Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Andrea Douglas, Queens University.
Since its inception, the Dominion of Canada has been subject to intense internal strife between Quebecois separatists and the broader Canadian population. It has been fifty years since the October Crisis of 1970 and yet, in some areas of Canada, the tensions have left a lasting mark on modern society. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the October Crisis, and there have been growing calls, particularly from Quebecois leaders and prominent figures, for the current Canadian government to apologize for instituting the War Measures Act during the crisis. An apology on behalf of the government is both unwarranted and unnecessary because it was the right thing to do to protect the country and, bring order to Quebec.
After years of mounting violence on behalf of the Front liberation du Québec (FLQ), the threshold for what any sensible government would allow, had been far surpassed. A decade of terrorist actions culminated in the kidnapping of James Cross and the kidnap and murder of Pierre Laporte, which were two unforgiveable acts of radical extremism. By 1970, six people had been killed and dozens injured in FLQ related campaigns of violence and Canada was fast approaching the greatest crisis of identity in her history.
In the 1960’s, Quebec was a rapidly changing province. One of the crucial movements was the ‘Quiet Revolution’ which defined Quebec’s period of intense socio-political, socio-cultural and economic change. This movement was characterized more specifically, by the definitive secularization of government – brought about after Maurice Duplessis’ era of conservative Catholicism coined ‘The Great Darkness’. The Quiet Revolution foresaw the conception of state-run socialized welfare and a realignment of Quebecois politics. That being said, this period of rapid change was not enough for the more radical FLQ who, in 1963, commenced their seven-year campaign for Quebec sovereignty and independence. They subsequently launched their April 1963 manifesto with jarring quotes like, “To arms! The hour of national revolution has come! Independence or death!” Worse, the group stole dynamite and began their infamous bombing campaign, targeting “federal buildings, military bases and prominent symbols of English economic domination in Quebec, like the Montreal Stock Exchange.”
The Government of Canada had every right to invoke the War Measures Act because the ideals at the core of Canada’s democracy are ‘Peace, Order and Good Government’. The rise of the FLQ compromised these very same ideals. The FLQ’s actions clearly demonstrated a flippant attitude towards respecting the values at the heart of this nation, as displayed through their determination to destroy peace through bombing campaigns and violence, abolish order through destructive riots and declare the nationally elected, democratic government, an enemy. The War Measures Act is a statute of the Parliament of Canada that provides an array of different emergency measures that could be used in the event of war, invasion or insurrection, the latter of which the FLQ committed in October 1970. This provision alone, is reason enough for the government to not need to apologize for instituting the Act. They had every legal recourse to do so and ultimately, the massive powers granted were used responsibly.
In addition, the Mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, and Quebec’s premier at the time, Robert Bourassa, asked on October 15, 1970 for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to intervene with the help of the federal government. The provincial government was pleading for assistance and “special powers because, they said, if the situation spiraled out of control, they would be powerless to deal with it”, and this too absolves the government’s use of the Act because local administrators were pleading for guidance and order. The Act would also help turn the tide against the FLQ, as Cross himself later remarked, “members had not anticipated [the] imposition of the War Measures Act”, further throwing the terrorists off their game and prompting a change in the balance of power.
The War Measures Act, prior to this point in Canadian history, had never been used in peace time. After its implementation on October 16, 1970, civil liberties were suspended, police conducted searches and arrests without warrants and, some 500 people were detained. Quebec Premier François Legault has said, “there were measures put in place and people were arrested without cause so I think there should be an apology”. This bitter sentiment towards the War Measures Act is mirrored in Robert Comeau – a former FLQ member’s statement that, “their [the FLQ’s] only crime was being pro-independence… In a totalitarian country they put people in prison. In a democracy, there should be a little more respect.” The insinuation that Canada acted as a totalitarian government is a biased assertion that ignores the very real violence and lawlessness of the FLQ. The Canadian government was acting in response to the aggressive actions of the FLQ and only instituted the Act as a result of the kidnappings of Cross and Laporte. In fact, even Quebecois separatists at the time had no patience for the deadly antics the FLQ were pulling. The leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, René Lévesque, went so far as to call the kidnappers “‘sewer rats’ and anarchists”, which exemplifies the divide within separatists between those who democratically and legally wished to find avenues of independence and those who, like the FLQ, resorted to terrorist actions themselves.
It was only a minority of citizens affected by the statute. Civil liberties were not breached for extended periods of time and the majority of those arrested or detained throughout the period of the Act’s implementation were released after a few hours. Even in a time of extreme crisis, the government did not use the Act to forcefully breach the normal freedoms enjoyed by citizens, nor did the government relish in their decision to institute it. As former adviser to Pierre Trudeau describes, “We had frankly no information of significance about the reality or the size of that group. The reality, we saw it, people were kidnapped, but their size we didn’t have,” and that lack of knowledge perhaps, prevented the government from being able to accurately determine the real capability of the FLQ and their potential to cause further harm.
The Act was simply a means to an end – that end being peace and stability for all, used efficiently and with control in order to limit the amount of distrust the people might feel at having their civil liberties temporarily infringed upon. The Canadian government, democratically elected and controlled, never had been a vehicle for oppression against the populace. The implementation of the War Measures Act does not need to be apologized for because it prevented further conflict, further deaths and helped bring together two opposing forces in compromise.
The lasting damage of having basic civil liberties and rights momentarily infringed upon, is miniscule in comparison to the long-lasting consequences the Laporte family experienced. The situation in October 1970 was so complex and there were so many hidden FLQ perpetrators of violence in the populace, that the War Measures Act was needed in order to prevent Quebec from descending into anarchy. Bloc Quebecois leader, Yves-François Blanchet has said the law “attacked the dignity of a whole nation”, whereas Opposition House leader, Gerard Deltell, has said “the October Crisis is first and foremost the death of the deputy premier of Quebec, Pierre Laporte, a guy who had been elected by the people of Quebec who had been killed by terrorists”. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has, thus far, “seemed to preclude that possibility [of stating an apology], saying we should be thinking about Pierre Laporte’s family” and he is right. It’s impossible to predict how many more people, like Laporte, could have succumbed to the FLQ’s terrorist actions. Only in retrospect can Canadians look back and consider how else the government may have responded to this crisis, which would have been a hypocritical example of presentism.
Bédard, Éric. October Crisis, 1970: Crackdown ignited by authorities’ fear of young people. 12 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://theconversation.com/october-crisis-1970-crackdown-ignited-by-authorities-fear-of-young-people-147554>.
Bronskill, Jim. ‘I wasn’t afraid of death,’ kidnapped British diplomat James Cross said upon release. 4 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/i-wasn-t-afraid-of-death-kidnapped-british-diplomat-james-cross-said-upon-release-1.5132350>.
Hoff, George. FLQ Crisis: Pierre Trudeau’s right-hand man recalls Canada under terrorist threat . 14 February 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://www.ctvnews.ca/w5/flq-crisis-pierre-trudeau-s-right-hand-man-recalls-canada-under-terrorist-threat-1.4809054>.
Koschany, Anton. 50 years later: W5 revisits the October Crisis, when domestic terrorists tried to rip the country apart. 9 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://www.ctvnews.ca/w5/50-years-later-w5-revisits-the-october-crisis-when-domestic-terrorists-tried-to-rip-the-country-apart-1.5139697>.
Mulcair, Tom. Tom Mulcair: Now, Justin is the Trudeau we’re watching. 7 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://montrealgazette.com/opinion/columnists/tom-mulcair-now-justin-is-the-trudeau-were-watching>.
National Post Staff. October Crisis: The discovery of Pierre Laporte’s body 50 years ago still haunts Canada. 3 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/fifty-years-after-the-october-crisis-quebec-still-occupies-a-special-place-in-the-national-identity>.
Shields, Billy. The October Crisis: Calls for apology 50 years later. 6 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/the-october-crisis-calls-for-apology-50-years-later-1.5134709>.
The Canadian Press. Blanchet demands apology from Justin Trudeau for government’s decision to invoke War Measures Act in 1970. 28 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-blanchet-demands-apology-from-justin-trudeau-for-governments-decision/>.
—. Blanchet demands apology from Justin Trudeau for government’s decision to invoke War Measures Act in 1970. 28 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-blanchet-demands-apology-from-justin-trudeau-for-governments-decision/>.
Tunney, Catharine. Bloc Québécois seeks official apology for October Crisis detentions. 28 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/bloc-motion-october-crisis-1.5779874>.
Zimonjic, Peter and Rosemary Barton. 50 years after October Crisis, son of Pierre Laporte reflects on father’s death. 12 October 2020. 2 November 2020. <https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/pierre-laporte-jean-laporte-october-crisis-1.5758367>.
Image Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Harryzilber. File:EC 2012-07-30.b1 IMG 0003-V.2.jpg . 30 July 2012. 12 November 2020. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EC_2012-07-30.b1_IMG_0003-V.2.jpg>.