A History of Hypocrisy

Canadian complicity links U.S. Cold War torture with cases like Maher Arar’s.


To judge by the statements of government officials, Canada is—as it should be—staunchly opposed to torture. Just over two decades ago, Canada became one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture, adopting an absolute ban on “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” In 2005, foreign affairs minister Pierre Pettigrew restated our support: “The use of torture is unacceptable and must not go unchallenged. Canada is fully committed to the elimination of torture, to investigating suspected cases of torture, and to supporting torture victims.” Canada recently also co-sponsored a resolution at the UN calling on Iran to address its continued use of torture, and our current minister of foreign affairs publicly demanded that Syria take firm measures to stop its use of torture, investigate allegations, prosecute perpetrators and provide remedies for torture victims.

Officials’ noble words notwithstanding, there is much that suggests a darker reality shadowing the image of Canadian opposition to torture. In April 2006, for example, the UN Human Rights Committee stated it was “concerned by allegations that Canada may have cooperated with agencies known to resort to torture with the aim of extracting information from individuals detained in foreign countries.” The committee mentioned Maher Arar in particular, but was also concerned about similar cases involving other Canadians tortured abroad. Indeed, at the later Iacobucci inquiry into three such cases, Justice Department lawyer Michael Peirce, speaking on behalf of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and the Department of Foreign Affairs, argued that signing the UN Convention against Torture does not necessarily prevent Canada from sharing intelligence with countries employing torture.

In the wake of 9/11, the Supreme Court of Canada likewise unanimously decided that there were instances when Canada could deport people to face torture. This is despite perfectly clear language in the Convention against Torture that rules out sending anyone to another state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” As a result, the UN Human Rights Committee found Canada in violation of the prohibition of torture enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As Human Rights Watch’s Jennifer Egsgard wrote to The Globe and Mail, that Supreme Court ruling, “humiliatingly, makes Canada the only Western nation whose laws have been interpreted to allow them to return an individual to torture.”

More recently, details of Canadian complicity in Afghan abuse have been trickling out across the front pages of the Globe. After repeatedly dismissing credible allegations of torture, the Harper government was finally forced to concede that torture existed in Afghan prisons when Canadian diplomats were confronted with a man covered in fresh welts who pointed out the hidden electrical cable and rubber hose secret police had used to beat him. He had been captured by Canadian forces, who routinely hand detainees over to Afghan authorities. A couple of weeks later, it was revealed that the Canadian government knew of—but tried for months to keep secret—allegations that the governor of Kandahar was personally involved in the torture of at least one detainee. Despite pledging to cooperate, the federal government has likewise refused to release uncensored documents to the Military Police Complaints Commission’s investigation of Afghan detainee transfers. And when the MPCC decided to hold a public interest hearing to gain access, the Tories moved to quash the inquiry.

All of this has unfolded under the banner of America’s so-called war on terror. “Since 9/11,” the University of Ottawa’s Peter Jones reminded us in the Ottawa Citizen last October, “the Bush administration has systematically redefined torture to provide the CIA and other U.S. agencies with legal exemptions from both U.S. laws and international conventions to which the U.S. is party.” But criticizing Yankee torture—or that of Iran or Syria for that matter—is cheap and easy for Canucks. It is one thing to excoriate others for their crimes, quite another to look at our own. As Canadians, our focus should be on the role our own government has played in all this. And a look at the history of U.S. torture suggests that the injustices revealed in cases like Maher Arar’s are not exactly anomalies in what is in fact a long record of Canadian collusion, from Cold War assistance in the development and spread of modern torture techniques to complicity in worldwide abuses today.


Between 1950 and 1962, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency led a massive project to improve psychological warfare in order to influence whole societies and better interrogate individuals. As much as US$1 billion a year was spent on research and operations, in what historian Alfred McCoy describes as “a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind.”1 These efforts led to the CIA’s very own brand of psychological, “no touch” torture—an innovation that took shape around Canadian ideas.

Throughout the CIA’s development of psychological torture, the U.S. had an unwritten understanding regarding such classified research with its close ally and neighbour, Canada. As the chair of Canada’s Defence Research Board at the time described it: “If they wanted classified research they came to the board and if we thought it was suitable we paid for it and then passed it along to the U.S.” Some of the research Canadian officials evidently thought of as suitable included that of two McGill University professors that would ultimately leave a trail of victims—not just in Montreal, but around the globe.

In March 1951, the CIA initiated a top-secret research program into “all aspects of special interrogation.” Within months, defence and intelligence officials from the U.S., Britain and Canada met secretly at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Ostensibly, these western officials were concerned with reports that communists may have developed new methods of mind control resulting in the disturbing public confessions made behind the Iron Curtain and in prisoner-of-war camps during the Korean War. But Britain had already researched the topic and all attending agreed there was “no conclusive evidence” that the communists had made any giant leaps in mind control; the meeting participants therefore turned their attention to the offensive possibilities of new research into the human mind, rather than defensive concerns.

What eventually emerged as the conceptual core of the CIA’s particular brand of torture was the devastating impact of sensory deprivation, first proposed as an avenue of research at the Ritz-Carlton meeting by Donald Hebb, chair of McGill’s psychology department. Hebb subsequently received a secret Canadian defence grant of CA$10,000 per year to study “whether slight changes in attitude might be effected” by short periods of isolation intensified by light-diffusing goggles, earphones and cardboard tubes to reduce tactile perception. In stark contrast to Hebb’s modest predictions, the impact turned out to be overwhelming—the study’s participants all reported serious confusion and hallucinations, with Hebb concluding that after two to three days of sensory deprivation, “the subject’s very identity began to disintegrate.” (Four of the first 22 volunteers spontaneously said that being in Hebb’s sensory deprivation chamber “was a form of torture.”)

Amid hundreds of generously funded projects, the CIA was quick to recognize Hebb’s research as the most promising: with just a few simple tools (goggles, gloves and a pillow), many subjects could be reduced to a state resembling acute psychosis within 48 hours, making them more vulnerable to interrogators.

Less ethical researchers would refine Hebb’s findings, testing and escalating sensory deprivation’s impact on unwitting victims more like those to be targeted in the CIA’s field of operations. One such ethically challenged researcher was Hebb’s colleague at McGill, Ewen Cameron.

In 1943, the Scottish-born Cameron was appointed professor of psychiatry at McGill and director of the newly created Allan Memorial Institute. Funded lavishly throughout the 1950s by the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare and the Defence Research Board, Cameron started experimenting with brainwashing in 1953, using techniques he described as “an adaptation of Hebb’s psychological isolation” that incorporated sedation, hypnosis and LSD.

As documented by writers, including Harvey M. Weinstein, the 1956 publication of Cameron’s results brought him to the attention of the CIA. Having found a scientist willing to test the effects of prolonged, involuntary sensory deprivation, the CIA then funnelled about US$62,000 to Cameron between 1957 and 1963 for further brainwashing research on unwitting Allan Memorial patients.

(The stories of lives destroyed by Cameron’s experiments are legion. Among the more poignant for Canadians concerned with their own government’s crimes is that of 26-year-old Linda MacDonald. She was admitted to the Allan Memorial Institute for depression in 1963, after the CIA—but not the Canadian government—had grown tired of funding Cameron’s work. MacDonald’s “therapy” lasted six months and included an 86-day drug-induced sleep; at the end, she was totally amnesiac and had to be toilet trained.)


In 1963, the CIA formally distilled its behavioural findings into the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook. Hebb and Cameron’s Montreal research provided what Anne Collins, author of In the Sleep Room, calls the “Canadian contribution” to CIA interrogation, inspiring psychological torture techniques that were not only brutally effective but also left no telltale physical marks. Kubark laid out a novel two-phase combination of Hebb and Cameron’s sensory deprivation with stress positions (such as prolonged squatting) that induce suffering that is “self-inflicted” and therefore more psychologically devastating. “For the next forty years,” writes Alfred McCoy, “the Kubark manual would define the agency’s interrogation methods and training programs throughout the Third World.” One of the first stops on Kubark’s world tour was Vietnam.

According to historian Darius Rejali in Torture and Democracy, “by 1963, there was no doubt that the South Vietnamese government tortured prisoners.” Beginning in the mid 1960s, the U.S. ran its infamous Phoenix “counterterror” program together with Saigon authorities in a combined effort to eliminate the Vietcong and their supporters from South Vietnam. Phoenix ultimately left tens of thousands tortured and killed, the overwhelming majority of them innocent.

For its part, Canada was a member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision responsible for supervising the implementation (and, in practice, violation) of Vietnam’s peace accords when the Phoenix program was winding down in 1973. Political scientist Victor Levant has documented that, while our government feigned objectivity and impartiality on Vietnam, “the record of Canadian actions reveals a continuing pattern of partisan behaviour as well as a cynical disregard for the responsibilities of international peacekeeping. Ottawa needed no prompting from Washington on this score.” This is most certainly the case with the Canadian contingent of the commission’s refusal to shed unfavourable light on its neighbour to the south by investigating widespread torture among SouthVietnam’s hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. The Canadian government defended this stance, in part, by arguing that “these prisoners’ status is comparable to that of the Japanese Canadians who were interned during WWII and therefore exclusively within South Vietnam’s internal jurisdiction.”2 As John Holmes, an influential Canadian diplomat of the period, once boasted, having principles—but finding ways around them—was a “Canadian idea.”

“In retrospect,” McCoy writes, “Phoenix proved a seminal experience for the U.S. intelligence community, combining both physical and psychological techniques in an extreme method that would serve as a model for later counterinsurgency training in South and Central America.” From the mid 1960s to the mid ’80s, the U.S. army exported this model to Latin America through training programs and materials for allied governments, resulting in counterguerilla operations from Columbia to Guatemala that bore “an eerie but explicable resemblance to South Vietnam.”

Throughout, Hebb and Cameron’s contributions remained evident. In an updated version of their Kubark manual, the CIA’s Honduras Human Resource Exploitation Manual (1983) makes reference to the “powerful stress” caused by sensory deprivation: “the more complete the deprivation, the more rapidly and deeply the subject is affected. The stress and anxiety become unbearable for most subjects.” During this period, both the Trudeau and Mulroney governments avoided direct criticism of U.S. policy in Latin America that supported regimes that executed hundreds of thousands and tortured tens of thousands more.

In 1980, Canada supported a UN resolution condemning abuses in El Salvador, but soon acquiesced to continuing U.S. military aid and worked repeatedly to moderate direct denunciations of the Salvadoran government drafted by countries such as France and Mexico. When it came to ongoing state terror in Guatemala in 1984, church observers and a former senior human rights advisor to the Canadian government accused Canada of accommodating U.S. objections to the wording of a resolution concerning its Guatemalan allies in the UN Commission on Human Rights. Allan MacEachern, the minister of foreign affairs at the time, said that because U.S.-Canada relations were the first priority of Canadian foreign policy, there had to be limits to Canadian criticism of U.S. policy.3


As Alfred McCoy compellingly argues, Canadian research continues to echo to this day in Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and locations unknown. He points out that, for example, those iconic Abu Ghraib photos reflect familiar Kubark methods, rather than just the sadistic improvisation of a few “creeps”: the hood imposes sensory deprivation, while standing for an extended period with outstretched arms administers so-called self-inflicted pain.

Likewise, the issue of “disappeared persons” closes the loop between America’s propagation of torture in Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s and today’s ongoing “war on terror.” People are “disappeared” when authorities hold them secretly, often to facilitate their torture and/or execution. The UN General Assembly first noted it as an urgent problem in 1978 and, since 1980, more than 51,000 people have been disappeared by governments in more than 90 countries, many of them in Latin America. At least 40,000 cases remain unsolved today.

In this alleged war on terror, America resorts not only to widespread torture but also to “extra-ordinary rendition,” the practice of disappearing people to other countries without due judicial process. Essentially, it is state kidnapping and is used to deliver captives to jurisdictions such as Syria and Egypt where they face torture by proxy or death. Although the scales of abuse are clearly different, the London director of Human Rights Watch recalled disappearances under regimes such as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia before observing that “the U.S. administration [has] made little secret that it apparently feels entitled to make people vanish.” Details remain secret. As journalist Stephen Grey emphasized in an article for Salon.com, “we know the fate of just a small fraction of the thousands of prisoners captured by U.S. forces around the world since 9/11.”

Such abuses lent new momentum to the issue of “forced disappearances” at the UN more than 20 years after it first emerged on the world agenda. Here again, Canada has played a questionable role. In the 1980s, Canada was instrumental in creating and supporting the UN Working Group on Involuntary Disappearances, and in 2007 the Canadian delegate to the UN Human Rights Council reaffirmed that those responsible for enforced disappearances should not go unpunished. Nonetheless, as Human Rights Watch reported in 2006, Canada also worked aggressively to dilute key provisions of an international treaty on forced disappearances:

“To their disgrace, the United States and Russia strongly opposed the [treaty] effort, not least because each had begun using forced disappearances itself … Canada contributed to this shameful opposition, not because it is known to forcibly “disappear” people, but apparently because Prime Minister Martin, eager to improve relations with the United States that had been strained under his predecessor, decided to run interference for one of his neighbor’s unsavory practices.”4

Despite the efforts of the U.S. and Canada, the text of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance—modelled after the UN Convention against Torture—was approved by the General Assembly in December 2006. Seventy-two countries have since signed it, neither the U.S. nor Canada among them.

Documents obtained by Canadian Press help shed some light on the Canadian government’s lack of support. In late November 2005, a secret Canadian Border Services Agency briefing reported that 20 CIA aircraft had made 74 flights through Canada since 9/11, flights quite possibly carrying kidnap victims through Canadian airports and airspace into the hands of torturers. A later government review of those flights uncovered no “illegal activities,” but there is no indication that this secretive assessment process took Canada’s human rights standards—or anything beyond basic flight regulations—into consideration. Moreover, the Canadian government may not actually deem extraordinary rendition illegal; a 2005 Department of Justice opinion on the issue remains secret and, although a Foreign Affairs briefing note from the same year acknowledges the practice is “highly controversial,” department spokesman Rodney Moore stated in 2006 that “whether any particular rendition is lawful would depend on the facts of each individual case.”


In the final pages of A Question of Torture, Alfred McCoy quotes the inspiring words of an Israeli judge from a 1999 ruling against the abuse of Palestinian prisoners, reminding us that “not all means are acceptable” for a democracy “and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand.” But these words are not quite as meaningful as they first appear: by 2003, the Public Committee against Torture in Israel concluded that torture of Palestinian prisoners was again “methodical and routine.”

Not that you will find the Canadian government complaining about such abuse; far from it. When the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade recently disclosed training material that listed the U.S. and Israel among countries where prisoners are at risk of torture, all the U.S. and Israel had to do was say “Boo!” and Canadian officials scrambled to remove them from the list, in spite of consensus among human rights groups that they both torture.

So, from the early days of the Cold War, the Canadian government coordinated and funded the CIA’s research into psychological torture. When they exported the resulting techniques to Vietnam and Latin America, we ran interference. And with today’s war on terror, our complicity with U.S. torture has only grown. Apparently the “Canadian idea” about finding ways around one’s principles knows few bounds.

  1. My discussion of the history of American torture throughout this essay owes a great deal to Alfred McCoy’s penetrating and important A Question of Torture (New York: Metropolitan, 2006) and his “Science in Dachau’s Shadow,” Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences, Fall 2007.  

  2. Victor Levant, “The Political Economy of Canadian Foreign Policy in Vietnam,” PhD thesis, McGill University, 1981, pages 769, 761–66.  

  3. Liisa North and CAPA, eds., Between War and Peace in Central America: Choices for Canada (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1990), pages 198, 205–06; Robert O. Matthews and Cranford Pratt, eds., Human Rights in Canadian Foreign Policy (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University, 1988), pages 85, 91, 97, 232, 236, 238.  

  4. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2006, pages 2, 17.