Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

How the `Reds' Got Their Man: The Communist Party Unmasks an RCMP Spy

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

How the `Reds' Got Their Man: The Communist Party Unmasks an RCMP Spy

Article excerpt

Andrew Parnaby and Gregory S. Kealey, "How the `Reds' Got Their Man: The Communist Party Unmasks an RCMP Spy," Labour/Le Travail, 40 (Fall 1997), 253-67.


"Leopold was a hero to most ..."

ON 11 AUGUST 1931, a special force of police officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Ontario Provincial Police, and the Toronto Police raided the offices of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) and the homes of its leaders. The officers seized party documents, correspondence, and publications, and later arrested party leaders Tim Buck, Malcolm Bruce, Tom McEwen, and six others under Section 98 of the Criminal Code for being members of an "illegal" organization. Two months later in Toronto, they were put on trial. While the Crown's case included the mounds of material gathered by the authorities during their summer raids, its ace in the hole was the testimony of Sergeant John Leopold of the RCMP, aka Jack Esselwein, erstwhile member of the CPC and professional labour spy. For the nine accused, the appearance of Esselwein as Leopold was perhaps not a complete surprise; it was only three years before that his picture appeared in The Worker under the caption "Stool Exposed!" shortly after then Party Secretary "Moscow" Jack MacDonald had blown his cover. (1) But it was the first time that any of them had seen their former comrade in full RCMP regalia. (2)

Like many party members, Buck, McEwen, and MacDonald had first met "Esselwein" in the wake of the 1919 labour revolt when left-wing organizations in Canada and the United States were taking their first tentative steps toward creating a communist party. (3) At that time, and for years after, Esselwein worked hard for the "cause": he attended branch meetings, headed up local campaigns, and helped organize both workers and farmers. To many, he was both a comrade and a friend. Years later, McEwen recalled a time in the 1920s when he travelled from Saskatoon to Regina just to help "straighten out" Esselwein who, according to the local party branch, had been on "one long glorious [drinking] binge." (4) Not surprisingly, then, the resentment and betrayal felt by CPCers, especially by those who now faced "comrade Jack" in the courtroom, ran deep and was often ferocious. "It has often made me feel sick at the stomach to think that ... such a force should find it necessary to pick such depraved riff-raff -- even with a pair of long-handled tongs -- and clothe that species of human garbage with the symbol and authority of law," one comrade remarked angrily. "It is difficult to understand or justify -- but only if one forgets the nature of modern class society." (5)

Leopold's testimony lasted two days, and consisted mostly of his interpretations of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and various other CP writers and theoreticians, both domestic and foreign. The leitmotif of his story was simple. The accused were the shock troops of "revolutionary socialism," the minions of Moscow who, it appeared to him, were bent on waging a ruthless campaign of class warfare in order to achieve their ultimate objective: the overthrow of capitalism. (6) This was the "expert" opinion of someone who spent almost ten years deep in the communist "underground." As such, it was the basis for the Crown's case and, as it turned out, the court's guilty verdict. Seven of the accused were sentenced to five years at hard labour in Kingston Penitentiary; one received a two year sentence to be followed by deportation; and one was not convicted.

The story of the Communist show trials is well known to many students of working-class history: the shameful miscarriage of "justice"; the imprisonment of the so-called subversives; the petition drive that secured their early release; and, in later years, the successful campaign waged during the Popular Front period to abolish Section 98 of the Criminal Code. Taken together, these events reveal the fragile nature of workers' democratic rights and freedoms during the Depression and, on a wider canvas, the immense capacity of the state to silence its most vociferous critics -- labour and the left. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.