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May 11, 2014

Christopher Ryan: The Soviet Line on Gilmour

A weekly feature by Christopher Ryan, a local photographer, blogger and researcher.

Now the Gilmour Inn, 431 Gilmour (November 2013) 

The house at 431 Gilmour was constructed around 1895 for Zaccheus J. Fowler, the Chief Engineer for Grand Trunk subsidiary, Midland Railway Company of Canada (and previously of the Indiantown Branch of the Intercolonial Railway in New Brunswick). Though it was originally addressed as 389 Gilmour, the growing city necessitated the renumbering of many blocks throughout the city, this one being no exception.

Extract from Goad’s 1888 (1901 revision)

At some point after 1909, the property was sold by Fowler to fellow New Brunswicker, the prolific and Honourable George. E. Foster, who remained resident there for some time. By 1923, the property had been picked up by William Charles Mitchell, the former publisher of the Ottawa Free Press and local property owner (who, at his death, owned the Ottawa Free Press building at Elgin and Queen and the nearby Shorncliffe Apartments, among others). Following his death in 1927, his son Fred and his family took up residence in the home. The couple remained there until the death of his wife Florida in 1941. After that, he sold the home and moved into a hotel on Bank, where he died in 1945.

While I’m unsure of the specific course of events following the sale of the house in 1941, the home was, by 1942 or 1943, converted into to the Canadian headquarters for the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (Russian: Телеграфное агентство Советского Союза), shortened to “TASS” in English. TASS wasn’t itself an intelligence agency. It was just the newswire service agency responsible for the collection of national and international news for Soviet newspapers. Unlike the Canadian Press, Associated Press, or Reuters, it enjoyed a monopoly in that position. It nevertheless was frequently used by the NKVD/KGB and GRU for intelligence-gathering purposes.

Coming soon to Ottawa: a TASS Office. Source, Montreal Gazette, July 25, 1942.

On July 24, 1942, the Montreal Gazette reported that, much like its New York office, TASS official Nicholas Zhivaynov was poised to open a Canadian headquarters in Ottawa. As this was during World War 2 and the Soviets were allied (albeit with trepidation given the official public ideology), so an office for their wire service probably wasn’t considered much of a threat.

That, of course, all changed with the defection of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko. Without recounting the entire event, Gouzenko was working for the Russian Foreign Service at 14 Range Road. He became concerned when it became clear that the Soviet government was spying on the Canadian government, hoping to acquire nuclear secrets from the United States. When Gouzenko first attempted to inform the RCMP and the national media he wasn’t believed. When some “officials” attempted to pay him an unfriendly visit at his apartment (511 Somerset, Apartment 4) it became clear that his story may have had some merit. It was this event that served as sort of the official kickoff to the Cold War.

In February of 1946, news of the espionage exploded in the national media. The picture to the right is 431 Gilmour. The veranda has long since been removed. Source: Ottawa Journal, February 20, 1946.

The resulting Royal Commission to Investigate the Facts Relating to and the Circumstances Surrounding the Communication, by Public Officials and Other Persons in Positions of Trust of Secret and Confidential Information to Agents of a Foreign Power (quite a mouthful, hence it being better known as the Kellock-Taschereau Commission) uncovered what was then very startling information. Leaving most of the specifics of the event to the Cold War historians, the Commission’s findings, which were tabled later in the year, uncovered that Zhivaynov, working out of the TASS office was a central figure in the whole intrigue.

The Kellock-Taschereau Commission’s “Cast of Characters”.

In spite of the Commission’s findings, the agency remained active in Canada (as it does today), though after it became clear in 1949 that another one of their agents was at least questionable. Subsequently their reporters had to prove clean in order to receive their Press Gallery credentials.

Another operative. This time he violated – rather than confirmed – expectations. Source: Windsor Daily Star, April 14, 1954.

It appears that the TASS office quickly relocated from 431 Gilmour as my searches tend to result in regular classified ads (ie. goods for sale, rooms for rent) and local information (obituaries) at that address for several decades. In 1979, Annice Kronick relocated her decorators’ studio business, Accents Incorporated, to that address from 323 Somerset W. By the mid-1980s, it was the Raven Café (specializing in live folk and blues), and after that the Savana Café.

Today, the ITAR-TASS Agency in Ottawa is located in unit 1305 of the Champlain Towers Apartments in Lindenlea.

-- Original photos & text by Christopher Ryan.
(See more on our blog from Christopher...)

See also: Ottawa History Guide
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