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NUCLEAR NORTH: How a Canadian defection kicked off the Cold War

George Brown passed away at 63 in his Mississauga home on June 28, 1982.

Survived by his wife and eight children, Brown’s ordinary life in the years before his death does little to highlight his significance to the history of the Cold War.

‘George Brown’ was, of course, an assumed identity courtesy of the RCMP — he was previously known as Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet military officer who spent the Second World War as a cypher clerk in the Soviet Union embassy in Ottawa.

Igor Gouzenko in 1945 Library and Archives Canada

There, he was privy to the U.S.S.R.’s nuclear espionage program that successfully gleaned the secrets of the west’s atomic bomb program — advancing Stalin’s nuclear ambitions by years.

But why Canada?

While most believe the top-secret Manhattan Project was strictly an American endeavour, in reality it was an international effort.

Alongside Los Alamos, Hanford and Oak Ridge are Canadian locales like Chalk River, Montreal, and Port Hope — lending Canada’s rich uranium resources and expertise in nuclear physics to enrich the radioactive metal into weapons-grade material — as well as the fissile plutonium-239 required for the implosion-based bombs used in the Trinity test and over Nagasaki.

With the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs bringing the bloody conflict to an end in September 1945, the 26-year-old Gouzenko got new orders from the Motherland: pack up and return home.

In his memoirs, he wrote that his years in Ottawa made him disillusioned with the politics and living conditions of post-war Russia.

So he decided to defect.

Bringing armfuls of stolen intelligence to the RCMP and then the Ottawa Journal, he returned home frustrated nobody seemed to take him seriously.

Accounts published by the Canadian Government say Soviet agents became aware of his treachery, and forced their way into his Somerset St. apartment

But he wasn’t home — he, his wife and child were across the hall at a neighbour’s, who reported the break-and-enter to Ottawa police.

Evy Wilson, daughter of Igor Gouzenko, at the unveiling of a historical plaque across from her father’s Somerset St. apartment in Ottawa, Ont. on June 4, 2003. Jean Levac / Postmedia file

The next morning, Gouzenko was hustled to RCMP headquarters where he officially defected and, despite PM Mackenzie King’s objections was granted asylum.

Gouzenko’s testimony — and his 109 smuggled documents  — shed light on Soviet nuclear espionage in the west, and by many observers the definitive trigger of the Cold War.

“He has undoubtedly been a most informative witness and has revealed to us the existence of a conspiratorial organization operating in Canada and other countries,” read the report of the Taschereau-Kellock Royal Commission on the affair.

“There can be no doubt in our minds that these attempts, very often successful, to obtain here secret and confidential information cannot be qualified as casual or isolated … the set-up of this organization in Canada is the result of a long preparation by trained and experienced men, who have come here for the express purpose of carrying on spying activities.”

Durnford Smith, engineer with the Canadian National Research Council, served five years in prison for spying. Library and Archives Canada

The commission determined both Red Army intelligence and Soviet secret police had operated in Canada as early as 1924, operating rings in both Ottawa and Toronto.

Canadians implicated by Gouzenko include McGill chemist Dr. Raymond Boyer (codename “The Professor”,) Queens mathematics prof Israel Halperin (“Bacon”,) NRC engineers Durnford Smith and Edward Mazerall, RCAF intelligence officer Fred Poland, RCAF Squadron Leader Matt Nightingale, and MP Fred Rose (“Debouz”) — the only card-carrying Communist ever elected to the House of Commons.

Member of Parliament and Soviet spy Fred Rose with his wife in a 1940s photo. Postmedia File

Born in Poland as Fishel Rosenberg in 1907, Rose emigrated to Quebec in 1920.

Becoming involved in far-left politics, he won a 1943 by-election in the Montreal riding of Cartier under the Labour-Progressive Party.

His time on Parliament Hill ended with Gouzenko’s defection, implicated as spymaster and leaking Boyer’s sensitive high-explosive research.

Alan Nunn May Library and Archives Canada

A Communist Party member since 1930, physicist Alan Nunn May (codename “Alek”) was part of Britain’s Manhattan Project contingent — assigned to Montreal Laboratory in 1943 to build research reactors at Chalk River.

It was then that he was approached by Soviet intelligence — whom he’d previously leaked American intelligence regarding Nazi Germany’s atomic bomb efforts.

May supplied samples of Canadian uranium isotopes in exchange for “$200 … and 2 bottles of whisky,” the commission report states.

Dr. Raymond Boyer, assistant professor of chemistry from McGill University and a leading specialist on the explosive known as RDX, served two years in prison. Library and Archives Canada

Arrested after Gouzenko’s defection, he remained unrepentant until his death in 2003.

Most famous of the atomic spies was German physicist Klaus Fuchs who, along with May, was part of Britain’s Manhattan Project team.

Based at Los Alamos, he attended the 1943 Quebec Conference — a secret accord between Mackenzie King, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to consolidate atomic research.

bpassifiume@postmedia.comOn Twitter: @bryanpassifiume

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