Beloved artist to nation: "Keep Your Mouths Shut"

Jesse Brown, a BoingBoing guest-blogger, is the host of TVO's Search Engine podcast.

Norman McLaren is well-known to Canadians as the creator of the Oscar-winning anti-war animation Neighbours (which seemed to air every hour past midnight on public TV when I was a kid). But the NFB's extensive and amazing archives contain a wealth of other McLaren creations- including the following piece of terrifying WWII propaganda: Were there Nazi spies in Canada during WWII or was McLaren a paranoid propagandist? I am completely ignorant about this period of Canadian history- can some BoingBoinger educate me?


  1. German U-boats apparently did quite a good job of blockading the St Lawrence river and the fear of German spies was quite great. A handful of spies did land and co-incidentally CBC aired a documentary called The Spies Who Came from the Sea about the matter only last month.

  2. Well, Halifax is a huge point of entry to North America, and Montreal is notorious as the halfway point to sneak into the States… so I can see it.

  3. The Germans also set up a weather station in Labrador that was not located until the 80’s.

    Greater fear/threat at the time was from Canadians of German origin sympathetic to their home country.

  4. Jesse: Welcome aboard! I am so happy that TVO has seen fit to give the resources you need for your Podcast, but even as a “one man band” last year you kicked but. But I digress.

    I hope that some former and current staff of the National Film Board of Canada will add to this thread but my understanding simply as a fan of the NFB in general and Norman McLaren in particular is that during WWII the entire Canadian government mobilized. At the time the NFB was a lot less independent, and Mr. McLaren was just starting out. So if his boss told him to make a patriotic film he did what he was told.

    But as this video aptly demonstrates, he did it in a very ingenious way.

    A word of explanation on the blackouts during the video you selected: These films were part of a live theatrical performance. NFB staff would travel from town to town with a projector and play films in small theatres and church basements etc. Actors would perform the “gossip” live so the screen was blacked out during that time.

    If I was ever hired to do industrial espionage, I would just hang around elevators, lunchrooms and places where my target staff smoke or eat lunch with a hidden digital recorder. I bet I could find out a great deal about their inner workings without even trying! Hmm… Perhaps I should give this a try…

  5. In the late 70s/early 80s a Nazi weather station was found in Labrador. It had been undiscovered all that time. It was a scary time.

  6. @ Billegible

    You’re in the wrong province. Newfoundland St Johh’s used to be the gateway to Canada, Halifax is now because of the airport, but it used to be Newfoundland. And during WWII Newfoundland was “occupied” by the King of England and British forces were garrisoned there. Newfoundland is actually pretty damn pivitol in Canada’s efforts in WWII. Should look it up, it’s actually quite interesting.

  7. The Germans did install an automated weather station in Labrador in 1943. It only worked for a few days, and then stopped. In the late 70s, a researcher found out about it, and sent word to the Canadian government about it. They went to the site in 1981 and found it still there. It’s in a museum now.

  8. Re: “Were there Nazi spies in Canada during WWII or was McLaren a paranoid propagandist?”:

    They’re hardly mutually exclusive.

    (More seriously: of course there were spies. However, how numerous and effective they were is tricky to answer– records of such things tend to be a bit thin on the ground. And whether any particular piece of cinema Went Too Far with regards to inculcating operational security among the civilian population– well, a person’s’ answer to that one says more about them than it does about history.)

  9. Newfoundland didn’t become part of Canada until 1949. Up until that time it was a dominion of the United Kingdom.

    During WWII I believe Halifax was a significant shipping and entry point into North America and there was a constant concern about infiltration. St. John’s was less of a concern.

  10. @Lookforthewoman

    Newfoundland was not part of Canada prior to 1949. Not a province, not a territory. We had been a self-governing Dominion (exactly what Canada was), Prime Ministers and all, until 1934; it was economic collapse and not WWII which prompted the UK to resume direct control of Newfoundland. We were not “occupied,” it was a system called Commission of Government.

    There were Canadian military bases constructed on the island of Newfoundland during the war, but there were more American bases, and larger ones too. This is moreso because the island was an important staging ground for convoys crossing the Atlantic, and an important refuelling point for planes in an era when flying across the Atlantic was still a big deal.

    If you sneak through St John’s harbour, well, you’re on an island that has no physical link to the rest of North America, so you’re going to have to sneak through Halifax or Montreal at some point anyway.

  11. Widespread paranoia of spies crawling around North America was common.

    Don’t forget that Canada created Japanese internment camps in WWII, stripped Japanese immigrant citizens of all their possessions and land and held them prisoner without just cause. All of that on the suspicion that they MIGHT be aiding Japan.

    Paranoia ran epically high.

    Antisemitism was pretty popular too. Everyone associates freeing people from death camps as a major motivator to end that war. It wasn’t. Like all wars – it was about money and power.

    Most people didn’t know about the camps until the war was over. Those same people turned away Jewish refugees from their borders.

  12. @Lookforthewoman I won’t dis Newfoundland, but Halifax has been a major seaport since before planes were around. So let’s give them equal credit. ;)

  13. Newfoundland wasn’t even part of the country until 1949, so I don’t think you could call it the gateway to Canada during WW2.

    Not to mention that as an island, you’d still have to put stuff on a ship to get it to/from the mainland. Halifax has the advantage there, since you could go across the country via rail then get on a ship in Halifax and head over to Europe.

    Of course, this is not meant to diminish the importance of the Newfie contribution to the war effort.

  14. “…or was McLaren a paranoid propagandist?”

    propaganda like this is meant to induce paranoia, not act as a reflection of the state of mind of the creator. He was a propagandist, but not a paranoid. What he was was an effective manipulator of a medium, able to elicit a range of reactions in the audience.

    Which is why propaganda, including that produced by ad agencies, game publishers and the Disneys of this world is so unsuited to be judged by the standards of art: it is not an expression of the state of mind or the aesthetic of a creator, but merely meant to induce a set of feelings in the mind of the user. We can’t expect it to mediate or reflect the human condition, that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to relegate us to a predictable element in a cycle of consumption or orderly behaviour.

    It’s when you see a piece like this where the irrelevance of the idea of the artist is obvious, and the importance of the objectives of those who directed its creation are so exposed that you can see how often we are manipulated when we treat propaganda as art. It begins by making the assumption that the work is expressive. It’s not, but talking about it as if there were a person who “really means it”, is like assuming that Glen Beck, or more to the point Rupert Murdoch really sees things the way he presents them.

  15. Actually I went and did some poking. Halifax was definitely involved in WWII – a couple of ships got sunk by U-boats – but Newfoundland does indeed get the most credit for active participation in WWII, specifically with respect to the convoys crossing the Atlantic. Apparently lots of U.S. military bases were built there and “Newfoundland girls married American personnel by the thousands, “the Yanks’ jaunty manner and easy social ways making an often stark contrast to the Canadian servicemen.” Hehe.

  16. The National Film Board of Canada was created in 1939 (as a result of the National Film Act, 1938) as the propoganda arm of the Canadian government. Its role has been revised many times in the years since.

  17. Yes, there were German spies, especialy in the Atlantic provinces, probably dropped by sub-marine.

    My grand-mother told me about one that got caught (in New Carlisle I think). The German spy tried to rent a hotel room with old canadian money. They contacted the authorities and he was arrested.

  18. In addition to the east coast ports mentioned, a u-boat was spotted off the coast of Vancouver during WW2, and the Japanese unsuccessfully attacked Estevan Point (midway up the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island).

  19. @David Carrol, that’s fascinating about the live actors during the blackouts. Where did you learn that?

    @omnivore whatever his politics were, it’s a testament to McLaren’s skill and creativity that 60 years later this clip still scares me shitless.

    @everyone else re:Halifax and Newfoundland in WWII, wow, who knew? Where’s the Telefilm movie about this?

  20. @Billegible,”but Newfoundland does indeed get the most credit for active participation in WWII, specifically with respect to the convoys crossing the Atlantic”

    I think you’ve got your convoys confused, especially since the ‘Newfoundland in WWII’ Wikipedia entry never uses the word ‘convoy’ even once. The convoys were typically assembled in the Bedford Basin, secure behind Halifax Harbour. Convoy protection – lots of corvettes – was based out of St. John’s, although North West Atlantic command was in Halifax. However, the need to move large volumes of cargo meant that the combination of rail access to Halifax and the impenetrable assembly basin made Halifax the key point in the convoy system.

  21. I don’t know about during WWII, but I gather that spies just love Canada these days. One article reviewing a new book to that effect is here:
    The spies who love us

    Canada is the world’s No. 1 destination for foreign agents, who steal military and political secrets and up to $30 billion worth of research each year, according to a new book.

    Led by the Chinese but including intelligence officers from at least 20 nations including allies, the book says, the infiltrators are stealing an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion annually worth of cutting-edge research in products and technologies, other scientific, business and military know-how and political secrets.

    Others, it says, are infiltrating ethnic communities, suppressing criticism of homeland governments, recruiting industrial spies, stoking political violence among the diaspora and operating front companies and political lobbies aimed at manipulating government policies.

    Proportionately, it estimates more spies operate here than in the U.S.

  22. I’d hope reasonable people could agree that WWII was a serious enough threat to justify telling folks not to talk about troop movements or weapons stored in factories, though not serious enough to justify, say, interning all citizens of a particular race.

    I know BB is all “GLASNOST!” all the time, but seriously…

  23. That was the period in Canadian history when we were stealing the property of Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry, putting them into concentration camps and then forcibly relocating them to random places in the praries, while still allowing people of german ancestry run around as they pleased.

  24. I am the English Collection Analyst at the National Film Board. I want to try and explain the NFB’s role during World War 2. Firstly, the NFB was not created to make war propaganda. The NFB was created in May 1939 to make films about Canada for Canadians and the rest of the world. These were not to be tourist films but more films about the lives of ordinary Canadians and to show what the country was all about. When war broke out in September 1939, it was decided to have the NFB participate in the war effort by producing films about Canada’s involvement in the war. Several series were made in this regard including the Canada Carries on series (that you can read about in my blog at this url: ).
    McLaren like every other filmmaker at the NFB was pressed into service to make these films. At no time did the NFB abandon its mandate to produce films about Canadians. We continued to make films on the everyday problems Canadians faced, whether it was poverty or unemployment or whatever was pertinent. The idea was to make films about ordinary Canadians and their lives.

    Propaganda films made during this period have to be viewed in the context of their era. There was no TV or Internet to show images of what was happening overseas. Films were the only way to get these images seen. At the same time, there was a world war going on and the country had to work collectively to get weapons built . These propaganda films were a tool to be used in mobilizing all Canadians.

    One other bit of information: John Grierson, who was the head of the NFB at the time, was also, for a time, head of the Wartime Information Board. He thought it was important to use the NFB to help the war effort. This was also the will of the government at the time.

    If there are any other questions, please post them and I will try to answer them to the best of my ability.

    All the best

    Albert Ohayon

  25. Can I just say how much I love the way this thread has gone? Dissent leading not to squabbles but to more research and more info for everyone else… this is when I love the internet.

  26. Canada was always a spy paradise. It’s right next to the US (so you can practice here before hitting the Big Time) and is full of traitorous escapees from your beloved FatherLand for you to spy one. Heck, the old KGB substation used to be right beside Bakka Books original Queen Street location in Toronto. Want to put up a memorial to the victims of the Tinnamen Square massacre? Sorry, the Chinese spies will pull it off the wall with a pickup truck within days. One of the local Chinese language papers routinely slips in Chinese government rewrites to news-wire service stories. Truly, the Casablanca of the North.

    As for back in the day. Well, the Mayor of Montreal was interned during the war as a fascist and I think the Premier of Quebec was pretty extreme right-wing too. The mayor was instantly re-elected after V-day. Here in Toronto one of the biggest riots in our history was the Nazi vs. the Jews riot in Christie Pits. So, yah, the chances of some people passing information back to their hero Hitler was pretty good.

    The main reason for opposing the Nazis in WWII in Canada was nationalism (us versus the Germans) and loyalty to Britain. The widespread slavering lust to kill all the Jews could easily override these or any other considerations. An attitude that persists here to this day.

  27. Jesse Brown @ #22 Said:

    @David Carrol, that’s fascinating about the live actors during the blackouts. Where did you learn that?

    I am not entirely sure. My mother may have told me about it. She was in her late 20’s during WWII, and told me about what it was like in Halifax at that time.

    Perhaps Mr. Albert Ohayon (#28) could shed some light (pun intended) on this for us.

  28. The 1941 feature film directed by the great Michael Powell called “The Forty Ninth Parallel” is about the crew of a Nazi U-Boat escaping across Canada. Interesting film with many well-known actors including Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard.

    People were serious about the threat then. I have studied US WWII posters and found a number of them that have relevance to our energy issues today. Even did a short video slide show of them (see and had one made into a t shirt. It shows an oil tanker breaking up at sea and reads, “Should brave men die so you can drive…?”

  29. Berton’s Vimy explains much re: paranoia. The history of Canadian wars of the twentieth century shows a pattern of ill-use by Britain, betrayal by the venal at home and general dumbfuckery that inculcated deep suspicion of the whole war making game. The Dieppe raid confirmed it for the Second. Since there’s too much cognitive dissonance in a democracy at war to admit to itself its bad leadership, fertile ground exists for paranoia about “The Enemy!” I predict the post-mortem on Afghanistan will draw the same conclusions.

  30. My father (an Italian) was held at the prisoner of war camp as a POW (with germans and captured Germans) at St. Helens Island in Montreal, for… being Italian.

    Not sure how long he was there. Something I would have to ask and also ask if they recall the other prisoners of war put there (I recall them telling me spies were put there as well).

    My grandmother, who worked in some subterranean munitions factory hidden beneath streets and buildings in Montreal, also told me of times when “special police” would come in and drill them claiming they found a nazi-emblem pin in the woman’s washroom. Then they would not be allowed to leave till the person was found. She also told me of how a U-boat killed her boyfriend when it opened fire or sunk some merchant ship (going by decades old memory) in the gulf of the St. Lawrence.

    A tiny bit on the Montreal St. Helens island POW camp is here:

    Kind of things they tell you when you’re a kid and you tend to forget all the details about it decades later…

  31. Paranoid? I don’t know if that’s the right word.

    Seems to me paranoia is an internal condition, where someone is irrationally fearful.

    But if the “authorities” give you reasons to fear, then you’re not paranoid if you do feel fearful. You’re being rational… but you’re being misled.

    It happened in WWII.i It happened again all through the Cold War (at the end of which we learned that the terrifying USSR was far more dysfunctional than we’d been told.) It happened after 9/11, and the “War of Terror” (as Borat calls it).

    And it’s happening right now.

    Those poor people who are getting fooled (and remember, you can fool ALL of the people part of the time) are just reacting as you would expect. They have reasons for their fears. Unfortunately, those reasons are lies. Lots of the teabaggers and wingers are perfectly crazy without any help… but there have to be others who are being MADE crazy by believing the bullshit.

  32. 1) That film is awesome. What a great animated character, what great dialog. What a great time-capsule of the media culture at that time. Sweet.
    2) Thanks Albert, for your excellent and useful comment, and the link to your site. I can now review historic Canadian film, instead of doing work. Sweet.
    3) By golly, I just love you all!

  33. There is some controversy over whether Grierson, founder of the NFB, was a British agent whose intent was not only to keep Canada in the war but to get the USA to join in. He had worked for a British government agency producing ‘working man’s’ films. The use of Disney animators as the first animation at NFB is interesting too in that it was more likely to be seen in the US as benign and not foreign propaganda. McLaren was most likely lured to NFB by the promise of artistic freedom from his days in advertising in NYC with the proviso I bet that the content sometimes was a given. NFB propaganda films even used German newsreels and NFB cameramen were enlisted into the Canadian Armed Forces to bring back footage. Canadian newsreels ( a first narrated by Lorne Green) then hit US cinemas and were instrumental in showing the threat the Axis posed.

  34. There were lots of spies, Canada was a very powerful force in the war.

    The Japanese also landed off Alaska and B.C. (exploratory) and the Germans had many covert missions into Canada

  35. Just a little comment on John Grierson:
    He was brought in by the Canadian Government in May 1938 to write a report on the state of Canadian Cinema and suggest changes(the government had discussed bringing him in as early as 1936). At the time the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau was producing tourist films to lure American tourists to Canada. The films were not that good and Grierson suggested the bureau be scrapped and a new agency be put in to place to make films about real Canadians to promote Canada abroad and help foster National unity. He deposited his report just a month later and returned to England. He was invited later to run the new agency which was the NFB but he was not the Government’s first choice. Based on this information, I don’t see how anyone can say he was a British agent as he was involved with the government well before the war started in September 1939.

    Albert Ohayon
    English Film Collection Analyst , National Film Board

  36. Whatever else you can say about Newfoundland’s participation in WWII, it beat what happened to their troops in WWI. (Speaking of which, did anyone else notice that the commando raid footage was from WWI?)

    Of course there were spies in Canada during WWII. Their focus was as much on the merchant marine as it was on the military. That aspect of the war tends to be forgotten now, in part because the governments censored reports about how many ships were being sunk. People weren’t aware of it.

    The ongoing battle between German submarines and North American commercial shipping started as soon as ships left the harbor. Coastal communities weren’t blacking out their windows — there’s the governments’ refusal to acknowledge the extent of losses again — so ships were silhouetted at night, sitting ducks for the Germans subs that lurked near major shipping ports. Dead sailors were washing ashore from the Gulf Coast to the ice line.

    If you’re interested, here’s an account of that phase of the war as seen from North Carolina’s Outer Banks. If I could find a good Canadian link, I’d give you one.

  37. just can’t remember the title, an old time radio play about the merchant marine. And a cursed sailor who survived many torpedoings. Alone.

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