This Week in History


Soviet Spies in Canada

This story was initially published in 2000

On February 15, 1946, after carefully pursuing leads about Soviet spies in Canada, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King made a shocking announcement 13 suspected Soviet spies had been arrested in Canada.

Gouzenko being interviewed

Gouzenko being interviewed
© Library and Archives Canada

On the night of September 5, 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, bundled up a hundred of his employer's most secret documents and headed off in search of freedom. After a tense night, unable to convince Canadian authorities of his bona fides and hounded by the KGB, Gouzenko was rushed to safety by the RCMP. Following King's announcement, 26 more suspects were arrested, including Fred Rose, a Member of Parliament. Although most were acquitted, the arrests sparked almost hysterical fears in Canada that the Soviet Union (USSR) and Communism threatened Western democracy. The Cold War had finally come to Canada.

Of course, the Cold War had already begun. Lack of trust between the USSR and Western democracies led to a vicious circle of mutual recrimination and escalating tensions. The once victorious wartime alliance against Nazi Germany was no more. By 1948, an "Iron Curtain" divided the USSR's satellite states in Eastern Europe from the Western democracies.

Fearful that the USSR and its Communist allies might overwhelm disheartened and war-torn Western Europe, Canada's Secretary of State for External Affairs, Louis St. Laurent, proposed an economic and military alliance between democracies on either side of the Atlantic at the United Nations General Assembly in 1947. For much of 1948, Canada's Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, joined his counterparts from the United States and Great Britain to sketch out preliminary ideas for the new alliance. Eventually, they decided to invite other countries of Western Europe to join them.

Pearson signing NATO treaty

Pearson signing NATO treaty
© NATO 123230

The result was the North Atlantic Treaty of April 4, 1949. This pledged its signatories to aid each other in the event of major aggression against any one of them. By 1950, Canada, the United States and the other European signatories had established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to give effect to the treaty's provisions. NATO represented Canada's first "peacetime" military alliance and a major departure in Canadian foreign policy.

Canada's role in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty is an event of National Historic Significance. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent and Lester B. Pearson, all associated with NATO, have been commemorated as persons of national historic significance.

For further information on St. Laurent and the origins of NATO, see Louis S. St. Laurent National Historic Site.

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