Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Gerda Munsinger, a call girl in Ottawa, Canada, was born in East Germany. She was a former Soviet spy and became involved with members of the Canadian government during the late 1950’s, the most important of whom was Pierre Sévigny, associate minister of national defense. The affair was silent for a time but became a matter of public attention in 1966, when Justice Minister Lucien Cardin revealed the case in the House of Commons during debate.

Summary of Event

Gerda Munsinger, a German citizen, was investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) when she applied for Canadian citizenship in 1960. In its routine background check, the RCMP discovered that Munsinger not only had a checkered past and questionable acquaintances in the Montreal underworld but also was closely connected to a number of Progressive Conservative (PC) cabinet ministers, most notably the associate minister of national defense, Pierre Sévigny. Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker took care of the affair quietly in early 1961, only to have it brought into public scrutiny in 1966. [kw]Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada (Mar. 4, 1966) [kw]Spy Scandal Rocks Canada, Munsinger Sex and (Mar. 4, 1966) [kw]Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada, Munsinger (Mar. 4, 1966) Monseigneur affair Munsinger, Gerda Sévigny, Pierre Diefenbaker, John G. Cardin, Lucien Pearson, Lester B. Citizenship Soviet Union;espionage Monseigneur affair Munsinger, Gerda Sévigny, Pierre Diefenbaker, John G. Cardin, Lucien Pearson, Lester B. Citizenship Soviet Union;espionage [g]Canada;Mar. 4, 1966: Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada[01240] [g]Russia;Mar. 4, 1966: Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada[01240] [g]Europe;Mar. 4, 1966: Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada[01240] [c]Espionage;Mar. 4, 1966: Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada[01240] [c]Government;Mar. 4, 1966: Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada[01240] [c]Politics;Mar. 4, 1966: Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada[01240] [c]Prostitution;Mar. 4, 1966: Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada[01240] [c]Sex;Mar. 4, 1966: Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada[01240] [c]Publishing and journalism;Mar. 4, 1966: Munsinger Sex and Spy Scandal Rocks Canada[01240] Reguly, Robert Spence, Wishart

Liberal justice minister Lucien Cardin brought the so-called 1960-1961 Monseigneur affair to the surface in the House of Commons. This led to great public interest in what was to become Canada’s first sex scandal. Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson ordered a royal commission of inquiry into the affair. The affair was brought to the public’s attention once again in 1992, when Brenda Longfellow produced a feature-length independent film on the subject called Gerda.

Munsinger had been refused immigration into Canada in 1952 because she was a spy in East Germany during the late 1940’s. Her espionage work apparently consisted of seducing West German and U.S. soldiers and, while they slept, riffling their pockets and stealing items such as currency and transportation passes. She then gave those stolen items to Soviet intelligence agents. In 1952, after her application for Canadian citizenship was rejected, she married Michael Munsinger, a U.S. Army sergeant. Munsinger could not gain entry for his wife into the United States and divorced her in 1954.

Using her married name, Gerda Munsinger entered Canada in 1955, working as a secretary, host, and call girl in Montreal. She reapplied for Canadian citizenship in 1960. During this time, she socialized with a number of prominent Canadians, including Frank Petrulla, a well-known Montreal gangster. In February of 1961, Munsinger was arrested at Morgan’s Department Store for passing bad checks. Upon her release, allegedly facilitated by an unnamed high-ranking Canadian politician, she left Canada permanently and returned to East Germany.

The RCMP interview with Munsinger led investigators to suspect that she was Sévigny’s mistress and that, further, her prostitute friends were aware of the affair. She claimed that she was socially acquainted with not only Sévigny but also two other members of the PC cabinet: the minister of transport and the minister of citizenship and immigration, each of whom apparently supported her application.

The RCMP’s report on Munsinger identified three items that made her a danger to national security. First, she may have been in Canada on behalf of Russian intelligence. Second, if she was in Canada on her own, her previous connections with communist espionage put her at risk of being recruited again by Russian intelligence. Third, those associating with her, especially Sévigny, would be at risk of blackmail by her unsavory Montreal underworld associates. The RCMP report was released in December, 1960, to the minister of security, E. David Fulton, who set an immediate meeting with Prime Minister Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker called in Sévigny, who denied that Munsinger was his mistress; they agreed that Sévigny would not see her again, and the matter appeared to be resolved by Munsinger’s voluntary departure from Canada a few months later.

On March 4, 1966, the Commons was debating the treatment of George Victor Spencer, a Vancouver postal clerk who was caught performing minor acts of espionage for the Soviets. The Liberal government now in power fired Spencer but did not prosecute him because he was dying of cancer. When attacked by Progressive Conservatives for this gentle treatment of an espionage agent, Justice Minister Cardin blurted out something surprising about Diefenbaker’s mishandling of what he called the Monseigneur case. After a brief flurry of public speculation about a scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, Cardin explained in a press conference that high-placed members of the PC cabinet had been known to fraternize with “Olga” Munsinger five years earlier, and that this East German spy had been allowed to leave the country unchecked. Cardin characterized the affair not only as more scandalous than the Spencer case but also worse than the Profumo, John Profumo case, a 1963 spy scandal in which John Profumo, then secretary of state for war in Great Britain, had an affair with Christine Keeler, who also had sexual relations with a high-ranking Soviet politician. Cardin also claimed in this press conference that Munsinger had since died of leukemia in East Germany.

Robert Reguly, a reporter for the Toronto Daily Star, found that Munsinger not only was alive and well in Munich but also willing to sell her story to the Canadian press. Reguly and other newspaper reporters from around the world, as well as a number of television news personalities, flooded the Canadian media with a plethora of reports, interviews, and Cartoons cartoons about the affair throughout the spring of 1966. In response to public interest in the matter, Prime Minister Pearson called for the commission of inquiry.

The commission, headed by Canadian Supreme Court Supreme Court of Canada justice Wishart Spence, made its inquiry in the spring of 1966. Canadians lined up outside government stores for copies of the report when it was issued in September of the same year. The goal of this commission was to ensure that the case had been appropriately handled by government officials, given the classified nature of the information and the possible threat to national security. Spence found Sévigny’s claim that she had not slept with Munsinger entirely lacking in credibility. Sévigny had asserted that Munsinger had been tired and ill throughout November, 1960 (during which he spent a night at her apartment), but statements from other witnesses indicate that Munsinger at the time traveled extensively with male friends and was able to meet her professional obligations as a prostitute. Nonetheless, the commission concluded that although Diefenbaker and Sévigny reacted poorly, there had been no breach of national security.

Sévigny reacted angrily to press questions about his relationship with Munsinger. He eventually admitted in the official inquiry that they had had a physical relationship. Shortly after the scandal broke in the spring of 1966, Sévigny and his friend Marcel Gagnon were approached by a camera crew while eating breakfast, a confrontation that led to an eight-minute brawl. In the fight, the Canadian Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) lost sound equipment during the fight, and one reporter’s glasses were smashed. Sévigny declared on air that this encounter should be considered a lesson to the media about respecting people’s privacy.

In a 1973 CBC interview, Sévigny claimed that the Munsinger affair was a frame-up engineered to victimize him, but he was unwilling—or unable—to provide further details. He said the truth would be revealed, probably by historians. Sévigny left politics and taught public finance at Concordia University in Montreal for more than twenty years.

Munsinger lived the rest of her life in Europe and married twice more, dying in 1998 in Munich as Gerda Merkt. In a 1974 retrospective interview with CBC journalist Barbara Frum, Munsinger agreed that the scandal named after her had provided sex appeal to Canada’s otherwise dour Parliament. She speculated that the events of the decade before would not have been allowed to turn into a scandal by the young and sophisticated Pierre Trudeau who followed Pearson as Canadian prime minister. This seems a likely analysis, given Trudeau’s well-known belief that the state did not belong in the bedrooms, or the sexual affairs, of Canadians, politicians or otherwise.

Impact

The Munsinger affair was Canada’s first and arguably most prominent political sex scandal. The Canadian media covered it extensively, with numerous analyses following each of Munsinger’s interviews with the Canada press. Furthermore, Canada became the subject of international media scrutiny in 1966, perhaps because the Munsinger affair so closely resembled the Profumo case, which had attracted much attention a few years earlier to another seemingly dour institution: British parliament. The key players in the case remained of interest to the Canadian press until their deaths, with regular retrospectives on the affair airing on Canadian television for years following the scandal. Soviet Union;espionage Monseigneur affair Munsinger, Gerda Sévigny, Pierre Diefenbaker, John G. Cardin, Lucien Pearson, Lester B. Citizenship

Further Reading
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    The Gerda Munsinger Inquiry. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Library, 1969. A collection of photocopied articles that appeared in The Globe and Mail newspaper between March, 1966, and November, 1968.
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    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Wishart. Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Matters Relating to One Gerda Munsinger. Ottawa, Ont.: Crown Copyrights, 1966. Official commission report that provides detailed information about all elements of the scandal.
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    xlink:type="simple">Van Seters, Deborah. “The Munsinger Affair: Images of Espionage and Security in 1960’s Canada.” Intelligence and National Security 13, no. 2 (1998): 71-84. A summary of the affair that analyzes media representations of the scandal. Gives special attention to the 1960’s iconography of the female spy.
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    xlink:type="simple">Whitaker, Reg, and Steve Hewitt. Canada and the Cold War. Toronto, Ont.: Lorimer, 2003. A study of the Cold War that focuses on how it affected daily life in Canada. Includes a section on the Munsinger affair.

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