Of all the politicians whose words I have read or heard, Pierre Trudeau takes the gold medal for inciting the greatest number of “Yes, but...” reflexes per 100 lines of text. His best-selling Memoirs contains just 23 pages on the great October Crisis of 1970, a subject I became engrossed in at the time, wrote a lot about and continue to be interested in. The memoirs are rich in “Yes, but...” material on that.
For example, Trudeau tells of the clamoring by the Quebec government and of the municipal council of Montreal for the proclamation of the War Measures Act, and of his own day-by-day resistance, until “in the end,
I had to recognize that they were in a better position than I was to judge the urgency of the situation.” To which, of course, the irresistible rejoinder is: Yes, but was it not your government that elevated two criminal acts—kidnappings—to the standing of a national crisis by flamboyantly bringing the army into Ottawa, where nothing was happening, nearly a week before the same occurred in Montreal, where something manifestly was?”
The caption beside a picture on page 139 says: “ ‘Just watch me,’ I told an interviewer who asked how far I would go to fight terrorism. The army was called out to guard Parliament. Here cabinet minister John Munro encounters a soldier on Parliament Hill.” And there, sure enough, is health minister John Munro, in a blue suit and tie, leaving the Centre Block under the eye of a corporal, camouflaged tin helmet and all, weapon cocked in his right elbow. Soldiers had been “ensuring the safety of federal ministers, including the prime minister,” since the second kidnapping in Montreal, that of Pierre Laporte, a senior minister in the Quebec government. Ensuring their safety from what or whom, he doesn’t say.
When Laporte was kidnapped, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa made a verbal re-
Pierre Trudeau’s account of the October Crisis of 1970 leaves some serious questions unanswered
quest to Ottawa for both military aid to the civil power to which a province is entitled under the National Defence Act, and for a declaration of a state of emergency, which effectively meant the War Measures Act. Trudeau says he agreed to the first, subject to a formal request, but not to the second, because “the consequences . . . would be extremely serious and we have no proof that it is necessary.” The same day Quebec’s formal requests were made on Oct. 15, Ottawa acceded to both. Certainly Trudeau does not say, but it seems a fair inference that, with the serious consequences being political and with Bourassa being under the greater pressure, he was going to be made to bear them. The thought that the War Measures Act might be needed one day did not spring to mind in Ottawa, only with the October Crisis.
In May, 1970, five months before the kidnappings, an interdepartmental committee— unacknowledged at the time, or during the crisis, or in the memoirs now—was set up on the recommendation of the cabinet committee on priorities and planning, with the precise purpose of considering “steps to be taken in the event the War Measures Act comes into force by reason of insurrection.”
Trudeau complains in the memoirs that “we were severely criticized at the time for not having anticipated this highly unforeseeable series of events,” of which the principal ones were the kidnappings of British trade commissioner James Cross and Laporte, and Laporte’s murder after the War Measures Act was proclaimed. That poor-us note provokes its own Yes, but ...” response: Yes, but, you yourself cite a Gallup poll indicating 87 per cent of Canadians responded favorably to your government’s declaring the existence of an apprehended insurrection as ground for invoking the War Measures Act. Given that, it becomes fairly evident that any severe criticism “at the time” wasn’t widespread.
However, what is even more evident is that the government was better prepared for the eventuality of serious civil disorders occurring than it let on. As early as December, 1969, a cabinet committee was assigned to look into problems of public security, with particular reference to the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). And the prime minister himself told the RCMP in a memorandum that he was counting on the Mounties—the words are his own, quoted from the document—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.”
What he had in mind in that exhortation, Trudeau says now, was information on terrorists; 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.” That leads to its own Yes, but. . . . Might not any police service reasonably think the Parti Québécois constituted part of something generically called ‘a separatist movement,’ as you yourself, prime minister, have been known at times to do? And, might not their subsequent over-zealous surveillance of the Parti Québécois, which led to a public inquiry later in the 1970s, have derived from that?”
Along with much else of a similar nature, the memoirs also tell us: “My first reaction was unequivocal: there could never be any question of negotiating with terrorists, not even to obtain the release of a hostage.” And the reflex: Yes, prime minister, but while the reaction was unequivocal, and you have maintained it since, was it real? The kidnappers wanted their manifesto broadcast by the CBC. They got it. They wanted flights out of Canada if they gave in. They got them. They demanded the release of others of their kind who were in jail for terrorist acts. Cabinet, as disclosed in the minutes, invited the parole board to accelerate its hearings of requests from FLQ members then eligible for parole----”
Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs have been hooted at in her own country, and seemingly everywhere else, for their never-wrong-yet quality. Pierre Trudeau’s book is not like hers. It is shorter.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.