Friday, February 28, 1997

Brad Evenson and Andrew Duffy
Southam News

p. A4.

Secret papers link scandal, death penalty

In 1966, then-prime minister Lester Pearson sought to close debate on the Gerda Munsinger affair.

OTTAWA — Then prime minister Lester Pearson was so desperate to divert attention from the sensational Gerda Munsinger sex-and-spy scandal that he opened an explosive debate about capital punishment that led to the elimination of the death penalty.

Cabinet documents released Wednesday show the Munsinger scandal dominated government business in March 1966, bringing Parliament to the brink of paralysis.

SEX AND SPY SCANDAL: German prostitute Gerda Munsinger (left) had an affair with associate defence minister Pierre Sevigny

SEX AND SPY SCANDAL: German prostitute Gerda Munsinger (left) had an affair with associate defence minister Pierre Sevigny

SEX AND SPY SCANDAL: German prostitute Gerda Munsinger (left) had an affair with associate defence minister Pierre Sevigny

That year, Canada was immersed in the Cold War and a Russian spy, Victor George Spencer, had been caught in B.C. The Liberals had just approved a U.S. nuclear-missile installation in Newfoundland. So the idea that a German prostitute had had an affair with associate defence minister Pierre Sevigny during an earlier John Diefenbaker Tory government brought the government of the day close to collapse.

Pearson told cabinet it was "imperative" for the Liberals to end debate on the issue, which threatened "to exacerbate an already dangerous and destructive Parliamentary situation."

Seeking to douse the fevered debate in the Commons, Pearson agreed to a royal commission into Canada's first Parliamentary sex scandal.

He also suggested the government close debate on the matter at once and start a new debate on the death penalty, also a hot subject as two Quebec separatists were on death row.

"Because of its special and non-political character, this question would probably help in clearing the air," cabinet minutes quote Pearson saying.

It was so important, Pearson said, to deal with the death penalty soon, because mishandling the case could turn two FLQ bombers into martyrs like Metis hero Louis Riel.

The Munsinger case was the most sensational scandal to hit the Liberals in a year Pearson dealt with a bewildering host of reforms and labor unrest, but it overshadowed everything.

The scandal erupted March 4, 1966 when justice minister Lucien Cardin — under attack for his handling of the Spencer spy case — lashed out at his Tory critics.

Goaded mercilessly, Cardin shouted to Tory leader Diefenbaker than he was the last man to be advising on security — given his performance in "the Munsinger case." Chaos ensued. Still angry, Cardin told reporters outside the Commons to ask Diefenbaker if they wanted the story, which he said was as serious as the 1963 Profumo sex-spy scandal in England.

As prime minister in the late 1950s, Diefenbaker retained Sevigny in cabinet even though the junior defence minister had an affair with Munsinger, a German immigrant U.S. sources accused of being a security risk.

Pearson was aware of the matter and had written to Diefenbaker in 1964, asking him for information about the case.

Diefenbaker dismissed the matter in conversation "referring to the sense of fair play and understanding of the Prime Minister."

When the scandal broke in Parliament, opposition members accused the government of mishandling an issue of national security.

The documents show then-finance minister Mitchell Sharp warned cabinet the government was in a "precarious position" and in danger of "losing control of the situation in the House."

The scandal escalated when Munsinger was found alive in Germany, after the government said she died of leukemia years before.

After weeks of riotous debate in the House, cabinet decided to name Supreme Court Justice Wishart Spence to a narrowly defined inquiry, successfully burying the issue once and for all.

Simultaneously, Pearson diverted attention from the scandal by introducing the debate on capital punishment. His gambit succeeded in calming one storm with another.

Even though an initial vote retained the death penalty, the ensuing national debate led the government to abolish the death penalty in 1967 for a trial period of five years, except in cases where the victim was an off-duty police officer or a prison guard.

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Created: October 18, 1997
Last modified: February 2, 2001
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