Thursday, June 23, 2011

CSE facilities: La Salle Academy

Part one of a brief (well, it was supposed to be brief) tour of CSE’s facilities, past and present.
(Part two; part three.}

La Salle Academy (1946-1950)

The first headquarters of the Communications Security Establishment, or Communications Branch of the National Research Council (CBNRC) as it was then called, was in the La Salle Academy on Guigues Street (now Avenue) at Sussex Drive.

The site was first used for signals intelligence purposes in August 1943, when the third floor of one wing of the school was occupied by the Army, Air Force, and Navy Discrimination Units. The building also soon hosted a Joint Machine Unit, which operated Canada’s first code-breaking machines, the forerunners of CSE’s massive computer arrays of today. On August 1st, 1945, the Army and RCAF Discrimination Units, the Joint Machine Unit, the Japanese processing elements of the Examination Unit, and a communications and cipher office were amalgamated as the Joint Discrimination Unit (JDU).

The JDU was renamed the Communications Research Centre in July 1946. Still housed in the La Salle Academy, the CRC formed the core of the CBNRC on the latter’s creation in September 1946. At its moment of birth, CBNRC had a staff of 62, most of whom had simply transferred from the CRC, many becoming civilians in the process. CBNRC had an approved establishment of 179, probably slightly higher than the peak number of personnel at the site during the war, but post-war recruitment was slow, and staff numbers reached that level only around the time the agency moved to its next location, in January 1950.

The present-day building consists of multiple, joined structures. The structure on Sussex Avenue (on the left in the photo above) was built in 1852 as the College of Bytown, which eventually became the University of Ottawa. This building subsequently went through several uses before becoming, in 1899, the La Salle Academy, a Roman Catholic school for boys. The long wing along Guigues Street (on the right in the photo; see also below) was built in 1934 as classroom space for the Academy. Later additions were made in the 1960s and afterwards, and the entire building is now heritage designated. Since the 1970s it has hosted a variety of government offices.

As far as I can tell, CBNRC and its predecessors occupied only the 3rd floor of the 1934 structure during most of their tenure in the building (image from Google Street View). The 1934 structure is now connected on several floors to the original 1852 building, but at the time it was a free-standing building, and I am not aware of any evidence that CBNRC ever occupied any space in the 1852 structure. By 1949 or earlier, the agency expanded to occupy two classrooms on the 2nd floor of the 1934 building. However, it was forced to relinquish that space in September 1949, a few months before it left the La Salle Academy entirely.

It appears therefore that CBNRC had only about 1250 square metres of space to house its staff (or about 1430 after the expansion to the second floor). By today's standards, that would provide enough space for about 50-60 people, perhaps 70 given that the furnace room and other utilities were located outside CBNRC's spaces; it seems clear that even by the standards of the time the agency must have been facing considerable crowding by the time it moved out of the Academy.

In addition to space issues, CBNRC also had a problem with disposing of classified waste at the site.
After a short period during which the waste was burned in the East Block of the Parliament Buildings [which housed the Department of External Affairs and other elements of the civil service at the time], and later in the E.B. Eddy Paper Mill in Hull, secure arrangements were made to use a large incinerator (the "Boiler Room") at NRC's Montreal Road Laboratories. (Kevin O'Neill (ed.), History of CBNRC, 1987, Chapter 26, p. 5.)
It is likely that the government never intended the La Salle Academy to be the CBNRC’s permanent post-war home. Incredible though it may seem given today’s approach to security, Canada’s then ultra-secret signals intelligence agency was not alone in the La Salle Academy. As the History of CBNRC attests (Chapter 26, p. 6), the Catholic boys’ school continued to operate in the building during the entire time CBNRC and its predecessors were there. Indeed, the reason CBNRC had to withdraw from the 2nd floor was that the school needed its classrooms back.

Weird or what?

Even more incredibly, from 1948 on, the building also hosted professional theatre productions, first by the Ottawa Stage Society and later by the Canadian Repertory Theatre:
The only theatre the society had been able to find was the auditorium of the La Salle Academy, a Roman Catholic boys’ school. At that time the space was not in use, and when the Stage Society rented it, it consisted of a bare stage, space in the basement, and none of the backstage facilities that most theatres of even modest size provide. (Diane Mew, Life Before Stratford: The Memoirs of Amelia Hall, Dundurn Press, 1989, p. 93.)
The first production staged at the La Salle Academy was While the Sun Shines, by Terrence Ratigan, which opened on May 10th, 1948:
Seats in the orchestra were a dollar and those in the balcony were fifty cents. Twenty-nine people turned up on opening night. Among those who had been invited but who did not attend was Viscount Alexander of Tunis, the governor general. Nine weeks and nine productions later, when the same play was repeated, the governor general and his wife were in the audience, along with two hundred members of the diplomatic corps. (p. 91.)
It seems unlikely that the Soviet embassy turned down a chance to attend.

CBNRC employees also took advantage of the theatre’s presence. Writing many years later in CSE’s in-house newsletter, Gwen Flahven, one of the employees from that time, recalled “watching rehearsals in the theatre below and meeting Christopher Plummer, William Hutt, Betty Leighton, William Shatner, and other actors and actresses” (Tillian, Spring 1980, p. 11).

[Update 13 December 2019: In this interview, Christopher Plummer talks about what it was like to work at the La Salle Academy.]

[Update 29 October 2016: The photo below, possibly dated 1938, shows what the building looked like around the time it was occupied by CBNRC and its predecessors.

The school auditorium occupied the first two floors at the far end of the building.]

The number of people on CBNRC's staff continued to grow throughout its time at the La Salle Academy. Late in 1947, the agency's establishment was increased from 179 to 227. CBNRC had not yet reached that number by the time it left the Academy in January 1950, however, and it is unlikely that it would have been able to accommodate them all if it had. As early as August 1948, CBNRC Director Ed Drake had called the President of the NRC, C.J. Mackenzie, to complain "about his cramped office space" (Mark Kristmanson, Plateaus of Freedom: Nationality, Culture and State Security in Canada, 1940-1960, University of Toronto Press, 2003, p. 108).

For space, security, and perhaps other reasons (the school may have wanted its 3rd floor back), it was clear that CBNRC could not remain permanently at La Salle Academy. In August 1949, the Department of Public Works let a contract for "extensive alterations and improvements" to the Rideau Military Hospital to accommodate both the Communications Branch and the Division of Radio and Electrical Engineering of the NRC, and by the beginning of the next year CBNRC had moved to its second headquarters site.

[This post was updated on 3 December 2011 and again on 7 February 2012 to incorporate more accurate estimates of the space occupied by CBNRC within the La Salle Academy. My thanks to Mark Weiler and to Brother Maurice Lapointe for information about the La Salle Academy's buildings during the 1940s.]


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