The legacy of the War Measures Act

George Bain March 12 1984

The legacy of the War Measures Act

George Bain March 12 1984

The legacy of the War Measures Act


George Bain

Fourteen years after Ottawa invoked the War Measures Act, controversy still surrounds the October Crisis—perhaps the most contentious single issue of the Trudeau era. At the time, with separatist violence supposedly threatening Canada’s security, a heavy air of unreality hung over

Ottawa. Soldiers cradling machineguns and riding in Jeeps along normally staid Wellington Street were a common, if startling, sight. On Halloween night an armed soldier stood outside one cabinet minister’s house handing out candy to masked children but forbidding them to approach any closer. Yet another cabinet minister, skilled in home carpentry, had to take a soldier with him when he went to pick up wood at a local lumber yard. But despite a mixture of tension and surrealism, the government’s handling of the crisis was not politically controversial at the time.

Polls taken in the fall of 1970 merely put numbers to what was already evident in letters to the editor, radio phone-in shows and MPs’ mail. Canadians liked the government for invoking the 56-year-old War Measures Act with the powers it conferred on police to search and arrest without a warrant, to jail without charge and to hold without

bail. According to one poll, 85 per cent approved —a virtual acclamation.

Although the Liberals came close to losing the next election in 1972—they took 109 seats while the Conservatives under Robert Stanfield won 107—the so-called crisis was no part of the explanation. If anything, Pierre Trudeau’s resolve, as it was seen to be, was part of the diminished list of positive factors

for the Liberals. It was only in the subsequent years that more reservations developed about the wisdom and morality of calling out troops and summarily jailing hundreds of people in response to a largely undefined threat. But the issue lingers on only in the national subconscious. Overall, the October Crisis has been to Trudeau’s political advantage because it laid the foundations of the strong leader and gunslinger image he traded on in later years.

Hurried: Historians may yet amend that judgment. More books have been written on Trudeau’s career during his term in office than on any other Canadian politician. But there are large gaps in the records of the affair, and questionable information given at the time still awaits revision. Even now the outlines of the “apprehended insurrec| tion” are hard to find. And the principal ! actors, Trudeau, then Justice Minister

John Turner and former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, have not hurried to try to define them.

The crisis began on Oct. 5,1970, when four people kidnapped British diplomat James (Jasper) Cross from his Westmount home. Five days later two men abducted Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte. The kidnappings were the work of two cells of a ragtag extremist

organization called the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). Although the abductors demanded a $500,000 gold ransom for Cross’s release, their purpose, as stated in a ransom note to the police, was largely political—“to free 23 political prisoners” who in the eyes of the law were simply criminals. Only later did the authorities learn that no one had coordinated the kidnappings and that the decision to seize Laporte had been made virtually on a whim. Contrary to government and police fears of the time, there was no grand design behind the terrorist actions, and it is questionable that the FLQ could have carried out such a master plan even if it had possessed one. Still, edgy authorities in Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa saw the kidnappings as initial evidence of an attack by an organization capable of undermining the entire state. It was on that belief that they acted, and at 4 a.m. on Oct. 16 Ottawa invoked the War Mea-

sures Act, triggering the first of more than 400 arrests, most of them in Montreal.

Murder: The discovery of Pierre Laporte’s body on Oct. 18 in the trunk of a car left near an air base south of Montreal struck hard at the Quebec government, and the effect of that blow subsequently damaged relations between Quebec City and Ottawa. But the murder occurred after, not before, the War Measures Act came into force—and may even have resulted from it. The government’s abrupt, dramatic move could have been what forced the handful of terrorists to commit such a desperate act.

The October Crisis is now embodied in the national mythology. It has become the story of a government in Ottawa, and especially a prime minister, steely of purpose, unwavering, acting to put down a threat to Canadian democracy. Trudeau himself said in a national broadcast on Oct. 16 that the criminal law was not adequate to deal with systematic terrorism—a considerable overestimation of the FLQ’s potency. Trudeau went on to say that in implementing the War Measures Act, “The government is acting... to protect your life and liberty.” Few then suggested that such alarmist talk, coupled with the call to the military, might also reflect panic and confusion or constitute a calculated effort to stimulate a sense of national danger.

With the passage of time, the lingering image of the October Crisis is of Trudeau replying “Just watch me” when a reporter asked him how far he was prepared to go in support of law and order. But the actions he took were

not nearly as firm as his words. It took four days after the proclamation of the War Measures Act to bring the 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment to Ottawa. The 400 soldiers arrived fresh from peacekeeping duties in Cyprus, where they had been separating more clearly identified combatants. Even before that, the Trudeau government had given the FLQ a propaganda coup. Ottawa accepted an FLQ demand that television and radio announcers broadcast its manifesto—in full. The federal government also agreed to concessions that the Quebec government first offered the kidnappers. They included parole for some “political pris-

oners,” promises of leniency in court and an arrangement to fly the kidnappers out of the country—an offer the Cross kidnappers later accepted.

Blowup: It is still unclear how much of the events in Ottawa that fall—the extravagant protection of ministers, for one—was playacting. Certainly there was some playacting in the House of Commons. Of a sinister “parallel power,” which the Prime Minister professed to see challenging elected authority, nothing has ever been revealed but a grubby handful of criminals with revolutionary pretensions. And the secret information that Turner claimed would explain everything still remains secret today. Jean Marchand, the principal Quebec minister after Trudeau, told the Commons that an “organization which has thousands of guns, rifles, machine-guns, bombs and about 2,000 lb. of dynamite, more than enough to blow up the core of downtown Montreal,” was at work in Quebec. But no one has ever unearthed either the or-

ganization or the arsenal. It is also unclear why Ottawa cited information from Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau and Lucien Saulnier, the city’s chief executive officer, about subversive activities to justify its assault on suspect separatists. One year earlier it had dismissed similar information from the same sources.

Crisis: What remains 14 years later is the impression that government—principally the federal government, although it insisted it acted only at the request of the Quebec government and Montreal—suspended civil rights and called out the army for reasons that are still unclear. There is no proof of a secu-

rity crisis of the nature Ottawa described to justify its invocation of the War Measures Act, although a political crisis developed later as the Bourassa government began to disintegrate over the death of Pierre Laporte.

The threat to legitimate authority, if it was the real as well as the ostensible justification for the dramatic actions Ottawa took, was a miscalculation. Historians are left with two possibilities: that the government playacted to give the appearance of decisive action over two kidnappings which did not seem to be yielding immediately to ordinary police investigation; or that the crisis was really a covert plan to use the occasion to stamp on the rising Parti Québécois.

Certainly, Parti Québécois adherents were prominent among the 400 arrests made, but the police laid few charges against them. And Trudeau, then as now, did not make the distinction between separatists who hoped to prevail by peaceful means and those who advocated terror to further their cause.