1919 Section 98 and the Security State

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Canada’s modern security apparatus began to take shape soon after the First World War. When the war ended in November 1918, the police force consisted of 303 men. In February 1919, the number of detectives and secret agents was almost doubled, and a system of security files was created (housed in Ottawa). By September 1919, the police force had expanded to reach 1,600. It quickly adopted the use of fingerprinting, one of the weapons deployed by the Canadian state to deal with criminal activity. By 1919, the Canadian Criminal Identification Bureau was collecting and disseminating fingerprints among police forces in cities across the country. And by 1920, the newly formed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), a merger of the Royal North-West Mounted Police and the Dominion Police, which was responsible for all federal law enforcement and national security, was regularly exchanging fingerprints with Britain to identify people who were deported for criminal activity. Much of the force’s increased efforts during the post-war period focused on labour and radical organizations. The expanding security apparatus was effective enough to plant an agent (Inspector John Leopold) in the secret meeting of the twenty-two people who founded the Communist Party of Canada in 1921.

Yet another aspect of the emerging security state was the creation of section 98 of the Criminal Code, part of the government’s response to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Under the new section, which remained in force until 1936, any organization that sought to overthrow the state or to bring about economic change through violence became illegal. As the section explained,

“Any association … whose professed purpose … is to bring about any governmental, industrial or economic change within Canada by use of force, violence or physical injury to person or property, or by threats of such injury, or which teaches, advocates, advises or defends the use of force, violence, terrorism, or physical injury to person or property … in order to accomplish such change, or for any other purpose, or which shall by any means persecute or pursue such purpose … or shall so teach, advocate, advise or defend, shall be an unlawful association.”

Under section 98, simply joining certain political parties or groups was now breaking the law. The penalty for violating the section was up to twenty years in jail. Anyone who rented space to the members of a proscribed organization was also liable for imprisonment or a fine of $5,000. The RCMP could seize property suspected of belonging to an illegal organization and no longer needed a warrant to do so.

Other legislative changes amplified the state’s authority. Section 133 of the Criminal Code, which had provided that merely pointing out defects in government or the Constitution did not equate with seditious intent, was removed. The Immigration Act was amended to facilitate the deportation of non-citizens who advocated the destruction of property or who belonged to an organization that promoted the overthrow of the government (a move that dramatically expanded the classes of foreigners who could be expelled). Ottawa also amended the Naturalization Act so that it could revoke the citizenship of naturalized Canadians.

The main purpose of these new powers was to suppress political dissent. Between 1902 and 1928, Canada deported an average of 1,000 people each year, but the number of deportations rose after the amendments, skyrocketing to 4,025 in 1930 and over 7,000 in the following two years. And in 1931, the leaders of the Communist Party of Canada were placed on trial under section 98. Tim Buck and his colleagues were found guilty and spent several years in jail. Their convictions effectively confirmed that the Communist Party was banned in Canada – the only democratic country to do so at the time. Within a year, another 1,500 people had been prosecuted, and 355 convicted, for political crimes.


Further Reading

Berger, Thomas. Fragile Freedoms: Human Rights and Dissent in Canada. Toronto: Clarke-Irwin, 1981.

Lambertson, Ross. Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 1930-1960. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Mackenzie, J.B. “Section 98, Criminal Code and Freedom of Expression in Canada.” Queen’s Quarterly 1, 1 (1971-72): 469-85.

Petryshyn, J. “Class Conflict and Civil Liberties: The Origins and Activities of the Canadian Labour Defense League, 1925-1940.” Labour/Le travail 10 (1982): 39-63.


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