This “Screening” Business

10 January 3, 1950

The Check-Ups Protect Us
From Our Own Termites
But There Are Dangers.

by Michael Barkway

THE PHONE rang in my office. “Can you tell me anything about John Smith who lives next door to you?” The voice identified itself, and I answered its questions.

Yes, he sometimes drank. No, I’d never known him drink too much. Yes, I thought the lady who lived with him was his wife. No, I couldn’t prove it. He was keen on doing odd jobs around the house. (The voice seemed particularly pleased about that.) It thanked me and rang off.

You must have had a dozen similar conversations. The retail credit bureaus are always at it. But how would you feel if the questions came not from a credit bureau but from a plainclothes Mountie? What would you think about John Smith then?

This is the problem of “screening.” “Screening” is the word of the moment. It has acquired a slightly sinister tone. It implies a vague, mysterious smirch. Or if there is no smirch, why does it make headlines that such-and-such a department is being “screened?”

There is no mystery about “screening.” It is part of the most ancient and elementary duty of any national government to protect the state against subversive groups. It is the Government’s way of doing for Canada what any retailer expects his credit bureau to do for him.

“Screening” is done by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It consists of the “file check” and the “field check.”

To look up the police file on any individual is a simple matter: the chances are there won’t even be one. And if there is one, its contents are highly secret and privileged. It would be most unfair both to the police and to the individual concerned to let it be known what was on the file: for the most innocent facts might be twisted to sound sinister.


Moreover a great deal of the most important information on the RCMP’s files has been gathered by agents whose usefulness depends on their being unknown. In the dim underworld of subversion and treachery, you can never be sure who is cat and who is mouse. The most successful Communist agent is the last man you would ever suspect of being a Communist. In the same way the most successful police agent is the man who passes as the most ardent Communist. So long as he can maintain his position as a trusted comrade he can feed information to the police files. But he can never drop his role to resume it later. Once he appears in a witness box to support his evidence his usefulness is over. The years of work and planning which got him accepted into the underworld are sacrificed.

The RCMP’s first task is to safeguard its sources of information. Investigation of anti-subversive activities is a refined, delicate and dangerous business. It can only be done by keeping in shadows as the enemy does.

In this period of history it is particularly difficult to evaluate “dangerous associations.” The most usual “cover” organizations of the Communists, those which the police would normally watch with some care, have only just stopped being highly respectable—even fashionable—societies. In certain circumstances it would be legitimate to take a second look at anyone associated with these bodies; but it would be grossly unfair to suspect of Communism everyone who urged “arms for Russia” when the Russians were our allies.

The “file check” has obvious limitations. If the RCMP has no file on me it may mean that I am a loyal Canadian, or it may mean that I am an unusually successful Russian agent. But if they have a file on me its significance depends on what’s in it. It may mean only that I was enthusiastically devoted to civil liberties or some other laudable movement at a time when the Communists were trying to take over.

A thorough screening, therefore, demands a “field check.” Any department of Government handling confidential material, where disloyalty could have serious consequences for Canada, asks for such a check on its employees. Some departments are checked completely: you can almost guess which ones. Others have certain sections declared “vulnerable,” which means handling confidential material, and these sections are checked while the rest of the department is not. Some whole departments require no check at all.

The “field check” is a more thorough version of the elementary check the credit bureaus make. The police set out to find out all they can about the subject. They talk to friends, relations and neighbors. They track down business associations and leisure activities. They make enquires not only in Ottawa, but in the subject’s home town. They find out about his parents and his interests. They may hear some chance remark that he made in an off-guard moment: they may learn some political quirk of his parents; they may note a deep-seated interest in social questions or baseball or billiards. They may run into enemies or competitors, and have to be particularly careful to discount malicious gossip.

In no case do the police have the responsibility of interpreting their own findings. They put their facts before the deputy minister of the department concerned. It is for him, not the police, to decide whether they qualify the subject for a confidential job.

To most Canadians all this business of police prying is most distasteful. Neither the Cabinet nor the Police Commissioner like it either. But how is a modern democratic society to protect itself against its own termites?

Information is the key. So long as a government knows what is going on it can keep one jump ahead. But two serious dangers confront any program of anti-subversive measures. One is the danger of the police-state and a foolish short-sighted interpretation of the significance of a man’s private interests. The other is the danger of the public witch-hunt which is a refined modern version of mob-rule.

The Canadian public on the whole does not fall for hysterical accusations on hearsay evidence. We are mercifully spared the ignorant amateur guardians of the public security who sprout from the U.S. Congress. We are protected also from witch-hunting by the determination of the Government and the police to keep their files and their suspicions secret. To do a confidential job for the Canadian nation is a privilege that no man can claim as of right. But every man may claim not to be accused—or even smirched with charges—of disloyalty unless he has a chance to confront his accusers and offer his defence.

Secrecy, on the other hand, has its own dangers; and our main safeguard against them is that the police are not given and do not claim the duty of judging the evidence they may collect.


Source: Micheal Barkway, "This "Screening" Business," Saturday Night, January 3, 1950

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