CANADA

THE UNTHINKABLE

IF THE ARMY WENT INTO QUEBEC, SOME CRITICS SAY THAT IT COULD NOT DEAL WITH NATIONALISM AND MASS UNREST

TOM FENNELL December 23 1991
CANADA

THE UNTHINKABLE

IF THE ARMY WENT INTO QUEBEC, SOME CRITICS SAY THAT IT COULD NOT DEAL WITH NATIONALISM AND MASS UNREST

TOM FENNELL December 23 1991

THE UNTHINKABLE

CANADA

IF THE ARMY WENT INTO QUEBEC, SOME CRITICS SAY THAT IT COULD NOT DEAL WITH NATIONALISM AND MASS UNREST

The images of October, 1970, still smoulder in the collective memory of Canadian politics. On Oct. 5 of that year, two members of the Front de liberationdu Québec kidnapped dapper, grey-haired British trade commissioner James Cross in Montreal. Five days later, another FLQ cell snatched burly Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte from a Montreal sidewalk— later murdering him. In response, on Oct. 15 a grim Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau began ordering armed troops to take up defensive positions around strategic buildings in Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. Now, 21 years later, Canadians are confronting the possibility that the federal government might once again have to summon the military to defend Canadian interests against the actions of dedicated Quebec nationalists.

In Quebec, many commentators have denounced any suggestion that the current unity

crisis might lead to an armed struggle. Wrote Alain Dubuc, chief editorial writer at Montreal’s daily La Presse, on Nov. 29: “Quebecers are deeply worried to see reputable academics and serious publications evoking the possibility of armed intervention against Quebec. Things

are skidding out of control.” And Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark has declared that the federal government would never consider calling in the army to prevent Quebec’s independence. Said Clark: “If separation arrives, we have to deal with that within the context of Canadian traditions, and those traditions do not involve the use of force.” But in fact, according to some analysts, the most effective restraint on Canadian military action may not be any moral qualms among political leaders, but the weakness of Canada’s depleted armed forces. Said Alex Morrison, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian infantry who now heads the Toronto-based Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies: “The military would not be able to suppress massive violence in two cities at once.”

Still, military and political analysts say that several potential developments could make a military response difficult for Ottawa to avoid if

Quebec holds a referendum and its citizens opt for independence. The scenarios include appeals to Ottawa for help from parts of Quebec where residents would prefer to remain within Canada—notably in the Eastern Townships and the province’s far north. Another possibility is an outbreak of hostilities between military units themselves if Ottawa and Quebec City, under the terms of separation, attempt to transform the Canadian Forces into two national forces. Said John Thompson, director of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto-based military analysis group: “The settlement of these issues could provoke serious violence.” Canada’s leaders, in fact, have demonstrated their willingness to deploy the military in Quebec on three I occasions in the past quar| ter-century. During the 1970 FLQ crisis, Ottawa ordered 4,000 troops, primarily from the mostly Frenchspeaking Royal 22nd Regiment based at Valcartier, Que., to take up positions in several cities. Six years later, the government sent about 7,500 troops from across Canada to Montreal to help run the 1976 Olympics and to protect vital installations in case of terrorist attacks. And last year, at the request of the Quebec government, Ottawa deployed 4,000 servicemen, primarily from Quebec and Ontario, to defuse armed standoffs with Mohawk Indians at Oka and the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal.

But the potential military actions in Quebec now under debate by some experts would plainly be very different. In the event of Quebec’s acting on a popular desire for independence expressed in a provincial referendum, several observers have envisaged the need to call in troops to protect areas of the province where residents would not wish to leave Canada. For one thing, although many anglophone Quebecers say that the army should never be called into Quebec, their demands to remain part of Canada could still trigger a military clash. Said Gregory Gogan, founder of the anglophone separatist party Option Canada: “There will be areas of the province that do not want to follow the Parti Québécois, and these areas must be accommodated.” And at a native conference in Ottawa last month, Gerry Pelletier, chief of the Mohawk band at Oka, called on Clark to back the use of force to protect native lands in an independent Quebec. When Clark refused, the meeting erupted into anger as natives yelled, “What about Oka?”—a reference to the use of the Canadian army against the Mohawks.

The army may face other flash points as well, according to participants at a conference last month on the national security implications of the constitutional crisis. Co-sponsored by the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies in Toronto, the conference heard from military analysts who listed some of the potential problems. Among them: the possibility that the army could become embroiled in suppressing violence between separatists and Canadian federalists in the wake of an independence vote. Some added that clashes could also erupt within the armed forces themselves if the federal government decided that it had to disarm French-language military units. As well, the Mackenzie Institute’s Thompson said that because the armed forces maintain their largest weapons depot in Montreal, even an initially peaceful division of the country’s military assets could deteriorate into violent confrontation. Added Thompson: “Any attempt to remove the weapons might be interpreted as a plot to disarm Quebec.”

Whether the Canadian armed forces could summon sufficient manpower to undertake any of those missions, however, is far from clear. The Institute of Strategic Studies’ Morrison, for one, said that successive budget cuts have depleted Canada’s military to the point where it would not be able to muster the force required to carry out federal orders to suppress incidents of massive civil unrest—wherever they might occur in Canada. According to defence department estimates, although Canada has about 85,000 men and women under arms, commanders could field no more than 5,000 troops at any one time to counter threats within the country itself.

Previous deployments of troops in Quebec support the contention that the army may be incapable of dealing with widespread unrest. Last year’s Operation Salon at Oka and Kahnawake involved troops from Valcartier armed with automatic assault weapons and armored personnel carriers, supported by an array of other units. At that, said retired brigadier-general William Yost, who was in charge of supply and services during the military deployment for the 1976 Olympic Games, Operation Salon severely strained the military’s resources.

Yost added that the Oka operation was small compared with the force that would be required to defend entire regions from annexation by an independent Quebec. Said Yost: “Oka was a telling example of how limited the country’s ground campaign would be.” For his part, Morrison expressed doubt that the military could even maintain civil order in the face of widespread violence between Englishand French-speaking Quebecers.

The balance of power between Englishand French-speaking units within the armed forces could further undermine the military’s ability to take decisive action in Quebec. Since the Liberal government of Lester Pearson created several French-speaking units within the armed forces in the 1960s, the number of francophones—mainly Quebecers—in all three branches of the armed forces has climbed

to about 25 per cent of the total. Frenchspeaking units include Valcartier’s Royal 22nd Regiment (the renowned unit known as the Van Doos) and a fighter wing with four CF-18s based at Bagotville, Que.

Some military experts have speculated on where those units would place their loyalty if Quebec were to opt out of Canada. In one view, Ottawa might be compelled to strip Frenchlanguage units of some of their weapons to prevent them from transferring their firepower to the service of Quebec. But that course is also fraught with danger, notes Richard Rohmer, a former commander of the Canadian military reserves and a writer on military affairs. Removing weapons from Quebec-based units, he said, could be seen as an act of war. Added Rohmer: “The armed forces have been split along language and ethnic lines.”

Attempting a peaceful disengagement along those lines following a Quebec decision to separate, however, may also prove difficult. For his part, Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau has stated that an independent Quebec would have an army of its own, founded on the basis of the existing French-language units in the Canadian military. By contrast, lieutenant-general Charles Belzile, who retired as commander of Canada’s land-based Mobile Command in 1987, says that any military hardware in Quebec belongs to Canada—and that the federal government could simply refuse to negotiate its surrender.

But even in the face of the apparent weak-

nesses and divisions inside Canada’s own military, most experts say that another possible scenario is unlikely: Ottawa inviting U.S. troops into Canada in order to secure federal interests in Quebec. They say that most Canadians, as well as the top military command, would rather see Quebec leave Canada without a fight than be forced to call on Washington for

help. In fact, it is possible that Quebec might ultimately proceed towards independence without provoking any military action at all. But Ottawa’s non-involvement may have less to do with lack of motive or desire than with an absence of means.

TOM FENNELL