1907: A Canadian MP and Russian Spy Is Born

Ottawa and Moscow allied in WWII but Fred Rose was part of a vast spy ring, a defector claimed, and he went to jail.

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Fred Rose, a Canadian labor organizer and politician who was the first and only member of that country’s parliament to be convicted of foreign espionage. Picture shows man with receding hairline, neat mustache, not smiling: It is an ad for Fred Rose for the June 11, 1945 Canadian federal election.
Election poster for Fred Rose, labor organizer and politician who was the first and only member of Canada's parliament to be convicted of foreign espionage. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

December 7, 1907, is the birthdate of Fred Rose, the Canadian labor organizer and politician who was the first and only member of that country’s parliament to be convicted of foreign espionage.

As a communist, the first to be elected to the national legislature, there doesn’t seem much doubt that Rose was indeed involved in passing information on to the Soviet Union, during World War II, when it and Canada were allies. That being said, there are many questions regarding the fairness of his trial, and his treatment in its aftermath.

Fishel Rosenberg, as he was called at birth, started life in Lublin, Poland, then in the Russian Empire. His father, Joseph Rosenberg, was a carpenter, and his mother was the former Ruchla (Rachel) Kaufman. Fishel was one of six siblings.

In 1920, when he was 12, Fiszel’s family emigrated to Canada. Before leaving Poland, he had attended Lublin’s Gymnase Humaniste, a Jewish high school that, as its name suggests, offered French language instruction. This was useful when he arrived in the bilingual city of Montreal.

He entered public school in the sixth grade, and by the age of 15 was also working regularly. In one early job, working in the local factory of an American radio tube manufacturer, he represented French-speaking workers in a labor dispute with the management.

Training in Moscow

At age 18, Fred, as he now called himself, joined the Young Communist League, and soon after that, the Communist Party of Canada itself.

By 1928, he was under surveillance by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, not as a potential spy, but out of concern for revolutionary activity, especially among Jews. Files from the time show that the RCMP was even looking into the question of how he might be stripped of his citizenship.

In 1929, Rose, who did indeed anticipate a class war in his adopted home, was arrested for disorderly conduct during a demonstration, and after spending a month in jail, he was off to Moscow for some political training. When he returned to Canada, he became a highly charismatic communist organizer. In early 1931, he was jailed for a year on charges of sedition.

Rose’s first run for Parliament, a bid to represent the working-class Montreal neighborhood of Cartier, came in 1935. That was unsuccessful, as was a run for the Quebec legislature a year later.   

Very suspicious champion of the working class

Only in 1943 was Rose successful in a run for Parliament, running with the Labor-Progressive Party after the CPC had been outlawed. He was reelected two years later, with 40 percent of the vote.

His popularity was based on his efforts for the working class (Rose was the first to propose Medicare-like legislation in Canada), and also on the fact that the Soviet Union was seen at the time as Canada’s crucial ally.

But with the end of WWII and start of the Cold War, solidarity with the USSR had turned into suspicion. When Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, was recalled to Moscow in July 1945, he decided to defect instead, and offered to share with the Canadians dozens of documents he had stolen from the embassy.

Among them were papers outlining a massive Soviet spy ring operating in Canada, one of whose members was Fred Rose.

Rose was arrested and was tried on charges of conspiring to pass along information on a Canadian explosive, RDX, to the Russians.

Though acknowledging that Rose did work with the Soviets, historian David Levy thinks it’s unlikely his role rose to the level of sophistication of a middleman for military secrets. Nonetheless, Rose was convicted and sentenced to six years and a day in prison, one day longer than the minimum criminal sentence required for expulsion from Parliament.

In fact, he was released after serving 4.5 years. Unable to find work, hounded by the RCMP, abandoned by the local Communist party, and in poor health, Rose moved back to Poland in 1953. Four years later, Canada revoked his citizenship, which meant he couldn’t even return to the country to try and fight for his good name.

He worked as an English-language editor in Warsaw, where he died on March 16, 1983.