Closely Guarded: A Life in Canadian Security and Intelligence


258 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-0975-1
DDC 327.12'092




Reviewed by D.M.L. Farr

D.M.L. Farr is professor emeritus of history at Carleton University,
where he taught Canadian political history and the history of Canada’s
external relations.


Closely Guarded chronicles the career of a man who was at the centre of
Canada’s security and intelligence concerns for a crucial 30 years.
John Starnes served as a young intelligence officer in London during
World War II; he ended his public service career as the first civilian
director of the domestic security arm of the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police. In between were important assignments in the Department of
External Affairs. At the end of the war, Starnes worked with the allied
governments-in-exile in London. He was Canada’s ambassador to Germany
in the early 1960s when that country was emerging from military
occupation. He moved on to represent Canadian interests in Egypt at the
critical moment of the Six-Day War in 1967 when President Nasser
demanded the withdrawal of Canadian peacekeepers from the
Israeli–Egyptian border. He had to carry out the “rotten, stinking,
depressing job” of reviewing and removing External Affairs personnel
who because of vulnerability had attracted the attention of Russian
intelligence agents. His varied career in the diplomatic and security
fields is described with a lively eye for detail, vivid
characterization, and a robust sense of humor.

Evidence for the story Starnes tells is often difficult to come by. He
relies on his memory (a product of long training), on letters he wrote
to his wife when they were apart, on records he was able to secure under
the Access to Information Act, and on several histories of the agencies
with which he was connected. The account is buttressed, perhaps too
massively, by almost 50 pages of appendixes containing memos by Starnes
and minutes of cabinet discussions on security topics (much of this
material centres on the 1970 October Crisis with the threat to Canadian
institutions posed by the Front de Libération du Québec).

Starnes’s account is not a work of exciting revelations about
counterespionage in Canada. It is a serious study of the provision of
internal security during years in which Canada was changing from a
simple uncomplicated society to a multicultural and multiracial mosaic
beset by tensions and politically motivated violence. These changes,
combined with the increasing attention to personal rights and freedoms,
have immensely complicated the maintenance of effective internal
security. John Starnes lived through this sweeping transformation in
Canadian life. He made a significant contribution toward working out a
balanced security system, approaching the task with intelligence and
good sense. His story is well worth reading.


Starnes, John., “Closely Guarded: A Life in Canadian Security and Intelligence,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 28, 2024,