The Examination Unit

The rambling Edwardian house with the big verandas that used to stand at 345 Laurier Ave. E. (right beside Laurier House) was demolished in the 1960s to allow the construction of the current undistinguished apartment building. The house had been built in 1903 for John Edwards, a lumber baron and brother of William Edwards who lived at 24 Sussex Drive (currently the official residence of the Prime Minister). Between March 1942 and July 1945, it was the headquarters of the National Research Council’s Examination Unit.


The Examination Unit was Canada’s first spy agency: it decoded enemy messages, mostly from the French and the Japanese and shared the intelligence with Canada’s English and American allies. It was established thanks to private donations from rich businessmen such as John Eaton, Sir Edward Beatty (head of the CPR) and Sam Bronfman (Seagram’s) who gave money to the NRC to conduct military research for the war. Someone suggested that it would be useful to allocate a portion of these funds to cryptography as Canada was intercepting messages from foreign powers but had no means to read them.


The Unit started in 1941 in different quarters and moved to 345 Laurier in 1942 when it needed more space. It counted up to 50 employees at its height, not including a small team from External Affairs who worked on the third floor to analyze the intercepted intelligence. For a time, Lester B. Pearson, the future prime minister, headed the advisory committee that oversaw the work of the Unit but the Unit stayed officially at the NRC because it was easier to disguise its purpose there.


The Unit was initially set up by two mathematicians from the University of Toronto with the help of American and eventually British experts. It focused on decoding messages from Vichy France as well as Japanese diplomatic and military intelligence. This included notices about Japanese merchant shipping (useful for positioning U.S. submarines) and the views of the Japanese ambassador in Moscow (which provided insights into what the Soviet leadership was thinking).  After Germany occupied Vichy France, the Unit continued to intercept and decode messages from the Free French.


After the war, the Examination Unit moved to Sussex Drive in what is now the La Salle Academy. It has since grown into the Communications Security Establishment. As for 345 Laurier Ave. E., a French Government agency rented the building before the house was subdivided into apartments in 1948 and torn down in 1967.