“Every government in this country is well aware of the existence of deep and important social problems…there is available everywhere in Canada an effective mechanism to change governments by peaceful means.”
Those were Pierre Trudeau’s words on October 16, 1970 in a televised statement justifying using the War Measures Act (later the Emergencies Act, 1988), supposedly to confront members of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ).
Trudeau, as a student years earlier, wrote a “Letter from London” chastising the use of the War Measures Act by the MacKenzie King government, which acted “outside the bounds of Common Law and in violation of justice, without due process, adequate defense, known punishment, nor with judgement independent of the executive branch.” In a display of liberal hypocrisy that would rival today’s politicians, Trudeau’s words eloquently describe his own government’s actions in October 1970.
Within days of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapping British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laport, military were patrolling the streets and habeas corpus suspended, permitting the arbitrary arrest and detainment of anyone suspected of FLQ ties.
While Trudeau is falsely praised as a champion of charter rights, his defence of the War Measures Act provides a different story: “There are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a soldier’s helmet... So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representative of the people I think that power must be stopped and I think it’s only, I repeat, weak-kneed bleeding hearts who are afraid to take these measures.” A reporter asked, “At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?” His infamous answer: “Well, just watch me.”
Civil liberties and national liberation
While the Act was in effect, 465 people were arrested and hundreds jailed without charge. Only two were actually convicted of FLQ ties and none provided information leading to the kidnappers.
Indeed, many had nothing to do with the FLQ. A 2010 Radio Canada investigation revealed Quebec police had “at most 60 names” of FLQ sympathizers, so the RCMP (under political pressure to bolster numbers to justify such extreme measures) added hundreds to the list, likely from their PROFUNC arrest list of over 60,000 suspected communists and sympathizers .
As then NDP leader Tommy Douglas remarked, they were “using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.” But perhaps such state action against civilians is not intended to simply uphold “rule of law” or “public safety,” but for control.
Trudeau’s use of the War Measure Act had little to do with capturing the kidnappers. Since 1962, when the FLQ were deemed a possible terrorist threat by the RCMP, they and other separatist movements were seen through the lens of Cold War anticommunism, in the same vein as “national liberation struggles” .
The use of the War Measures Act in 1970 (which had overwhelming approval in English Canada) can perhaps be seen in the context of McCarthyesque ideological hysteria against those deemed an ideological threat, in Quebec and beyond. As Montreal Gazette columnist Don MacPherson wrote, “Many Quebecers remain convinced…the Trudeau government applied the War Measures Act not only to deal with the crisis…but as a psychological ploy to halt the rise of the Quebec nationalist movement.”
It is commonly said the October Crisis is unique in that the War Measures Act was used in a time of peace. This, however, misses the purpose and function of such extra-constitutional executive powers in Canada and other western democracies: namely, to ensure conformity when dissent and debate is most dangerous to state power, albeit most necessary.
The peacetime distinction of the October Crisis neglects the idea of perpetual war, whereby imperialist states need an enemy, internal or external, to legitimize their own use (or threat) of force.
To understand this function, we can look to when the War Measures Act, 1914 was first passed in the imperialist jingoism of World War I. In Canada, the War Measures Act was used to declare foreigners “enemy aliens,” to intern over 8,600 mostly Ukrainians, and make it illegal to hold meetings, or publish in a foreign language.
The War Measures Act would later be used during and after WWII—against communists and socialists; to intern Japanese Canadians; to control wartime strikes and lockouts; to enforce conscription; and censor the wartime press.
Civil liberties today
Much has changed since, and these events are seen as unfortunate aspects of history. However, the precedent is perhaps more relevant than ever. We are in a new paradigm, where the implications of information and surveillance technology on civil liberties may not even be comprehended.
For example, the NSA revelations (and Canada’s response) are truly frightening in a context where those in power have routinely employed extreme measures to collect dossiers on, infiltrate, and detain anyone deemed a threat to established power.
Events surrounding the Toronto G20 showed how today, executive branches in Canada infiltrate and entrap those exercising their democratic and constitutional rights. Leaked information, such as that from Stratfor shows how corporations now employ surveillance technology and state informants to monitor and silence critics.
Events like the October Crisis, and other temporary suspensions of civil liberties by the state, are now overshadowed by ongoing and routine violations of constitutional rights that transcend national boundaries. The fight for civil liberties continues.
On the morning of October 5, 1970, four men posing as deliverymen kidnapped British trade commissioner James Richard Cross from his plush Montreal residence.
Cross was in the hands of Quebec's most radical separatist group, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). Since 1963, the FLQ had been involved in over 200 bombings in Quebec. Now the self-described revolutionary movement was changing tactics.
The kidnappers threatened to kill Cross unless the government released 23 prison inmates charged with crimes committed in the name of the Front. The FLQ insisted these people were political prisoners. They also wanted their manifesto to be read on national television.
At first, both the federal and provincial governments - led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Premier Robert Bourassa - downplayed the kidnapping. The Quebec government said it was open to negotiate with the FLQ and even allowed the group's staunchly separatist manifesto to be read on Radio-Canada.
"We have had enough of promises of work and prosperity," the manifesto read. "When in fact we will always be the diligent servants and bootlickers of the big shots ... we will be slaves until Quebecers, all of us, have used every means, including dynamite and guns, to drive out these big bosses of the economy and of politics, who will stoop to any action, however base, the better to screw us ..."
Despite some government concessions, the crisis escalated. Five days after the Cross kidnapping, the FLQ struck again kidnapping Pierre Laporte, the Quebec minister of labour and the government's senior Cabinet minister.
The news sent ripples of panic through the public and gave the impression that the FLQ was a large, powerful organization. The kidnapping put tremendous pressure on the young premier who turned to Ottawa for help.
The federal government sent in the army to protect politicians and important buildings. For Pierre Trudeau, a lifelong champion of individual rights, it was a defining moment. In one exchange with CBC reporter Tim Rafe, Trudeau displayed an iron resolve.
Reporter: "Sir what is it with all these men with guns around here?"
Trudeau: " There's a lot of bleeding hearts around who don't like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is 'go ahead and bleed' but it's more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don't like the looks of..."
Reporter: "At what cost? How far would you go? To what extent?"
Trudeau: "Well, just watch me."
As the country watched, events continued to unfold in Quebec. On October 15, three thousand people gathered at Paul Sauvé Arena to show support for the FLQ's separatist ideas. The FLQ's lawyer, Robert Lemieux, fired them up.
"We're going to organize, choose our ground, and WE WILL VANQUISH."
All signs indicated that the FLQ was a powerful force in Quebec. Bourassa and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau urged Ottawa to invoke the War Measures Act.
"What else can I do?" Bourassa reportedly told a colleague. "I personally know a great number of the people who will be arrested ... I know that my political career is over. The economic recovery, the foreign investment, the 100,000 new jobs, all that has just gone up in smoke."
On October 16, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, which suspended basic civil rights and liberties. It allowed police searches and arrests without warrants, and prolonged detentions without charges and without the right to see a lawyer. It was the first time in Canadian history the Act was used during peacetime.
That morning the police arrested 405 people including Quebec singer Pauline Julien.
"They didn't ask us anything," Julien remembered. "I refused to stay in the living-room during their search. I told them: You are in my house, I'm going with you everywhere. They didn't behave that badly, they weren't as brutal as I have head they were elsewhere."
Julien's partner, leftist journalist Gérald Godin, was also arrested.
"Why was I in jail?," said Godin. "If only they had questioned me, I might have had an inkling. What had I said? What had I written or published?"
Some of those arrested under the War Measures Act were kept behind bars for 21 days - the full period allowed under the Act - but most were released after a few hours without being charged. Julien and Godin were detained for eight days, then released without charges.
The day after the first arrests, the tide turned for the FLQ. On the night of October 17, an FLQ communiqué led police to a car parked near St. Hubert airport. In the trunk was the body of Pierre Laporte. He had been strangled to death.
It was the first political assassination in Canada since the murder of Thomas d'Arcy McGee 102 years earlier. Laporte's death would mark the beginning of the end of the FLQ as sympathy abruptly shifted away from the group.
On November 6, Bernard Lortie was arrested when the police raided the hiding place of the Laporte kidnappers. Three members escaped the raid but were captured in late December. Paul Rose and Francis Simard received life sentences for murder. Bernard Lortie was sentenced to 20 years in jail for kidnapping. Jacques Rose was convicted of being an accessory after the fact and sentenced to eight years in jail.
After two months of captivity, James Cross was released as part of a deal, which allowed five kidnappers to leave Canada. Over the years, all of the exiled FLQ members returned to Canada to face trial. They were all convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to jail terms. A sixth Cross kidnapper remained in Montreal and was arrested in July 1980 and convicted of kidnapping.
Several years later, after extensive investigation, it became apparent that the FLQ was not the major paramilitary organization many had believed. It was an informal group, organized in small, autonomous cells, whose members dreamed of a separate and socialist Quebec. At the time of the October Crisis, the group had no more than thirty-five members.
The FLQ ceased activities in 1971.