Canada's real-life James Bond

Of the 15 real secret agents that allegedly provided the basis for Ian Fleming’s super suave spy – few know about Sir William Samuel Stephenson.

It is estimated between a quarter and half of the world's population has seen a James Bond film. That number will likely rise even higher when Spectre – the 24th film in the franchise – is released globally on 6 November.

But of the 15 real secret agents that allegedly provided the basis for Ian Fleming’s super suave spy – few know about Sir William Samuel Stephenson, whose hand-to-hand combat skills, save-the-world heroics, magnetic personality and predilection for martinis remarkably mirror those of 007. In fact, Stephenson isn’t even recognised in his hometown: Winnipeg, Canada.

“In all my years in this job you're only the second person who asked about Stephenson,” said Don Finkbeiner, owner of Heartland Tours. “His story even catches most Winnipeggers off guard even though many of them drive past his statue every day.”

To become an ultimate spymaster, marry an American heiress?

A WWI fighter pilot and lightweight boxing champion in the forces, Stephenson relocated to the UK after the war ended in 1918. There, he married an American tobacco heiress and used her connections to reinvent himself as the ultimate spymaster during WWII, becoming a close confidant to both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and playing a key role in the establishment of the CIA. He also founded Camp X, a commando-training base near Toronto where Fleming and hundreds of other Allied operatives learned their craft during the war.
“I myself only learned about Stephenson 10 years ago and now I incorporate a visit to his statue on all my tours,” Finkbeiner said, walking me past the large bronze statue of the pilot that stands in front of the Manitoba Legislative Building. (An identical statue is at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.) “I tell people: you're about to meet the most important Winnipegger of all time and probably the most important Canadian period. His story is incredible. It's almost too good to be true.”

Stephenson was raised in the neighbourhood of Point Douglas in a humble two-story wooden house. He lived there and attended the Argyle Alternative High School until he enlisted in the army at the age of 16. A mural on the school’s wall incorporates the spy’s likeness – but other than that, there’s little evidence that Stephenson grew up there. Either the neighbourhood forgot, or like any good spy, Stephenson wanted to be forgotten....more