The Canadian Spy Ring

Source:  “The Canadian Spy Ring,” from Humphrey and the Old Revolution: Human Rights in the Age of Mistrust by A.J. Hobbins.  See pages 124 – 126.  NB:  That whole document, “Humphrey”, is extremely interesting, in part because it highlights the socialist inclination of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.    Here’s a backup: Humphrey and the Old Revolution.  (A photo has been added to this post for interest.)

Excerpt from the Introduction:

“John P. Humphrey wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was one of the key United Nations Secretariat figures in the post-war human rights programme.  Humphrey was a socialist and the Universal Declaration contained social and economic rights from its very beginnings.  The inclusion of these rights made the Universal Declaration an object of attack from the American right as an instrument to introduce state socialism.  Humphrey by and large escaped any public attack as an individual, but a few of his friends and a number of his acquaintances were alleged to be Soviet agents.”


Before joining the Faculty of Law, Humphrey practised law at Wainwright, Elder and McDougall (1930-1936).  He and his wife, Jeanne, lived in an apartment building on Côte des Neiges and became friendly with another young couple, Eric and Josepha Eric Adams.20  Eric Adams (1907- ) had graduated from McGill in 1929 with a degree in Engineering, and then took an M.B.A. (1931) at Harvard.  He returned to Montreal to work for the advertising agency, Cockfield Brown, for four years.  Although he had met Humphrey as an undergraduate, they became friends only after Adam’s return to Montreal.  During visits to one another’s apartments, they used to argue about politics, Adams being far to the left of Humphrey’s socialism.  Humphrey’s theory regarding Adam’s political orientation was that as an engineer Adams expected mathematically precise answers to problems, and so, when he switched his field to economics, he naturally gravitated towards Marxism-the one philosophy that claimed to offer precise answers.  The discussions between Humphrey and Adams were usually quite heated, so much so that Jeanne Humphrey became disturbed by them and suggested the couples see less of one another.  The visits became less frequent and then ceased altogether shortly before the Adams moved away.  Adam visited Russia (1934) and then moved to the U.S. until 1939.  During the war he returned to Ottawa and worked for the Wartime Requirements Board (1940), the Foreign Exchange Control Board and Bank of Canada (1941-1944), and, moving to Montreal, for the Industrial Development Bank (1945).

Soviet cypher clerk Igor Gouzenko’s dramatic defection from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa was to change Adams’ life.  On September 5, 1945, Gouzenko took a number of papers relating to the existence of a Soviet spy ring in Canada from the embassy safe.  He went to the Ottawa Journal  where he was told to come back in the morning or go to the R.C.M.P.  The city editor was too busy to see him, thereby missing the scoop of a lifetime.  He then tried the Minister of Justice, Louis St. Laurent, but was also told to come back the following day.  The next day he again visited the Minister of Justice and was once more rebuffed, although he told the secretary to whom he spoke that he was left with no alternative but suicide.  Returning home with his wife, he noticed that two men were watching the apartment and assumed they were Soviet agents.  In fact these were Canadian agents sent by Prime Minister Mackenzie King.  King had been informed about Gouzenko that morning by Norman Robertson, the Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, and wrote in his diary:

We learned later that the Russian man had left saying he was going to his own flat; that there was nothing but suicide ahead of him.  Again, Robertson thought of getting the police to seize the papers, I suggested that a Secret Service man in plain clothes watch the premises.  If suicide took place let the city police take charge and this man to follow in and secure what there was in the way of documents, but on no account for us to take the initiative.21

King was anxious to avoid any diplomatic confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Gouzenko hid in a neighbour’s apartment, while he tried to decide his next step.  At this point four members of the Soviet staff broke into Gouzenko’s apartment.  The Ottawa city police were called by the neighbour and when they tried to make an arrest, all four Soviets claimed diplomatic immunity.  When the police heard the story, they contacted the R.C.M.P. who, on instructions from Robertson, placed Gouzenko and the papers under their protection.  Gouzenko’s defection was safely completed despite the callousness and indifference he had encountered.

The Gouzenko papers showed the existence of an extensive spy ring in Canada.  Justices Taschereau and Kellock of the Supreme Court were appointed to a Royal Commission to inquire into the matter.  In his subsequent testimony before the Royal Commission on February 13, 1946, Gouzenko identified the Soviet agent with the codename “Ernst” as “Eric Adam”.  Unlike some of his other identifications, he was unable

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to provide more information than the name.  The identification was based on having seen a file compiled by Lieutenant-Technical Gouseev, but the file was not amongst the papers Gouzenko took.  The following day one of the Counsel for the Commission, Gérald Fauteux, ordered Adams’ arrest.  Adams was in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, when the officers came to his house in Montreal.  After they had left, Josepha Adams sent him a telegram that read “Helen’s baby dying.  Will send you further word.  Sally”.22  When Adams was arrested in Saskatchewan, she contacted Humphrey for the name of a lawyer and he provided a referral to a local criminal practitioner.

Colonel Nicolai Zabotin,  1944

Colonel Nicolai Zabotin, 1944, Library and Archives Canada, PA-116421, Zabotin headed the GRU spy network in Canada

Adams was held in detention by the Commission under the War Measures Act for over a month without the benefit of habeas corpus or legal advice.  Another witness, Kathleen Willsher, assistant registrar in the British High Commission who was subsequently found guilty of espionage, identified Adams as the leader of a communist cell, or study group, in Ottawa to whom she had passed information.  Adams first appeared before the Commission on March 15th, 1946, and showed himself to be a shrewd individual, to the evident exasperation of the Commissioners and their Counsels.  He refused to take the oath until it had been modified to his satisfaction and then refused to testify without access to counsel.  The Commissioners explained that he was merely a witness and that they would decide when it was appropriate for him to be represented by a lawyer.  Adams remained adamant.  When he finally received counsel he proved a difficult and evasive witness, with poor powers of recall.  Had the issue been less serious, some of the exchanges between Adams and the Commission’s Counsels (who usually came off second best) could be viewed as quite amusing.  Adams refused to convict himself by his own testimony, and the Commissioners became frustrated with his evasiveness.  In their report they used harsh words for Adams and concluded:  “We are satisfied on the evidence that Adam was an important unit in Zabotin’s organization”.23

On the Commission’s recommendation, Adam was subsequently tried in Federal Court on a charge of conspiracy to communicate information.  The court was less impressed than the Commission with the evidence, which consisted essentially of some cryptic papers stolen from an embassy, a vague identification, and the fact that he owned some books about Communism.  Nor apparently was the prosecution able to use all the witnesses that the Commission had heard in camera.  While there was plenty of evidence about Adams’ Marxist leanings, this in itself was not a crime.  Adams categorically denied that he had ever been a member of the Communist Party or that he had passed along secret information.  He was acquitted on October 23rd, 1946.

Indeed, most of those who refused to co-operate fully with the Royal Commission secured acquittals, while those who co-operated, like McGill Chemistry Professor Raymond Boyer, were generally convicted.  In the final analysis nothing in the treatment of the suspects from the suspension of their civil liberties through their cavalier handling before the Commission to the use of their testimony against themselves in criminal court would encourage anyone to co-operate with such a process.  Even Mackenzie King was distressed at the process, writing in his diary:

It is an immense relief to have the Order in Council [allowing the Commission to detain suspects sine die] cancelled.  I feel the Commissioners have thought more of themselves and doing a fine bit and of the report they are making than of the position in which they have placed the Government and our party.  It will always be held against us and the Liberal party that we sanctioned anything that meant so much in the way of deprivation of liberty for a number of people.  Moreover, as I saw at the start, it has raised an issue in the minds of the people even more important than that of the espionage and will probably result in several of the persons being freed altogether when they come before the Court, or given trifling sentences.  It will be an interesting study in the power of public opinion and the preservation of freedom.24

After his acquittal Adams expressed the hope he could return to his job at the bank, but this was not to be.  Shortly thereafter he left with his wife for an extended tour of Eastern Europe.

The usual conclusion of the general public to proceedings such as these is that the defendant is guilty

/ 126

but managed to get off in court through some technicality or superior legal advice.  Eric Adams has never publicly discussed the matter over the last fifty years.”25  However, not everyone was certain of Adams’ guilt.  Humphrey, who knew many of the participants such as Fauteux and Robertson quite well, clearly had his doubts.  When Eric and Josepha Adams returned to Canada in August, 1949, from their European visit, Humphrey was also a passenger on the R.M.S. Aquitania.  He confided to his diary:

Last night I had a long talk with Eric and Jo Adams.  The conversation gradually drifted to world politics.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that notwithstanding the experiences that Eric has gone through his ideas are apparently unchanged.  There was the same incompatibility between us as there was, it must be over fifteen years ago, when in spite of this incompatibility we were close friends.  Last night however there was a bitterness in his remarks which he nevertheless seemed at pains to hide.  He has a good mind but it is rigid and, I suspect, totally without warmth.  That he is still a Marxist I have no doubt whatsoever.  Was he really a Soviet spy?  I doubt it; but [he] would probably be capable of it if intellectual consistency pushed him far enough.  Of such stuff are fanatics made.26


20.  The facts concerning Adams and Igor Gouzenko are mainly taken from J.W. Pickersgill and D.F. Foster, The Mackenzie King Record (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970) Vol. 111, Robert Bothwell and J.L. Granatstein, The Gouzenko Transcripts (Ottawa: Deneau Publishers, 1982) and the Royal Commission to investigate the Facts Relating to and the Circumstances Surrounding the Communication, by Public Officials and Other Persons in Positions of Trust of Secret and Confidential Information to Agents of a Foreign Power, Report (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1946).

21.  Pickersgill, 9.

22.  Royal Commission, Report, 226.  In this regard the transcript of Adams’ cross-examination reads in part:

Q.  Would you care to explain that telegram?

A.  Sure.  Ever since I have started travelling, which is a good many years ago, my wife and I have had an arrangement whereby if she is ever in trouble and wants to see me come home, and does not want to talk about the whole thing in a telegram, she simply sends me a telegram that Helen’s baby is sick.

The Commissioners added: “Needless to say we do not believe his explanation”.

23.  Ibid.  The Soviet Military Attaché, Colonel Nicolai Zabotin, ran the spy ring.

24.  Pickersgill, 157-158.

25.  When I spoke to Adams on a completely unrelated matter he said he never talked about the issue because all it did was stir up a lot of unwanted publicity.

26.  Humphrey, On the edge of Greatness, 209.

– 30 –

2 responses to “The Canadian Spy Ring

  1. Is there anyway to contact the person responsible for this blog? I will be publishing a book that is going to link everything you basically state here together. The missing link you might say. It finally proves that the men accused here were indeed traitors to Canada. The one issue however that I could not resolve is this claim regarding Oscar Skelton and Kon. Where is there any evidence of this? I have yet to find anything in writing or even a photo of the two men together. The only evidence is an unsubstantiated statement made by a newspaper reporter. However I have what remains of the Featherbed files (which is not saying much) and there is nothing in there confirming any of this. If you can help, please contact me. Trust me, the evidence I have is earth shattering and involves literally hundreds of documents from intelligence sources to include wartime RCMP, FBI, MI5, SIS and SOE documents. There is no doubt now that Norman Robertson and Lester Pearson were indeed traitors and I have the smoking guns to prove it. It involves something that happened during the war that no one has clued into.


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