The Soviet Embassy Fire

1 January 1956

It was Sunday, 1 January 1956. Like most New Year’s Days, revellers from the previous night’s festivities were nursing sore heads. With Monday being a holiday, many Ottawa residents were happy to laze about the house and enjoy their long weekend. The virtuous and hardy braved sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures to go to church, or attend the annual Governor General’s New Year Levee. Held on Parliament Hill, more than 1,000 Ottawa residents filed into the crimson and gold Senate chamber late that morning to be greeted by Governor General Vincent Massey, before receiving a glass of punch and a light lunch in the nearby Railway Committee Room. As was customary at the time, it was a very masculine affair. Other than Charlotte Whitton, Ottawa’s formidable mayor, and some female members of the armed forces, there were very few women present. The city’s diplomatic corps was well represented, however. Among the foreign dignitaries at the reception to shake Massey’s hand were three uniformed representatives of the Soviet Embassy. Little did they realize they were about to have a very bad day.

Following the levee, which ended in the early afternoon, the three Russian officers undoubtedly hurried back to the Soviet embassy for their own New Year’s celebrations, hosted by Ambassador Dimitri Chuvahin. Located at 285 Charlotte Street in Sandy Hill, the embassy building had once been the mansion of the Booth family, Ottawa’s lumber barons. Requisitioned by the Canadian government in 1942 for use by the Royal Canadian Women’s Naval Services, the house was instead turned over to the Russians to house the growing Soviet legation. As guests left the Soviet reception at about 4.15pm, Miss Diane Destonis, a neighbour living in the apartment building across the street, spotted smoke drifting from a window on the third floor of the embassy building. Another neighbour, Mr W. Dore, also saw the smoke. Believing it was a kitchen fire, he tried to alert the Soviet embassy by telephone; he received no reply.

The fire was caused by an electrical short circuit in the embassy’s communications room located on the upper floor of the three-storey building. Instead of immediately calling the Ottawa Fire Department for assistance, Soviet diplomats tried to put out the blaze themselves using hand extinguishers and a small fire hose installed in the building. Thirty minutes passed before the alarm was raised. Although firefighters were on the scene within ten minutes of receiving the call, flames had already engulfed the third floor. Entering by the front door of the embassy, Ottawa’s firemen, led by Chief John Foote, were stopped by embassy staff claiming diplomatic immunity. A Soviet official actually struck Chief Foote; the incident was later played down. Denied access to source of the fire, the firemen were obliged to tackle the blaze from the outside. The Soviet diplomats also impeded the firemen’s efforts by refusing to vacate the premises. Instead, they repeatedly went in and out of the embassy to retrieve filing cabinets, boxes, and files of documents. The last item to be saved from the flames was “a heavy piece of wireless equipment.” Two embassy cars, stuffed with documents, reportedly “careened” out of the embassy driveway onto Charlotte Street, running over deployed fire hoses, almost bursting them.

Soviet Embassy, after the fire, January 1956, 285 Charlotte Street, Ottawa
Soviet Embassy, after the fire, January 1956, 285 Charlotte Street, Ottawa

Incensed by the lack of Soviet co-operation, Chief Foote contacted Mayor Whitton who hurried to the scene. Shortly afterwards, R. M. Macdonnell, the deputy undersecretary of External Affairs arrived, as did Paul Martin, Sr, Minister for National Health and Welfare, substituting for Lester Pearson, Minister for External Affairs who was out of town. The mayor authorized Chief Foote to exercise all necessary emergencies powers at his disposal as Fire Marshall. At 6.30pm, he declared a state of emergency, calling in extra firemen and police support.

The fire was finally brought under control two hours later, but was not extinguished until close to midnight. One hundred firemen fought the blaze in biting cold weather, using equipment from four stations, including three pumper trucks and four ladder trucks. Although smoke and hot cinders filled the sky, a north-easterly breeze blew burning embers towards parkland and the Rideau River, sparing the embassy’s neighbours. More than three thousand spectators watched the night’s drama despite the cold. Hundreds of cars lined Riverside Drive. Meanwhile, streetcar service along Laurier Avenue East was blocked.

Thankfully, no lives were lost in the fire. But the embassy building was a write-off. Estimated losses amounted to $250,000 (equivalent to more than $2 million today). Ambassador Chuvahin and his wife, along with two other Soviet diplomats living in the building, lost their homes and their belongings. The Soviets set up a temporary embassy a short walk away at 24 Blackburn Avenue, the office of the Soviet commercial counsellor.

The next day, with the embassy building sheathed in ice, the blame game commenced. The Soviets claimed that the Ottawa Fire Department had been slow to respond, and that there had been insufficient water pressure. Mayor Whitton hotly denied the allegations, saying that the Russians had only themselves to blame by not calling in the firemen immediately, and then obstructing their access to the building. She also argued that the six-foot, spiked, iron fence installed around the perimeter of the property the previous year had made it difficult for fire equipment to be brought close to the embassy building. Additionally, extreme cold temperatures meant that water being directed onto the blaze vapourized before contact. At the city’s official New Year Reception held that afternoon, a hoarse and weary Mayor Whitton commented, “I’ve been fighting the Russians.”

The public was baffled by the Soviet effort to obstruct Ottawa’s firemen. A Citizen editorial called it “an incomprehensible act,” which put its neighbours at risk. Claims of “diplomatic immunity” in such circumstances were  deemed “fantastic.” Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet cypher clerk who had defected from the Soviet Embassy nine years earlier, explained that the only reason for embassy officials to impede and delay Ottawa’s firemen was to ensure that it’s most secret documents, for example, lists of names of agents in the west and instructions from Moscow, were kept secret.

Mayor Whitton called upon the federal government to review its regulations governing diplomatic immunity in order to give firemen free access to buildings in the event of future fires. The government demurred, arguing that international rules governing diplomatic immunity had been finely crafted over many centuries, and that Canadian officials abroad were accorded the same privileges as foreign representatives were in Canada. When contacted, other diplomatic missions in Canada were also wary of any change to the law, though several commented that they would have allowed the firemen onto their premises had their embassies caught fire.

With the old Booth mansion a write-off, a new Soviet Embassy, built in the Socialist Classical style, was constructed on the same site. With the Cold War in full swing, RCMP counter-espionage agents, assisted by British MI5 agents, apparently concealed microphones in the windows of the new building while it was under construction. Called Operation Dew Worm, Igor Gouzenko provided advice to the Canadian and British spooks on the best locations to place the bugs.

Embassy of the Russian Federation, 285 Charlotte Street, Ottawa
Embassy of the Russian Federation, 285 Charlotte Street, Ottawa, circa 2013

It seems, however, that western spy agencies gained little by this piece of high-tech skullduggery. Two books published in the 1980s, Their Trade is Treachery (1981) by journalist H. Chapman Pincher and Spycatcher (1987) by former MI5 agent Peter Wright, claim that the Russians were tipped off to the location of the bugs, and established a secure room elsewhere in the building. Allegedly, the source of the tip-off was a senior member of the British intelligence service, possibly Sir Roger Hollis, director-general of MI5 from 1956 to 1965, whom the authors claim was a Russian mole. The British government officially denied the allegations. But Wright’s memoir gained world-wide notoriety when the British government tried to keep it from being published. The case against Hollis, now dead (as are Pincher and Wright), remains unproven. The Soviet Embassy building now houses the Embassy of the Russian Federation.

As a postscript to this story, history repeated itself in January 1987. When a small, electrical fire broke out in the basement of the Soviet consulate on Avenue de Musée in Montreal, Soviet diplomats choose to fight the blaze themselves using garden hoses and snow. When neighbours called in the alarm to the fire department, Soviet officials delayed the firefighters’ entry into the building for fifteen minutes to protect documents. As a consequence, what had been a minor fire became a major five-alarm fire.

Sources:

City of Ottawa, 2014. “Soviet embassy fire,” http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/witness-change-visions-andrews-newton-33.

Gouzenko, Igor, 1956. “Secret Work of Russian Embassy Vastly Expanded Since Spy Trials,” The Ottawa Citizen, 4 January.

Lewiston Daily Sun, 1956. “Soviet Ottawa Embassy Destroyed By Fire; Aides Stay To Move Documents,” 2 January.

Los Angeles Times, 1987. “Soviets Keep Firemen Out, Montreal Consulate Burns,” 17 January.

The Globe and Mail, 1956. “Report Chief Struck—Embassy in Ottawa Burned As Russians Impede Firemen,” 2 January.

————————, 1956. “1000 Call on Massey at Levee,” 3 January 1956.

————————, 1981, “The Spy Scandal: Did Canada bug rebuilt Soviet Embassy?,” 27 March.

Toronto Star, 1987. “Fire at Soviet embassy revives 31-year puzzle,” 18 January.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1956. “Mayor Asks Way To Pry Open Embassies During Emergencies,” 3 January.

———————-, 1956. “Weary, Semi-Ill Mayor Entertains At Reception,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “No ‘Immunity’ From Fire,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “Flames Ruin Embassy, Red Tape Slows Fight,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “Refused to Leave, Carried from Burning Building,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “Senator Feared For Safety of Next-Door Residence,” 3 January.

———————, 1956. “Ottawa’s Diplomats Decidedly Cool Toward Any Curtailment of Privilege,” 4 January.

———————, 1956. “Traditional Colorful Scenes At Governor-General’s Levee,” 3 January.

Wright, Peter, 1987, Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd: Toronto.

Images: Soviet Embassy after the Fire, 1956, City of Ottawa, 2014. “Soviet embassy fire,” http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/witness-change-visions-andrews-newton-33.

Russian Embassy today, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embassy_of_Russia_in_Ottawa#mediaviewer/File:Russian_Embassy_in_Ottawa.JPG.

The Trial of Agatha Chapman

26 November 1946

Agatha Chapman was born in England in 1907, and immigrated to Canada in 1918. She came from a very well-connected family. Her father had been a high court judge in India, while an uncle had been lieutenant governor of Manitoba. She was also a descendant of Sir Charles Tupper, a Father of Confederation, premier of Nova Scotia from 1864-67 and, briefly in 1896, sixth prime minister of Canada.

Chapman received a BA in commerce from the University of British Columbia, and subsequently, in 1931, a Masters degree. After working for an insurance company in Montreal, she joined the Bank of Canada in 1940. She was one of the first, if not the first, woman economist hired by the fledging central bank, which had itself only commenced operations five years earlier. Despite being a woman in a decidedly male profession—the Bank required female employees to resign upon marriage—Chapman excelled. In 1942, she was seconded to the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, the forerunner of Statistics Canada, to join a team tasked with developing from scratch Canada’s national accounts. The national accounts provide estimates of a country’s economic activity, broadly measuring the income and expenditures of key economic agents, such as consumers, corporations and governments. Following the Great Depression, the development of an accurate set of national accounts was a prerequisite for governments seeking to support and sustain a high level of economic activity. In this exceedingly important area of economic research, Chapman quickly became one of the Canada’s leading experts.

Her apparent charmed life was shattered in July 1946 when she was identified by the Kellock-Taschereau Royal Commission as a member of a communist cell, and of having aided the transmission of secret information to the Soviet Union. The Royal Commission had been established by Prime Minister Mackenzie King in early 1946 to examine allegations of a Soviet spy ring operating in Canada involving military and government officials by Igor Gouzenko, a Russian cipher clerk stationed in Ottawa, who had defected the previous year.

Testifying at Commission hearings, Chapman readily admitted to having been a member of a number of study groups that had discussed, among other things, socialist and Marxist literature. These meetings were frequented by most of the people of interest to the committee, including Fred Rose, the communist federal MP for the Montreal riding of Cartier, whose names had come up in documents provided by Gourzenko, or in later testimony. Chapman also admitted to being a member of the Canadian Soviet Friendship Council, though this was nothing unusual at the time as the Russians had been viewed as close allies during the war, deserving Canadian support.

Agatha Chapman
Agatha Chapman, The Evening Citizen, 26 November 1946

A day after the Kellock-Taschereau Commission had revealed her name in its final report filed on 15 July 1946, Chapman was suspended with pay from her job at the Dominion Bureau of Statistics. With rumours about her alleged spy activities swirling through Ottawa, she successfully petitioned Louis St. Laurent, the Minister of Justice, for a trial so that she could clear her name and restore her reputation. On 18 September 1946, she was formally charged. The following day, she surrendered to police, and was arraigned before a magistrate and released on $2,000 bail.

With an early snowfall blanketing Ottawa, Chapman’s trial began mid-afternoon of Tuesday, 26 November in front of county court judge A. G. McDougall. Adjourned at 5:00pm, the trial recommenced at 10:30 the next morning. Two hours later, and after only 4 ½ hours of testimony, Judge McDougall dismissed the case against the 39-year old economist. The judge agreed with the defence counsel that “there was no evidence on which a jury could possibly have convicted.” Most tellingly, Gouzenko himself did not recall her name in Soviet documents, and did not recognize her despite living on the same street as Chapman.

Chapman’s ordeal was not over, however. Although she had hoped to get back to her beloved job working on Canada’s national accounts, this was not to be. In the midst of the crisis, she had applied for a permanent position at the Dominion Bureau of Statistics to do essentially what she had already been doing. Although the job competition was delayed until after she had been cleared of all wrong-doing, the position was given to a less qualified and less experienced man. The Bank of Canada also failed to support her, and Chapman left its employ. She stated “despite my acquittal by the courts, I find it impossible to continue satisfactorily to work in my own field at present.” Fortunately, her former boss and friend at the Bureau put her in touch with Cambridge University in England which quickly hired her so that she could continue her national accounting research.

In the early 1950s, Chapman returned to Canada and married an American advertising executive who had fled the McCarthyism of his native United States. She also went to work at a left-wing research consultancy firm in Montreal with Eric Adams, another former Bank of Canada employee who had also been named by the Kellock-Taschereau Commission as a Soviet agent and had been subsequently exonerated. It was a hand-to-mouth existence. On 17 October 1963, Agatha Chapman jumped to her death from her Bishop St apartment. There was no mention of her passing in the nation’s press.

Sources:

Canada, 1946. The report of the Royal Commission appointed under Order in Council P. C. 411 of February 5, 1946 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, 27 June. Ottawa : E. Cloutier, Printer to the King.

Clément, Dominique, 2014. Canada’s Human Rights History: Agatha Chapman, http://www.historyofrights.com/bios/chapman.html.

McDowall, Duncan, 2007. The Trial and Tribulations of Miss Agatha Chapman: Statistics in a Cold War Climate: Queen’s Quarterly, 114/3 (Fall), 357-373.

 The Evening Citizen, 1946. “Chapman Acquitted by Judge”, 27 November.

 ——————–, 1947. “Agatha Chapman to do Research Work in England,” 25 March.

 The Montreal Gazette, 1946. “Agatha Chapman Faces Spy Charge,” 20 September.

Image: The Evening Citizen, 26 November, 1946.

The Red Menace

5 September 1945

On Wednesday evening, 5 September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, defected, or at least tried to defect as it took him almost two days to convince anybody that he was serious. He first showed up at the office of the Ottawa Journal with secret documents that he had smuggled out of the embassy. But the city editor was busy and told Gouzenko to come back the following day. He then tried the office of Louis St. Laurent, then the Minister of Justice. But the minister and his staff had long gone home for the night. Again, Gouzenko was told to return in the morning.  After going back to the Journal for another fruitless attempt to attract somebody’s attention, Gouzenko returned to his Somerset St apartment building. Terrified that he was being followed by Soviet operatives, Gouzenko, his wife and young child, took shelter with a neighbour. This was a wise decision as later that night members of the Soviet Embassy broke down the front door of their apartment looking for them.

Fortunately, the break-in brought Gouzenko to the attention of the Ottawa police who asked for guidance from the RCMP. The Mounties called Norman Robertson, the Undersecretary of State for External Affairs, who in turn conferred with Sir William Stephenson, the diminutive, Canadian-born, British spy chief, code-named “Intrepid.” Gouzenko and his family were finally “brought in from the cold” on Friday, 7 September and whisked away to a secret location outside of Oshawa for debriefing. The documents he brought with him were breathtaking. They provided details of a Soviet spy ring in Canada. Its objective was to obtain intelligence about the U.S. atomic bomb which the Americans had just dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Gouzenko
Igor Gouzenko, circa 1946, LAC

Ottawa was an ideal locale for spies. Its National Research Council was a major weapons research centre during the war. Its scientists, along with their British and U.S. counterparts, worked on “the bomb” in secret laboratories at the University of Montreal.  Canada was also the source of the uranium fuel for the weapon, and had built a top-secret nuclear reactor at Chalk River, a tiny community 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

The reasons for Gouzenko’s defection were straightforward. He had been a committed Stalinist when he had arrived in Canada via Siberia in 1943. Although living conditions in the Soviet Union were difficult, he had been told that conditions were worse in the capitalist countries. However, he was shocked to discover Canadian stores stocked with goods that Soviet citizens could only dream of. Ordinary Canadian workers lived in their own houses and drove cars, unthinkable in Soviet Russia. He was also dumbstruck that people freely spoke their minds about their government without fear of arrest. After two years in Ottawa, he could not face returning to the Soviet Union.

The Canadian government’s initial response to Gouzenko’s defection was lukewarm owing to fears about upsetting the Soviets, key wartime allies. Prime Minister Mackenzie King did, however, personally inform U.S. President Truman and British Prime Minister  Attlee of Gouzenko’s defection and the contents of the documents that he had brought with him. But the news was kept under wraps for months.

Rumours of a Soviet spy ring operating in Canada began to circulate in the United States on 4 February 1946. With the news about to break, King briefed his Cabinet the following day and established a Royal Commission headed by two Supreme Court Justices, Roy Kellock and Robert Taschereau, to examine the evidence and allegations made by Gouzenko. The Commission immediately began secret hearings. On 15 February, the RCMP arrested thirteen men and women named in the Soviet documents. More arrests were to follow. Later that day, the government made an official announcement to the public. Still protective of Soviet feelings, it did not mention the Soviet Union by name, saying only that secret and confidential information had been disclosed to “some members on the staff of a foreign mission in Ottawa.”

The news burst like a bombshell. The Globe and Mail’s headline the next day screamed “Atom Secret Leaks to Soviet, Canadians Suspected.” Canadian public opinion which had been very favourable towards the Soviet Union because of its role in defeating Hitler swung sharply negative. On the basis of documents and testimony gathered by the Royal Commission, twenty-three persons who mostly worked for the military, government, or Crown agencies were arrested. Eleven were subsequently found guilty of spying, including Fred Rose, the communist Member of Parliament for the Montreal riding of Cartier. He was expelled from Parliament in 1947 and sentenced to six years in prison. Alan Nunn May, a British physicist working on the bomb project in Montreal, was tried in the United Kingdom and received a sentence of ten years hard labour. Several others also received prison terms. However, courts later dismissed charges against more than half of those publicly accused by the Commission. Several had only been members of study groups, a popular activity in wartime Ottawa, which had discussed Marxism and other left-wing subjects.

The King Government’s handling of Gouzenko’s defection marked a low point for Canadian civil liberties. Suspected spies were arrested on the basis of a secret order-in-council. Their basic right of habeas corpus were suspended. Suspects were held indefinitely without legal council and without a court able to challenge their detention. Justices Kellock and Taschereau were harsh with witnesses. At times, they seemed to forget that their mission was to collect the facts and not to be judge and jury. The accusations they publicly levelled against many who were later exonerated ruined reputations and destroyed careers.

The Gouzenko affair marked the beginning of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies that was to last until the fall of the Berlin War in 1989. News of Soviet spies in North America fuelled growing U.S. anxieties about Soviet activities at a time when the Russians were consolidating their grip on Eastern Europe. On 5 March 1946, three weeks after the Gouzenko affair became public, Winston Churchill famously said that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Also that year, Joe McCarthy was elected junior senator for Wisconsin. In 1950, he catapulted to infamy with his unsubstantiated claim of hundreds of communists working in the U.S. federal bureaucracy. The communist witch-hunts subsequently orchestrated by the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities blighted countless lives. We now have a word for this—McCarthyism. And it all began that warm September evening in Ottawa.

Sources:

Bothwell, R. & Granastein, J.L., 1981. The Gouzenko Transcripts: The “Evidence Presented to the Kellock-Taschereau Royal Commission of 1946,” Deneau Publishers & Company, Ottawa.

Edmonton Journal, 1948. “Gouzenko Tells His Own Story,” 8 May.

The Globe and Mail, 1946. “Atom Secret Leaks to Soviet, Canadians Suspected,” 16 February, 1946.

Clément, Dominque, 2014. “The Gouzenko Affair,” Canada Civil Rights History, http://www.historyofrights.com/gouzenko2.html.

——————, 2004. “It is Not the Beliefs but the Crime that Matters: Post-War Civil Liberties Debates in Canada and Australia,” Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, No. 86, May, http://www.historyofrights.com/PDF/article_LabourHistory.pdf.

Image: Library and Archives Canada, creator unknown.