko was working in the cipher section of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. This is where he discovered the existence in Canada of a number of spy rings run by Colonel Zabotin, a Soviet military attaché at the embassy.

Disenchanted with socialism, Gouzenko decided to defect to the West with his family. On September 5, 1945, he therefore left the Soviet Embassy, carrying documents with him, and walked into the Ottawa Journal building, where he told his story. But the daily paper felt that the scoop was both dangerous and in excess of the scope of a local paper. They suggested that he should go and see the Department of Justice the following day.

Colonel Nikolai Zabotin Colonel Nikolai Zabotin, Military Attaché at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa and Head of the Spy Ring of Canada
© National Archives of Canada / PA-116421

Gouzenko knew that any delay could prove fatal to him. Nevertheless, along with his family, he attempted to see the Minister of Justice, Louis St. Laurent, the following day. St. Laurent had been told about the affair by his staff, but was unable to take immediate action. Since diplomatic relations with the USSR were very good at the time, the Minister preferred to check out the allegations before meeting Gouzenko. He felt that he might otherwise damage the friendship between the two countries and undermine other states' confidence in the USSR.

The Soviets then tried to capture their defector, but without success. On September 7, Gouzenko and his family obtained political asylum, but the affair remained secret for several months, while the government collected proof.

Finally, the Canadian government made its move. Using the War Measures Act as legal justification, they arrested 13 suspects. These arrests took place on February 15, 1946. A month later, on March 14, 26 other Canadians were arrested and accused of spying, including Fred Rosenberg, a Member of Parliament. The Kellock-Taschereau Royal Commission of Inquiry carried out an investigation and confirmed the existence of a huge spy ring aimed most particularly at obtaining atomic secrets.

Igor Gouzenko, en 1966 Igor Gouzenko interviewed on television in 1966, 20 years after his defection from the Soviet embassy. Right up to his death in 1982, Gouzenko would hide his face every time he made a public appearance without an alias
© National Archives of Canada / PA-129625

Of the 13 suspects who were arrested, only seven were convicted. As for the 26 believed to have carried out spying activities, 11 were convicted, 10 acquitted and five set free without being indicted.

Igor Sergeievich Gouzenko was given a new identity and lived with his family under police protection until his death in June, 1982, near Toronto.

Sources:

Bothwell, Robert, "Gouzenko, Igor Sergeievich", The Canadian Encyclopedia, Edmonton, Hurtig Publishers, Vol. 2, c1988.

Lacoursière, Jacques et Hélène-Andrée Bizier, "Une affaire d'espionnage", Nos Racines, l'histoire vivante des Québécois, St-Laurent, Éditions Transmo, chapitre 133, c1980-1983.

Thomson, Dale C, Louis St-Laurent: Canadian, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, c1967, 564 p.

Weisbord, Merrily, "Rose, Fred", The Canadian Encyclopedia, Edmonton, Hurtig Publishers, Vol. 3, c1988.

Whitaker, Reg, "Spy Scandal", Horizon Canada, Brampton, Ontario, Centre for the Study of Teaching Canada, Vol. 10, c1984-1987.