THE MACLEAN’S EXCERPT
PIERRE ELLIOTT TRUDEAU
Trudeau begins by recalling an incident early in his first year at school in Montreal:
My friend Gerald O’Connor, one of my very first pals on my street, was starting school on the same day. O’Connor stood out from the rest of us because of his height and his Irish gift of the gab. He and I had looked forward to the beginning of school as an adventure we would share together. But as soon as I arrived in
class on the first day, I saw that his desk and mine weren’t even in the same part of the room. I was very upset We had been separated. He was in the second grade while I had been put in the first for reasons I couldn’t understand since we were both the same age and had been on the same path until then.
Being split up like that bothered me a great deal, and I complained to my father as soon as I got home.
“Its not fair,” I told him. “I should be in the second grade, too.”
“Then its simple. Go see the principal and ask him to put you in the second grade.”
“Couldn’t you ask him, Daddy?”
“No! It’s your problem. Knock on his door and ask him yourself.”
My father always insisted that his children be self-reliant. Even when we were very young, if he believed we could do something by ourselves, he refused to do it for us. So I summoned up my courage and knocked on the principal’s door. He was sitting behind his desk, and
his black cassock completely filled his armchair. I still remember that I found him huge and intimidating. My voice must have been trembling when I explained what I wanted. And yet my request almost immediately produced the desired result I don’t recall whether the principal made me take any kind of test or whether he consulted the teacher, but I was promptly promoted to the second grade, in the same row of desks as Gerald O’Connor.
If I remember that episode to this day, it is no doubt partly because of the outcome. But it is also because I overcame my shyness. like all children, and maybe more than most, I was shy. I was reluctant to stand out. I had to be pushed into doing so—but then there was no holding me back.
In 1933, Trudeau’s father took the entire family on a trip to Europe, which “began my career as a globetrotter”:
On my return to Montreal at the end of this trip, a different kind of challenge awaited me: returning to high school, which I had started the previous year. My parents had chosen Brébeuf, more formally known as Collège Jeande-Brébeuf, which was a French-speaking institution. I mention this because, although it was natural for upperclass Outremont residents to enrol their sons in this school, which was closest to their homes, quite a few FrenchCanadian families chose a different Jesuit high school, which was much farther away: Loyola, where classes were conducted in English.
Over the years, I have often been asked how, in a bilingual family like mine, we handled the problem of what language to speak at home. My answer is: it was the most natural thing in the world. I never felt that there was any problem. My father spoke to us in French, and my mother spoke in either language, depending on the subject and on how she felt at the time. My Trudeau grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins always spoke French; my Elliott grandfather spoke English with my mother, but switched to French to talk with my father. Did that create any difficulties for us children? Very few and very minor ones. In elementary school at Académie Querbes, for example, I was transferred to the French side in fourth grade after having studied in English for the first three years. Was it a difficult transition? Hardly. I remember only that there were certain words in French of whose gender or spelling I was unsure. But
these uncertainties didn’t last long. You might say that, long before it was formally invented, I benefited from “total immersion.”
In those days, when you started high school, you weren’t greeted only by new schoolmates who made you welcome. Some “upperclassmen” made a point of persecuting the “freshmen,” to amuse themselves and to make their higher status obvious to everyone. I did not escape their attention. One noontime, during lunch, one of these older students decided to provoke me by throwing a banana in my soup. I immediately fished it out and flung it into his soup. I hadn’t anticipated the effect this would have, because I didn’t know that I was violating an unwritten law: freshmen were not allowed to retaliate when an upperclassman provoked them.
“Right,” said my persecutor, in a rage, “if that’s the way you want it, we’ll settle this outside as soon as we leave the lunchroom.”
“OK—if you want,” I said. I was acting confident; there was no question in my mind of backing down. But deep down I didn’t have the slightest wish to fight it out with this older guy, because I wasn’t at all sure I would have the upper hand. He too had done some boxing. So I didn’t push it any further while waiting for dessert.
At the end of the meal, we both stood up. We stared each other in the eye for a long moment
“OK,” he said. “Just this time, I’ll give you a break.”
And he walked away, to my great relief. But I had learned that you can win some confrontations just by acting confident
One of the most testing times for Trudeau was the October Crisis of 1970, when terrorists from the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner in Montreal, and Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s labor minister. Trudeau maintains that he has no regrets about that period:
We were severely criticized at the time for not having anticipated this highly unforeseeable series of events.
To govern is to foresee, we were reminded, and we had failed to see the storm on the horizon, which ought to have been easy to forecast after seven years of terrorist assaults in Montreal and Ottawa Today, the same critics reproach us for exactly the opposite reason, for sending in federal forces to search for information about illegal activities, thus inciting violent reactions from within the separatist movement and some other political parties. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act introduced and adopted by my government, however, I have recently obtained a copy of a memorandum in which my exhortations to the police are preserved.
In fact, in December, 1969, nearly a year before the October Crisis, a cabinet committee—one of the new committees—was deliberating over problems of public security in general, and those raised by the FLQ in particular.
Among other things, I said to those responsible at the RCMP that I was counting on them to “gather information on the sources of financing for the
separatist movement in Quebec, on separatist influence within the government of Quebec, the public service, political parties, universities, unions and professions, and on the political troubles in Quebec.” It seems to me quite clear, upon reading that quotation, that I had two things in mind: certainly the activities of terrorists and other advocates of violence who, since 1963, had been increasing their assaults; but I was also thinking that it was important that the higher levels of the RCMP become better educated about the very nature of separatism, about the circumstances that gave rise to a movement the goal of which was the dissolution of Canada, either through the democratic process or by means of violence and terrorism. Until that time, the RCMP seemed to believe that Canadian unity could be threatened only by outside ideologies: fascism, communism, Trotskyism, Maoism or anarchy under any of its known forms. It was necessary to make them understand that violent separatists could come from and find support in good middle-class Quebec, and that they must not hesitate to pursue their inquiries within that milieu.
Of course, there was no question of encouraging the police to make inquiries into legitimate democratic opposition parties as such, and even less of encouraging them to resort to illegal methods. When I spoke to them of “political troubles in Quebec,” I had in mind such things as the bombing incidents, of which there had been more than 60 at the time, and which could easily have resulted in the deaths of many people. I was also thinking about the theft of weapons and dynamite, which had been on the increase, and a number of armed robberies (responsibility for which had been claimed by the FLQ) of banks, credit unions and gunsmith’s shops—and all of these crimes, it seemed, had been perpetrated to promote the cause of Quebec independence.
I had been fighting separatist ideology for years without once considering asking the police for assistance. As
long as the secessionists limited themselves to democratic methods to promote Quebec’s withdrawal from the country, there was never any question of putting the police on their trail. But the moment they resorted to using bombs, or theft, or assassination attempts, we were no longer dealing with democratic opposition, and it became our duty to hunt them down, or at least to identify them, so that we could put an end to their criminal activities.
It was in such a climate that I made my pronouncement When certain police officers concluded from my words that they had to spy on every activity of the Parti Québécois, they were mistaken. The Mounties had the right, and even the duty, to keep track of anyone they suspect-
ed of treason, even if such suspects were members of a democratic party. But they ought not to have targeted the party as a
whole. As soon as I learned about any case of abusive surveillance, I demanded that it be stopped.
That being said, I have to confess that we were completely stunned by the kidnapping in Montreal of the British diplomat James Cross, and his detention as a hostage by a cell of the FLQ. Nothing like it had ever happened in Canadian history, and the sheer senselessness of it caught us off guard, which meant that we were badg ly equipped to deal with it The | action of the terrorists, and the 5 threat they made to kill their hostage if their demands were not met, created a sudden and brutal emergency.
My first reaction was unequivocal, and I have maintained the same position ever since: there could never be any question of negotiating with terrorists, not even to obtain the release of a hostage. Must I explain myself here yet again? The reason is simple: if we had agreed, as the FLQ demanded, to release from prison FLQ criminals who had been convicted of murder, armed robbery and bombings, we would have been putting our finger into a gearbox from which we could never get it out Puffed up by the success of their tactic, they would have no reason to hesitate to murder, rob and bomb again, since if they were caught, all their pals would have to do is kidnap someone else to have them released from prison—and on and on indefinitely. The only action to which we could give our consent was to satisfy a few of the FLQ’s minor requests in order to give the police time to track down the kidnappers—as Mitchell Sharp did when, as secretary of state for external affairs, he authorized the reading of the terrorist manifesto over Radio-Canada.
Even that concession seemed to me at the time to be too much: as soon as I heard about it I remember thinking: “He’s made a mistake!” I had already told the cabinet: “We will not give them an inch.” But upon reflection, it seemed to me that Mitchell had done the right thing.
Only a few hours after the FLQ kidnapped Laporte on Oct. 10, Premier Robert Bourassa telephoned Trudeau and told him
that he would have to send the army into Quebec. “The impression I received,” Trudeau writes, “was that the situation was getting out of control”:
Tie police were out of their depth, and were on the verge of physical and mental exhaustion. Every lead they followed had proved to be false, and the disturbances were continuing unabated. The city of Montreal had no legal authority to control the demonstrations or gatherings of support during which thousands of people, fists raised defiantly, were shouting ‘Vive le FLQ!” while speakers hurled the most injurious insults not at the terrorists, but at the politicians.
So the Canadian Armed Forces were called in, at the request of the Quebec government, “in aid to the Civil Power.” Since the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte, soldiers had been ensuring the safety of federal ministers, including the prime minister. I spent the weekend at Harrington Lake, in the Gatineau Hills, and both military and police personnel kept my country house under surveillance. And official communications continued to flow in, from Montreal and Quebec City, clamoring for the proclamation of the War Measures Act I resisted for several more days, conscious as I was of the con-
sequences of such a move. I kept putting it off from one day to the next but those from whom I was hearing in Montreal and Quebec City would not let me stall any longer. In the end, I had to recognize that they were in a better position than I was to judge the urgency of the situation.
That Oct 15,1 ended up giving in to the representations of my Quebec counterpart [Bourassa] and of the mayor of Montreal [Jean Drapeau]. “But be careful,” I stated. “The War Measures Act cannot be invoked for just any reason. The law specifically states that only a state of war, real or apprehended, or insurrection, real or apprehended, can justify having recourse to the War Measures Act. Are you, Bourassa, and you, Drapeau, ready to declare, in writing, that you are under such an apprehension? If you are not it is impossible for me to go ahead. The law itself prevents me from proceeding.”
Their affirmative response was immediate. Was I wrong in acceding to the reasons they presented to me? I don’t think so. And I am certain that, had I not declared the War Measures Act when I did, I would be accused today of having played the “Big Brother in Ottawa” by placing my own judgment ahead of that of more interested parties, ignoring the repeated appeals of the premier of Quebec and the mayor of Montreal.
As for the long-term effects of the October Crisis and the methods we used to bring it to an end, they seem to have shut down the activities of the FLQ for good, which is no small thing. Shortly after the crisis, even Pierre Vallières— who in the 1968 edition of his White Niggers of America called upon a guerrilla force made up of “workers, students, young people and intellectuals” to fight “first with placards, then with stones, Molotov cocktails, dynamite, revolvers and machine-guns”—even this former FLQ theoretician realized that violence would never succeed in Quebec, and that in order to gain power it was necessary to resort to legal, democratic means.
Other analysts claim to have perceived that the episode actually strengthened the position of the Parti Québécois, and to have increased its influence. Is that the case? If the October Crisis strengthened the Parti Québécois, it certainly did not reinforce separatism. Quite the contrary. It is true that six years after the crisis, the PQ assumed power in Quebec. But how did it do so, and what price did it pay? By obscuring, for the purposes of winning an electoral campaign, the first article of its constitution. Twice in a row, in 1970 and 1973, the party placed its separatist plank at the top of its electoral platform, and twice in a row it was thoroughly demolished by Robert Bourassa’s liberals. By 1976, the Parti Québécois had learned its lesson. It finally had to admit that the people of Quebec were not in favor of the secession of their province, which is why in 1976 the PQ said: “This election is not about sovereignty. It is only about bringing good government to the province.” That is why I said at the time that separatism was dead, because its official representatives themselves had given up on it; they considered it an obstacle to being elected.
Separatism died in 1976, but its funeral was the referendum of 1980. It’s true that the Parti Québécois was re-elected in 1981, but as René Lévesque said in 1985, it was elected to take “the beautiful risk of federalism.” And when the Quebec government tried to block the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, it was repudiated by a clear majority of the members elected by the Quebec people to sit in Parliament in Ottawa and the legislative assembly in Quebec City. What is more, in three byelections held at the time, the Quebec people chastised the PQ government for having rejected patriation in 1982. And shortly after that, they rejected the PQ government itself.
Reprinted with permission from Memoirs, copyright Pierre Elliott Trudeau, published by McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto.