Why Did They Spy?

Backstage of Ottawa

MAYBE the public has forgotten the espionage plot now, as the Royal Commission’s final report gathers dust among the other Blue Books of 1946. But in the Government service worry about the whole affair is almost undiminished.


BENEATH all this concern is one fundamental question: Why did these young men and women lend themselves to a Soviet plot against their own country? The Commission’s excellent chapter on motivation tells how the agents were chosen and converted, but the essential why is a deeper thing.

It was not for money. Most if not all the named agents took Russian money in the end, some with less hesitation than others. […] But the amounts they got were trivial—$100 was a large payment. […] [P]rimarily these men and women did not sell out for money.

Seventeen persons, aside from the professional spies, Carr and Rose, are named in the Royal Commission’s final report. One or two more, unnamed, are identified pretty clearly to anyone acquainted with them. Of this group I knew six personally, and I have a considerable mutual acquaintance with three or four more.

Three are known to all their friends as communists, and, as communists, might be expected to use all means to the Party’s end. Of the rest, one had Labor Progressive sympathies which I would have classified as pale parlor pink, and the others were politically neutral so far as I knew.

They seemed men and women of integrity and courage—that was about all they seemed to have in common. What other common factors, then, could have united them in this miserable conspiracy?

One my have been enthusiasm, devotion to an idea and a cause. Back in 1937 and 1938, when Canada was arming Japan with scrap iron and victualling her with wheat, at least one of these girls used to wear cotton stockings because silk came from Japan. Another member of the group lost a good job in private business because of radical views, yet never wavered in those views. All would have agreed with Durnford Smith, who told the Royal Commission that what attracted him to Communism was “the logic of it,” and all had the courage to stand by the conclusions to which Party logic led.

For several another common factor would have been the spirit of rebellion, of nonconformity. The only French Canadian in the group. Dr. Raymond Boyer, is the wealthy heir of one of Quebec’s most distinguished families. Everything the Catholic culture of French Canada could offer was his. He spent his mature life systematically divorcing himself from that background, repudiating in every conceivable way his intellectual heritage and his fathers’ faith.


These are personal matters. There’s another common factor among most of the group, and one that reproaches Canada. It is personal insecurity.

Anti-Semites have been gloating over the fact that of the 17 persons named, six are Jews and two others are married to Jews. Anti-Semites have no cause to gloat—quite the reverse. As the Commission pointed out, it’s precisely because of anti-Semitism in Canada that many of these people transferred their loyalty to the U.S.S.R.

Take Samuel Sol Burman, the Montreal insurance agent, whose name was among the last to come out.

I’ve known Sam Burman for about 15 years without knowing that he had any particular politics. He comes from a decent impecunious Jewish family in Montreal, and Sam, with few education advantages, had done very well. He’s a quiet chap, modest and well-spoken, a pleasant companion and a natural gentleman. But a few years before the war a Gentile friend of mine was put out of a Laurentian tavern because Sam Burman was one of his guests. It was dark, and they hadn’t noticed the sign on the door that said, with rather blasphemous mockery, “Christians Only.”

Samuel Gerson told the Royal Commission: “I consider myself as a second-class Canadian, not as a first-class Canadian…We realized what was going to happen. We saw what happened in Montreal and in Kirkland Lake, where people were parading in blue shirts and sticking signs in windows, and we felt we should do something about it… It was not from an economic point of view (that we joined the Communist Party), it was from the point of view of self-preservation.”


Source: The Man With a Notebook [Blair Fraser], "Why Did They Spy?," Maclean's Magazine, September 1, 1946

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