Concordia University has a spy-squad that snooped on novelist for "bilingual interests"

Rob sez,

"Documents recently obtained through access to information legislation show that author David Bernans was being spied upon by investigators at Concordia University in Montreal.

"In this first-person narrative, Bernans chronicles his experience dealing with Concordia's security apparatus, and questions the motivations of a university that spies on and censors its students."

Christ, a university with its own private eye squad made up of failed Fed cops? What's next, a no-fly list for the campus shuttle-bus? Lookit these Keystone Kop bumblers, chasing people around because they're "interested in bilingualism." Hey, Concordia grads, is this how you want your alumni donations being spent?

The entire text of Investigator Lachance's September 7, 2006, email report on my activities is reproduced below (translated from its original French by the bilinguaphile yours truly).


I learned this morning that Dr. Bernans will give two readings for a "launch" of his book, "Beyong 9/11" (sic.): one at McGill University, on September 11, 2006, at 4:30 p.m. and one at Concordia University, the same day at 7 p.m. at the Coop Bookstore.

It seems that Dr. Bernans is interested in bilingualism at Concordia. He was photographing posters this morning.

Jacques Lachance, Investigator

The email was sent from the investigator to the head of Concordia Security, Jean Brisebois (a former RCMP agent), and a copy sent to Robert Rivard (another member of the Concordia Security establishment). Robert Rivard replied the same day to thank the investigator for his report, saying cryptically (at least from my perspective as outsider trying to make sense of these internal communications) "Agents will be informed."

To be honest, I was more than a little miffed that the investigator got the title of my book wrong. For the record, the novel is called North of 9/11 (Cumulus Press, 2006). He managed to get the time and place of both events right, but neither of the readings could be described as a "launch" since the book had already been launched at Concordia the previous spring. I have no clue what the reference to bilingualism means and I have no recollection of having taken any photographs of posters that morning at the Montréal downtown campus. In fact, it would have been quite a feat since I had no camera. I do recall a photographer from a McGill student newspaper snapping pictures of me going up and down the clunky escalators connecting the floors of the concrete bloc that is Concordia's Hall Building. I suppose that could have been what the investigator was reporting to his superiors, thinking the photographer was working for me on some secret terrorist bilingual reconnaissance mission. But why "agents" (presumably campus security guards) needed to be informed about any of this, is puzzling to say the least.

Documents show university spied on novelist (Thanks, Rob!)


  1. Interest in bilingualism? check.
    Photographing posters? check.

    My terrorist cred must be sky high in Alberta.

  2. I’ve interacted with David before, when I was involved with student politics at Concordia as an undergraduate (c. 2000-2004). It does not surprise me in the least that the university would do such a thing: Bernans wrote a book called “Con U Inc.”, published through the Concordia Student Union, that detailed the close relationship the university administration had with private companies (such as private-prison shareholder Sodexho-Marriot). He was acting as researcher for a very left-leaning, activist student union that was a constant thorn in the sides of the powers that be while it was in office. But this same “radical” student union, working with the local PIRG, also put forth some great and laudatory projects that went beyond issue-based activism: creation of a food co-op (Le Frigo Vert) and a donation-based lunch counter (The People’s Potato) for starters.

    Anyway, things eventually boiled over in 2003 when Benjamin Netanyahu showed up to give a talk and a riot broke out–which is not to say anyone particular person or organization was responsible, but it was certainly a very heady and radicalized climate back in those days and Bernans was a central intellectual figure. The left on campus never quite recovered from the bad publicity fallout from the riot. Administration no doubt has a long memory and would keep an eye on such a “troublemaker.”

  3. Cory’s description is a bit odd — all university campuses have security teams; the issue is what they do.

    Bernans’ description is misleading. First, as the poster above notes, clearly they were following Bernans because of a past reputation, deserved or undeserved, as a shit-disturber on campus — whose initial applications to hold his event at Concordia were denied.

    The fact is that Concordia’s trepidation at getting involved again with the same gang that rioted at Netanyahu, and had the student government ban the Jewish Student Union, has root causes that go way back since before Bernans’ involvement at the Netanyahu events. They’ve been nervous ever since the Fabrikant shootings in the Hall Building almost 20 years ago. Long memory, indeed.

  4. Quick correction: The Netanyahu protest was in September of 2002, not 2003.

    And from reading the description of the novel’s plot is sounds a bit like a roman à clef: anyone at Concordia in those days will remember and recognize a lot of the plot elements and players. Makes me want to buy it.

  5. Whoa. Flashback to the eighties…

    “I dutifully report that my neighbour is in posession of books in English, and has a cousin in America.”

    Agents investigated, of course. But we were behind the frickin’ iron curtain back then.

    Seriously, what? He’s interested in bilingualism? That’s reason for alarm? Or was that inspector just really desperate for something to put in his report?

  6. Is this really surprising to anyone? Maybe you should pick up a copy of:

    Spying 101: The RCMP’s Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917-1997 by Steve Hewitt (Hardcover – Sep 21, 2002)

    from my understanding of reading this book and the amount of time personally spent around universities in Canada, it seems like his fears/suspicions are just the tip of the iceberg.

    My favorite part of that book is the IIRC, the 40+ years they spied on the 70 year old humanities professor because they thought he was a like, a red sleeper mole agent because he went to some meeting in his youth, and like he was just really clever for like 40 years. Uh huh. Regular keystone cops spy vs spy.

  7. Wait — you need to spy on people in order to learn a second language?

    Maybe the “forbidden knowledge” BS I encountered in IT has infiltrated every arena of education and learning. (Maybe I shouldn’t have left those O’Reilly Media manuals on my desk for any old snoopy, reconnaissance-gathering manager to see — should have kept them hidden.)

    1. pretty ridiculous excuse.. i dont know why they couldn’t think of something better. I’ve tried to spy on people using computer spy devices which has been ok, but it’s really easy to detect… the one I read most about was this:

      not sure if the story talks about the actual device being used.

  8. I am an alumnus of ConU. I’m not surprised that monies are used to monitor students and faculty for their behaviour — unfortunately Montreal has seen many terrible, violent and deadly acts committed on campuses. I don’t know if the administration is monitoring to prevent these kinds of situations — if they are then I also hope money is spent on intervention for troubled individuals. However, monitoring for political beliefs is not germaine as no intervention is needed.

    1. Neither would I. Have you held any university degree in your hands before? That paper is stiff stuff. You’d cut up your ass and die on the can.

    2. And as any U of T grad worth their stripes would say, “McGill, how quaint.”

      The REST of us in Canadian universities just keep doing our thing and let the reputation-obsessed schools battle it out amongst themselves.

      1. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I go to Ryerson. I’m constantly humbled by the U of T, UBC, and McGills of the world.

  9. In the words of my friend and Concordia alum, “You don’t want to go here. Concordia blows chunks. Concordia sucks donkeys.”

    And that is only /one/ person I know that says this about the school. Concordia is probably the second most hated University in Canada. I think only the University of Calgary gets more hate from alumni.

  10. And as any graduating engineer of Concordia University knows, I wouldn’t expect a McGill Engineering grad to come out with necessary industry skills, oh, and don’t drink the water in the chem building. I heard that last time McGill did an Alumni fund drive, all of the unemployed computer engineers sent in pizza coupons.

  11. Oh, so now we’re just taking potshots at rival schools? I’m sure any American readers who are following this thread (ahem) are amused.

    I went to OCAD and UWO–you wanna make something of it?

  12. Huh, I was working for the McGill Tribune (one of the two big campus papers) as an editor when this happened, and I think I remember sending a photographer to do that shoot.

    Also, really U of T grad? You’re commenting on how *other* schools are reputation-obsessed?

  13. I am an alumnus of Concordia, and attended the school during those tumultuous years. While I understand the need to insure the safety of the students and faculty this seems a little pointless, and like a great way to squander resources.

    Knurm, what a sorry little pissing match you’ve started. You must be 12.

  14. Wow.
    I know all the players here (or did back in the day) I was heavily involved in the student politics scene in 2001-2003 (and was responsible for getting the only video footage of the aforementioned riots). I am not at all surprised that the Con U security is shadowing David. He is a righteous leftist with little or no bend in his ideology and is super tenacious. This makes his opponents very nervous :) If the new book is a roman a clef, I’ll have to check it out if only to see how I come out (if he mentions me at all).

  15. Maybe I’m missing something here (maybe something got lost in translation); but that e-mail seems relatively innocuous to me. After all, it’s only natural that campus security would want to keep informed about events occurring on campus (in case, you know, they might need to provide security for those events or something — stranger things have happened). I think Dr. Bernans is having a paranoid overreaction here.

    It took me just a few minutes of online research on the Concordia University website to discover the following facts: (1) Concordia University’s official security policy requires that Campus Security be kept informed of all on-campus events; and that they make sure that adequate security is provided for those events. (2) Jacques Lachance is an Investigator with the Concordia Campus Security office. (“Investigator” is his official job title. He is NOT, as this article implies, a private detective who was hired to spy on Dr. Bernans.) (3) Concordia Campus Security officers are called “Security Agents”; and they would naturally have to be informed of any on-campus event, as per the official security policy. (Thus, the reply about “agents” being informed should not be interpreted as some sinister plot to infiltrate spies or provocateurs into the audience for Dr. Bernans’s talk.) (4) Concordia University (which is located in Montreal, Quebec) is a bilingual university (English and French), and has an official Language Policy requiring that translation be provided if necessary. (5) Like most universities, Concordia has official policies about the display of posters on campus advertising upcoming events. One would assume that Campus Security would be involved in enforcing the poster policy, making sure that posters are not placed in areas where they are not allowed, etc. (6) Concordia also has official policies requiring that photographers get permission in order to take photographs on campus. One would assume that Campus Security would need to be kept informed about who had permission to take photographs, when, and where. This e-mail seems to address the sorts of issues that Campus Security would routinely deal with for any on-campus event. I see nothing remotely sinister about it.

    The only oddities about this e-mail are the reference to “bilingualism” and the part about “photographing posters”. Since we don’t have the original French text of the e-mail, only Dr. Bernans’s own translation, it’s hard to know if the English text posted above adequately captures the gist of what M. Lachance was trying to say. (To be honest, I strongly suspect that the e-mail has been poorly translated.) Perhaps M. Lachance’s “bilingualism” comment was intended to mean that the event would be bilingual, and might require translators. Perhaps the comment about photographing posters actually meant that permission had been given for photographers to take pictures on campus, and for event organizers to put up posters, on the morning of the talk. (There’s no way for me to know for sure if my guesses here are correct unless the original French text is posted so it can be examined by fluent French speakers.) Nonetheless, I have a feeling that the e-mail is far more innocuous than this article would suggest.

    I see no evidence in this e-mail suggesting that campus security “spies on and censors its students”. (BTW, is Dr. Bernans a student at Concordia? I thought he was a guest speaker.)

    1. The relationship between David Bernans and Concordia University with the regards to the reading he did at Concordia, you can visit the Cumulus Press website page for the book ( and follow the link to the daily play by play. Very interesting. I know because I was the publisher of the book.

      1. Thank you (Anonymous #36) for posting that URL ( The information provided at that link really explains a lot. Now it all makes sense. After reading the info on the publisher’s site, I have come to the conclusion that this whole thing is nothing more than an elaborate publicity stunt by Dr. Bernans and his publisher, Cumulus Press.

        Here’s a brief summary of the info I found at the URL provided: Dr. Bernans requested a room on the Concordia campus to do a reading from his book. Concordia granted the request. A few days later, Concordia informed Dr. Bernans that there was a problem with his request. Dr. Bernans and his publisher launched a media blitz claiming that Concordia University was trying to censor him. Concordia contacted Dr. Bernans again to explain that the problem with his request was simply a red tape issue (the sponsor of the reading had not filed the proper paperwork), not an attempt at censorship. Once the red tape had been cleared up, the university granted Dr. Bernans permission to speak on campus as originally scheduled. (Here is the university’s letter of explanation: ) But Dr. Bernans and his publisher wouldn’t accept “yes” for an answer, and decided to continue with their publicity stunt. They intensified their media blitz, claiming not only that the university was forbidding Dr. Bernans from speaking (which was a lie), but that he was going to speak anyway, in defiance of the university’s (nonexistent) “ban”. Dr. Bernans gave his on-campus reading as scheduled (and was not dragged away by Campus Security Agents, as he certainly would have been if his allegations had been true). But then he and his publisher decided to continue their publicity stunt by claiming that Campus Security was spying on him and conspiring against him. They somehow obtained a routine interoffice e-mail from Campus Security announcing Dr. Bernans’ scheduled on-campus appearance, translated it from French into English, and posted their translation online. (We just have to take their word that the translation is accurate, since they have not posted the original French version.) They claim that this, rather innocuous, e-mail proves their allegations against the university and its Campus Security office. But, as I pointed out in my earlier post, there is no “smoking gun” here.

        Clearly this is just a stunt by the publisher designed to get free publicity for the book. It doesn’t surprise me that a publishing company (a soulless corporation) would do something like this. But I’m very disappointed that a scholar like Dr. Bernans would be involved in such a dishonest act just so he could sell more books. As a scholar myself, I would like to think that scholars in general had more integrity than that. How are we to trust anything Dr. Bernans has written now that he has proven that he is willing to lie to his (potential) readers if it serves his purposes?

  16. As a recent Concordia AND McGill alumni, I can attest to the fact that both schools are highly over-rated (the latter a little more so considering its international standing), but, at least Concordia used to have soul. The article recounts only a shard of a widespread and systematic effort by the admin, and admin hired and directed security services, to stamp that out.

  17. I have decided to withdraw all my graduate school applications from Canadian institutions. If they spy on bilinguals in their universities, then imagine what they will do to me?! I’m trilingual! And I thought they were such nice people, too… :(

    1. mechko, if you base your college selections on a rant on a blog, you might consider just not going to college at all. Unless maybe you’re majoring in sarcasm, in which case you’re probably so good you don’t need to go to college :)

  18. Anonymous | #8 | 11:29 on Fri, Nov.27 :
    «unfortunately Montreal has seen many terrible, violent and deadly acts committed on campuses.»

    «deadly acts»? in Montreal Universities? What are you talking about?

    1. ‘Deadly act’ could refer to the Polytechnique massacre or the Dawson College shooting. Those were horrible events. The Concordia incidents have been quite exaggerated by the pro-Netanyahu camp and can’t compare. For one thing, Bibi is a pig.

    2. Mark Lepine, Valery fabrikant and Kimveer Gill all killed people on seperate shooting sprees in Montreal universities or colleges.

  19. Now I’m wondering, having read the comments thread, who the anonymous posters are. It’s weird to think we might all know each other and are all reading BoingBoing years later, talking about the old days.

  20. Let’s not forget that Concordia is the single most radicalized campus in the country. (by which, I mean Canada, not just PQ).

    I’m not surprised that there was surveillance, the political aspect of this university has previously boiled over to violence.

    I guess, the irony is that Concordia is the campus which both requires security the most (it is a downtown campus…) and, the campus most likely to be offended by security.

  21. As a UWaterloo alumnus, I feel disappointed that not a single one of my schoolmates has joined in on the reputation bandwagon.

  22. I was a Concordia student at the time that the Concordia Student Union was extremely militant. In a few short years, hundreds of thousands of dollars were embezzled from the student union by one of the union executives ( & ), and a union protest at having Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu give a lecture at Concordia leading to a riot that caused major damage and injuries:
    I’m happy to see that the school security keeps close tabs on events, given the many tragedies that have unfolded in Montreal schools. Montreal school shootings include the ones at the University of Montreal in 1989 which 14 women were killed ( ), at Concordia in 1992 in which 4 people were killed and 1 wounded (, and the Dawson college shootings in 2006 in which one person was killed and 19 others wounded (
    This article appears to be a very successful publicity stunt arranged by Bernans and his publisher. Keep in mind that Bernans is neither a student, nor a faculty member of Concordia University, and has been closely associated in substantially turbulent events at the university in the past. Note that Bernans was employed by the Concordia Student Union during the 2001-2002 period (perhaps more, I don’t know), and in my experience he was very much involved as an organizer at the time. As far as I can tell, he is no longer officially involved with Concordia or the CSU, as searching for his name on the union web site yields no results ( ).
    I’m surprised that BoingBoing would publish this story with so little research into the situation.
    All that said, the CSU also did some great things in the same time period, such as founding a food coop and opposing substantial increases in tuition fees (Quebec tuition fees have been raised over the past few years, and Concordia had been the primary english university where the student union actively opposed the tuition increases).

    The cost of attending university in Quebec (undergraduate, full time) is now about 4500$/year for books and tuition, 8 years ago, it was approximately 3000$, from what I can tell, it was approximately 1500-2000$ in 1995. Universities effectively circumvented the “tuition freeze” by raising compulsory ancillary fees (registration fees, computer access fees, ect), even though the per-credit cost was officially frozen by the government. This is difficult to prove, as each university has a very different accounting scheme and course options, so it is hard to compare the costs from one institution to the next. English universities in Quebec seem to charge about 1000$ per year more than French universities once the extra fees are taken into consideration.

    But civil liberty infringement and unfair practices? I don’t think that’s the case here.

    Also, regarding the many inflammatory comments about which school is best: I received my bachelor degree at Concordia, and my PhD at McGill. Both were good educational institutions, and each has its own issues.

  23. Big Jake here in Oregon. This business of photographers needing permission to take pix on campus . . . does this include students or only photogs not connected to the U?

  24. mmm as anyone took a gander over the guards shoulder at the security desk in the new Concordia building..
    Ridiculous amount of automated zooming and scanning cameras on something like five screens. At bit scary though, I hope they don’t record all this shit.

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