Spying in Vancouver

One of the CPR's trans-pacific Empress ships ca. 1905. Local barber Charles Peters allegedly had a suspiciously keen interest in such traffic in Vancouver's harbour. City of Vancouver Archives #Bo P437

Here’s a piece from the Vancouver Daily World, 7 January 1905:

HAS A RUSSIAN SPY BEEN WATCHING VANCOUVER HARBOR?

Mysterious Man Named Peters, Ostensibly a Barber, Left City Yesterday on Receipt of Cipher Message

For Months he Spent Most of His Time on the Waterfront, Carefully Noting Nature of Cargoes for the Orient

Yesterday afternoon a well-furnished barber shop in a down town hotel was closed and Charles Peters, the erstwhile proprietor of the shop, sailed on the Aorangi, having in his possession a ticket for Honolulu.

Charles Peters arrived in Vancouver some four months ago and his actions while here were something of a mystery to those with whom he came into close contact. His first move when he reached the city was to rent the barber shop in question and then he hired a man to look after the business. It was soon learned that Peters was a native of Russia, although he gave a name that would indicate he came from one of the English speaking countries. He was a man of about 26 years of age, had a college education and spoke several languages fluently.

It was noticed by those who had patronized the barber shop that Peters spent little of his time in working at his trade. He put in hours on the waterfront and, although he paid little attention to the movement of freight, close observers say that he seemed to take a particular interest in freight consigned per the Oriental liners. It was further noticed that he met Russians who happened to pass through Vancouver and that while in his rooms overlooking the waterfront, he spent many hours in writing and that occasionally bulky packages were mailed from the local post office, carrying letter rates of postage.

A cipher telegram from the Russian diplomatic headquarters at Washington D.C. apparently accounts for the hurried closing of the barber shop and the departure of Mr. Peters on the first boat sailing from this port after the receipt of the message.

The young Russian was a splendid conversationalist and while here he made many friends. He had thrilling tales to tell of adventures by land and sea, but when the subject of the Russian-Japanese war was broached he had nothing to say. The conclusion drawn by the men who knew Peters best is that he was an attache of the Russian diplomatic service and that it was found that his services would be more valuable to his government in some other part of the world than in Vancouver.

Japan was on the verge of defeating Russia when Peters was in Vancouver. Before long local Japanese were partying in the streets to celebrate Japan’s victory, the first time a European power was beaten by an Asian power.

Peters wouldn’t be the first international spy to operate in Vancouver. Douglas MacArthur II, nephew of the (in)famous general, described the “political reporting” training he received while being trained for the United States Foreign Service:

We came back to the Foreign Service school, for about three and a half months. In that school, for the first time, we were exposed to political reporting, because in a consulate general, the consul general did a political report about once a month, unless there were elections or the Embassy wanted to know something about attitudes and the strength of political parties or groups in that particular province of Canada … In the department, for the first time, you were trained in political reporting, and it was rather interesting the way they did it. They would give you some political reports that had been declassified, to read, and then they would assign subjects, like strength of the American labor movement, or the political orientation of some element of our society, things of that kind, and tell you to come back the next day, or two or three days later, with a draft telegram on that particular aspect. They confined it, obviously, to something that you could dig into, and you could gather some background on, such as the political strength of certain movements or political parties, political orientation of agriculture in light of the Depression and things of that kind. This was one of the training tools they used, and it was really quite effective.

American Cold Warrior Douglas MacArthur II began his Foreign Service career in Vancouver in 1935.

MacArthur’s first Foreign Service assignment was in Vancouver in 1935. His work consisted mainly of relatively mundane tasks such as stamping visas rather than “political reporting,” but the labour situation on the coast nonetheless made it an interesting gig for him.

While I was doing this work, the old Seattle-Alaska line went on strike. They were controlled pretty much by Harry Bridges’ left wing union on the West Coast. There were several strikes, stranding a ship in Vancouver… The shipping job was interesting, particularly the discharge of a striking crew. There was the usual tough-minded labor union labor on each ship, if the crew was unionized, as they were on the West Coast. The union leader always wanted to be present when a crew member was questioned so he could intimidate any seamen not favoring a strike. I got involved in what the French call a prise de bec, a nose-to-nose, with union representatives, saying the seamen had the right to speak alone with the consul and the captain when he was asked the question of whether he accepted the discharge voluntarily or not, or why he was striking.

The same year, General Douglas MacArthur amended the US military’s “War Plan Red” – a contingency plan to invade Canada should relations with the British Empire sour – to include Vancouver as a “priority target comparable to Halifax and Montreal.” I have no evidence, but it seems possible that this amendment was inspired by the possibility of Communist successes in BC.

Fred Herzog, "New World Confectionery, 1965." The World Hotel at the intersection of Powell and Dunlevy was a hotbed for Communists in 1934.

According to a police spy working for the Shipping Federation in 1934, another Russian operative was active in Vancouver in 1934. “I learned that the World Hotel 396 Powell Street is quite a hang out for Reds, and a lot of the waterfront workers are now using it for their red element to gather,” Operator #3 wrote to his bosses.

A man by the name of Charles Hanson, is now using this Hotel for his headquarters. I learned from a most reliable source that this man Hanson has in the last fourteen months made two trips to New York to get money and instructions as to carrying on of the Communistic movement in Vancouver.

A subsequent report claimed that “a large fund is held in New York from Russia for the sole purpose of aiding in strikes; it is alleged that Hanson handles some of it.” As for Hanson himself, #3 wrote that

a lot of grief can be expected from Charles Hanson. This man is continually talking among the men and is telling them there is no doubt but the Reds will pull off a big strike in May or June 1935, he claims there won’t be much difficulty as its a cinch to get the lumber industry tied up, and that is where it will start.

Needless to say, a general strike didn’t happen in Vancouver in 1935.

These reports from the anonymous “Operator #3″ are the only known evidence that “Moscow Gold” ever made its way to Vancouver. Published research based on a search of the Comintern archives in the 1990s by American researchers confirmed that the Communist Party of Canada did receive money from the Soviet Union by way of the Communist Party of the United States in the 1920s and the 1980s, but sheds no light on funding during the Depression years or in Vancouver specifically.

In the Communist-led labour unrest that did happen in 1935, including the On-to-Ottawa Trek and a waterfront strike, police detected no evidence of foreign sources of funding, which suggests that either the Soviet Union wasn’t funding Vancouver Communists after all, or that the amounts were so insignificant that its impact on local organizing was trivial.

So what can we make of all this? Unless there has been some dramatic-yet-super-secret paradigm shift in international relations, it’s likely there’s some foreign influence or at least intelligence gathering going on in this town today, maybe even by Russian spies. On the other hand, given the lack of transparency and accountability in the spy biz, we’ll probably never know for sure.

One thought on “Spying in Vancouver

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