When it became known back in 1968 that Martin Luther King assassin James Earl Ray had secured a Canadian passport to escape the FBI, it was another embarrassment for the Canadian passport office and External Affairs. Add Ray to the list of famous spies and assassins who used a Canadian passport to get around.

Martin Luther King - The fake passport used by James Earl RayJames Earl Ray’s photo on a fake passport issued to one of his aliases,
Ramon George Sneyd, though it was misspelled on this initial passport as Sneya.

  • In 1940, Frank Jacson, also known as Ramon Mercader del Rio, a Spaniard, murdered Leon Trotsky in Mexico City. He traveled there on a Canadian passport.
  • In 1961, Russian spy Gordon Lonsdale used a false Canadian passport for his espionage activities in England, as did his associates in the British naval spy drama, the American-born couple, Helen and Peter Kroger.
  • In 1962 three American narcotics fugitives obtained Canadian passports to escape to Spain. Around that time, Australia also found a Soviet spy ring that was using Canadian passports.

Government documents from the time of the King assassination show how External Affairs, as it was known then, fretted about how to spin the story. They also reveal a Canadian passport office bemoaning how understaffed they were and that it was temporary employees who had processed the Ray application.

Pierre Trudeau, who became prime minister on April 20, in the midst of the international hunt for Ray, vowed later to tighten the passport application process. Still, it continued to be a prime document for international intrigue. It has been used by Israeli spies and, allegedly, by two Mossad assassins seeking to take out Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in 1997.

Also, Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber who has been convicted of planning to blow up the Los Angeles airport, ended up with no fewer than two legitimate Canadian passports in false names. When Ray’s name was added to this infamous list, the world’s media was awash with stories about the ease with which he was able to procure the document.

Swedish newspapers wrote that, for Russian spies and American gangsters, the Canadian passport was the travel document of choice. Newspaper cartoonists drew machines for dispensing Canadian passports next to other vending machines, or depicted Canadians covered in cobwebs, waiting for their legitimate passports while “alien renegades” received expedited service.

In the Ray case, and possibly to save face, Canada charged Henry Moos, the notary public who owned the Kennedy Travel Agency, for signing the picture that said Ray’s passport photo was a true likeness of Ramon George Sneyd. Because an employee would not testify against Moos, the case fell apart, with the judge ruling that the evidence presented by the Crown was equally consistent with innocence as guilt. To further embarrass the department, Ray’s passport was issued with a spelling mistake. On May 16, 1968, while in Lisbon, Portugal, during his attempt to get a job as a mercenary in Africa, he turned in his “Sneya” passport at the Canadian embassy for one with the correct spelling.

Secure Passport Application Process

Editor’s note:
Time has changed and ePassports are widely in use which makes it much more difficult to produce fake documents. So actually the headline is a bit misleading as in fact it was not a fake passport (as it was issued by official authorities) but it was a document obtained illegally.

So the main question remains. How do authorities ensure a secure passport application process? There are 195 nations in the world and a notable amount did still not yet introduced ePassports which require a more “secure” application process. I would say by today the USA set the barrier high to obtain a travel document as you might be asked even for documents of your ancestors to proof who you are.

This article was originally posted by John Nicol, CBC News Posted: Apr 28, 2008