Private Policing and Surveillance of Catholics: Anti-Communism in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, 1920-1960

By Maurutto, Paula | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Private Policing and Surveillance of Catholics: Anti-Communism in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, 1920-1960


Maurutto, Paula, Labour/Le Travail


Paula Maurutto, "Private Policing and Surveillance of Catholics: Anti-communism in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, 1920-1960," Labour/Le Travail, 40 (Fall 1997), 113-36.

"THE HOLY SEE is terribly afraid of Communism, the centre of which, in Canada, is Toronto," wrote Toronto's Roman Catholic Archbishop James McGuigan in 1937 upon returning from the Vatican. (1) "It is unfortunately making progress here and I would not be at all surprised if, within a few years, we have a real persecution similar to that in Spain." While an exaggerated claim, such beliefs framed the perceptions of many English-speaking Catholics in the city. (2) Threatened by what appeared as a profusion of socialist organizing, (3) the Archdiocese of Toronto had by the 1930s developed an extensive infrastructure to seek out, regulate and prevent the spread of communism. (4) As the Toronto Red Squad, a branch of the police department, was using coercive tactics to thwart communist-related activities, the Catholic Church was deploying a variety of means to avert this apparent danger, including the surveillance and infiltration of socialist groups, and a pervasive moral and educational campaign aimed at newly arriving immigrants. While it conducted its own investigations, the church's endeavours were supported by state officials. It obtained intelligence information from the Red Squad as well as secret Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) reports. These actions went far beyond the realm of religious proselytizing or philanthropic endeavours. The strategies employed by the Church amounted to an active policing and surveillance of individuals, operating independently from law enforcement agencies but intertwined with state political initiatives.

Such activities by non-state organizations are, for the most part, overlooked in studies on political surveillance. Most analyses of political or national security emphasize the state as the apex in the maintenance of social order. For example, in historical works by Gregory S. Kealey and Reg Whitaker, among others, surveillance tactics adopted by extra-state institutions when examined are typically discussed as incidental to public order. (5) These works reflect the common understanding of policing as consisting solely of the state sanctioned actions of the criminal justice system. An examination of the activities of the Archdiocese of Toronto, however, reveals a Church that was actively involved in the private policing and surveillance of individuals. The anti-communist activities of the Catholic Church point to a need for re-evaluating and extending common notions of the processes and techniques involved in safeguarding national security.

The term private policing is typically used in the criminology literature to distinguish non-state organizations involved in preserving social order from the state criminal justice system. The term commonly refers to an earlier practice when much of the responsibility for public order rested with individual citizens. (6) This is contrasted with the development of the modern police force in early 19th century London in response to a changing industrial society. More recently, the term private police has been applied to community-based programs such as "Neighbourhood Watch" or private security personnel hired by corporations. (7) These definitions, however, rarely consider non-state policing and surveillance as a continuous historical phenomenon that has always been intertwined with and operating alongside the criminal justice system. The term "private policing" tends to be almost exclusively used to describe a corporate agenda concerned with securing private property; the role of private philanthropic policing and surveillance is rarely considered. (8)

This oversight might be partly attributed to how private philanthropic institutions enforce discipline, which often does not conform to traditional forms of surveillance and punishment. …

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