The Top Secret Cold War spy who came in from the coast: Telkwa’s Jim Hiltz

Jim Hiltz tells the story of his Top Secret service to Canada during the Cold War in the offices of The Interior News. (Thom Barker photo)Jim Hiltz tells the story of his Top Secret service to Canada during the Cold War in the offices of The Interior News. (Thom Barker photo)
Jim Hiltz, left, with fellow service member William Burke and Governor-General Roland Michener at CFB Alert circa 1963. (Contributed photo)Jim Hiltz, left, with fellow service member William Burke and Governor-General Roland Michener at CFB Alert circa 1963. (Contributed photo)
Jim and Ola Hiltz retired to Telkwa, where they have grown an extensive flower garden for 23 years. (Contributed photo)Jim and Ola Hiltz retired to Telkwa, where they have grown an extensive flower garden for 23 years. (Contributed photo)
Jim Hiltz and some of he fellow service members at CFB Alert dressed in drag and put on a show for their colleagues. (Contributed photo)Jim Hiltz and some of he fellow service members at CFB Alert dressed in drag and put on a show for their colleagues. (Contributed photo)

Imagine not being able to tell anybody – not even your spouse – what you do for a living.

Imagine all of your family and friends being investigated by the RCMP, but not being told why.

Imagine being shunned by family, friends and colleagues because they don’t know what you’re into or think you’re up to no good.

Imagine having to seek permission from your employer to marry, and only be given it after a full investigation into them and their family ensued.

Jim Hiltz does not have to imagine these things, because he lived them.

The former Telkwa and Masset councillor was essentially a spy during the Cold War.

In 1954, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy, following in the footspes of his father, Ross Hiltz, who served in the Second World War.

Despite the classified nature of his job meaning his own service and that of his colleagues has never been fully appreciated on Nov. 11, Jim has always steadfastly observed Remembrance Day and believes it is important that other people do, as well.

“I have not missed a service since 1956 in remembering my father serving in WWII fighting in North Africa under British General Montgomery,” he said.

While in basic training at Canadian Forces Base Cornwallis, Jim was recruited into a unit called the Radiomen Special “not because I was smart, but because I would be loyal to Canada.”

He was just the kind of guy they were looking for: Born in the tiny Nova Scotia village of Kemptville in 1935, Jim had spent his whole life in Kemptville, aside from a year in Halifax working construction after high school, and had no criminal record of any kind.

Jim agreed to take on the role and was sent to Ottawa for 18 months of special training.

“While there, the RCMP Special Unit researched my family’s background, interviewed everyone who lived in the village where I lived,” he said. “People there figured I was in trouble with the law. When I went home, they gave me crap or gave me the cold shoulder.”

Also while in Ottawa, he met Ola – who today is his wife of 66 years.

“I had to ask the federal government if I could get married,” he said. “Their response was ‘only if we can prove she and her family are trustworthy’. The RCMP visited the family on numerous occasions with questions.”

Once again, police gave no indication why they were investigating and since Jim couldn’t explain himself, Ola’s family tried to stop the wedding.

“She told them, ‘All I know, he is in the Navy and I love him so if permission is granted, I will marry him’,” Jim recalled.

Her family did not attend the wedding.

While Jim has never divulged any details of his work, he told the Interior News that day-to-day tasks included intercepting Soviet (and later, Chinese) Morse Code transmissions, transcribing them and sending the transcriptions off to Ottawa for code-breaking and analysis.

Even within the Navy, such as during his second assignment on a Canadian war ship, Jim often found himself persona non grata.

“There, my partner and I worked out of a special locked room,” he explained. “Only the commanding officer was informed why we were there. The executive officer and crew were not informed and were unfriendly toward us. When my assignment was over, I was rudely escorted off the ship.”

Following that assignment, the government decided to increase Jim’s clearance to Top Secret, which meant a broader and deeper re-investigation of both his and Ola’s families.

“Under this assignment, I was arrested by our military police and held under close arrest for three weeks until the government could clear my name and position,” he said. “My wife was not informed, they only told her if she needed transportation for shopping or medical, the military would supply it.”

But while the nature of the job made things difficult for Jim and the other radiomen, they were not above having a little fun.

He recalled a six-month stint in Alert, Nunavut in the early 1960s.

He and a group of friends started a rumour about a band and group of women dancers coming up from Montreal to entertain. While excitement on Canada’s northernmost military station built, he and the group secretly put together the show.

They used old drapes to make skirts, mop heads for wigs and their civilian clothes to fashion blouses. One of the guys, who was handy at sewing created bras. They used hollowed out grapefruits as bra stuffers. Nylons were in plentiful supply around the base because the soldiers used them to shine their shoes.

On the night of the show, they faked a plane landing with a transport vehicle.

When the crowd at the non-commissioned mess found out it was not female dancers from Montreal, but rather their own colleagues, Jim said they were disappointed, but at the same time the show was so entertaining, they got asked to repeat it for the officers’ mess.

Jim’s final assignment was in Masset on Haida Gwaii. He had achieved the rank of acting warrant officer, but the job had taken its toll and he was ready to get out.

“For 20 years, I served my country under this cloak of secrecy,” he said. “I had to swear that I would not reveal what I did to anyone, not even to my wife.”

Despite the secrecy and the hardships it entailed, Ola endured and remained loyal.

“On occasions, my wife was asked what her husband did and she answered ‘I don’t know.’ She was snubbed on many occasions.”

Following his discharge, he remained connected to the military, taking a civilian engineering job as an inspector of government facilities. Having retained his Top Secret status, his job included supervising civilian contractors such as roofers, carpenters and plumbers while in sensitive areas of classified facilities.

When he retired in 1996, Jim was still entitled to armed forces benefits including transferring to wherever he wanted to live, he said.

While in Masset, Jim and Ola would pass through the Bulkley Valley periodically when visiting their daughter Ruth, who lived in Calgary.

“I kind of liked Telkwa because of all those little white houses with all the flowers. So I said to my wife, that’s where we’re gonna go and grow flowers. That’s what we’ve done for (the) last 23 years.”

In fact, their flower growing was so successful, the Hiltzes won a gardening competition in Telkwa five years running.

Jim also jumped into fundraising, community building and local politics as he had in Masset, serving five years on Telkwa council before health concerns in the family saw him step down in September 2011.

He was heavily involved in major projects in both Telkwa and Smithers such as the revitalization of Eddy Park, the Telkwa trails, the Smithers Old Church renovation, The Meadows assisted living centre and the current 12-unit addition to seniors housing in Telkwa.

He also continues to grow flowers and participate in the community.

“I’m pretty busy here,” he said. “Like everything else, when you get noted that you can raise money, everybody wants you.”

On Nov. 11, he will attend the Legion’s order of service, this year for the 66th year running.

And, while he may never have received vindication with all the people who doubted and snubbed him over the years, or the gratitude shown to frontline service members, there has been at least one bright moment: “My daughter (Lola) phoned me about four years ago (and said), ‘Hey dad, now I know what you did when you were in the Navy. There was a documentary on TV telling about the Cold War’.”