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Trudeau’s Darkest Hour

Forty years ago, October 16, 1970, in the middle of the night the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau proclaimed the War Measures Act following two political kidnappings by the Front de liberation du Québec. Under the War Measures the Constitution and all civil liberties were suspended. 12,500 troops were sent into Quebec —7,500 in Montreal alone. (For comparison, 8000 troops were sent to Dieppe in August 1942, a major Canadian operation; and a maximum of 3000 Canadian troops have deployed to Afghanistan.) 500 men, women, and children were arrested without charges, detained incommunicado, without bail and without the right to communicate with a lawyer.  Many of those arrested were poets, writers, artists, and grass-roots organizers. The combined police forces (RCMP, the Sûreté du Québec and the Montreal City Police) entered and searched more than 10,000 homes without warrant. Two days after War Measures were proclaimed, one of the hostages, Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte, was found dead in the trunk of a car.

It is a wonder that Pierre Trudeau maintains the aura, internationally and domestically, of the consummate liberal and progressive. Time has come to reassess his record and the best place to start is his proclamation of War Measures in October 1970. For a starter, people should know that one of the first to congratulate Trudeau was Nixon’s National Security advisor, Henry Kissinger, the man who has admitted that he was already in the process of organizing a coup against Salvador Allende.

To justify War Measures, the Trudeau government claimed that Quebec was in a state of “apprehended insurrection.” In the speech on television explaining the measures, Trudeau spoke of the two kidnappings, the request for help received from the government of Quebec, and “confused minds” in Quebec. Studies have shown however that the leading police force, the RCMP, was opposed to invoking such sweeping measures as a means to free the hostages and arrest the kidnappers. In an exhaustive study based on hitherto confidential documents, security expert and political scientist Reg Whitaker pointed out that “the RCMP never asked for the War Measures Act, were not consulted as to its usefulness, and would have opposed it if they had been asked their opinion.” It has also been shown out that Prime Minister Trudeau’s Principle Secretary Marc Lalonde drafted the Quebec government’s request for War Measures and personally carried the letter to Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and oversaw its signing. The third reason, “confused minds,” does not even deserve an answer. Since when is “confusion” a reason for suspending the Constitution and all civil liberties?
War measures were devised for war, whence the name of the act introduced into Canada’s political lives in August 1914. War measures were invoked in Canada during the both World Wars. Under War Measures, the federal government can use all the powers it deems useful—and it alone is judge—to achieve its goals. The government is not required to obtain authorization from anybody. The measures entitled Trudeau in 1970 to say exactly what Louis XIV said three centuries earlier, “L’État, c’est moi.”

War Measures suspend civil liberties and judicial rights. Censorship is applied, and suspicion, distrust, and denunciations run rampant. When Montreal morning man Rod Dewar declared on October 16, 1970, “I went to bed in a democracy and awoke to find myself in a police state,” he was immediately suspended.

It becomes easy and common to arrest and detain people incommunicado simply because they have, or are suspected of having, ideas deemed to be dangerous by the government. They have no right to their day in court before a judge or to communicate with a lawyer. That was how Italians in Quebec and Ontario were interned during the Second World War. That was how the federal government settled scores with what it considered to be an ethnically closed community of Japanese on the West Coast: 22,000 Japanese Canadians were sent to camps for the entire war and more, and were never again able to reorganize as a community. The War Measures Act was also used to combat compulsory military service (conscription) in Quebec. The spectacular arrest and four-year internment without trial of Camillien Houde, the Mayor of Montreal, Canada’s largest city, was a severe warning to anybody who might be tempted to oppose conscription. The War Measures Act is based on unbridled authority, fear, and the threat of violence.
With time, truth will out. Three members of Trudeau’s cabinet have stated that the government had no proof whatsoever of an “apprehended insurrection” when the War Measures Act was pushed through cabinet.

Former Trudeau minister Eric Kierans explained in his memoirs that they made “terrible mistake” and that “their common sense went out the window.” Another minister, Don Jamieson, said in memoirs that they “did not have a compelling case” and that when they met the police just after War Measures were imposed they were upset to learn that the police had no evidence justifying those measures. Worse yet, declassified British documents revealed that in November 1970 Canada’s External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp told his British counterpart that the government knew “there was no evidence of an extensive and coordinated FLQ conspiracy,” adding that the FLQ was known to be no more than “a small band of thugs; there was no big organization; just a gang of ‘young toughs’.” Yet at that very time, the government was still applying war measures in Canada and telling the population about the “apprehended insurrection.”

When the claim of an “apprehended insurrection” began to appear flimsy, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his Principle Secretary Marc Lalonde floated a story about a revolutionary provisional government that was preparing to usurp power from the legitimately elected government of Quebec. Those who were supposedly fomenting the coup were a group of high-profile political, media, and trade union people who just happened to disagree with the way that Trudeau was governing Canada and dealing with the kidnappings. The man used as a conduit for the story was Peter C. Newman, editor-in-chief of Canada’s most widely distributed daily, The Toronto Star. Newman, however, has provided all the details of what he describes as the “meticulously concocted lie” that Trudeau and Lalonde told him. That lie continues to be repeated forty years later.

Some people were upset at the massive support Trudeau received in Canada for the War Measures. Robert Fulford remarked that, “The people of Canada believe, not in civil rights, but in civil rights when they are convenient.” And historian Ramsay Cook has noted that Canadians like “peace and they like order” but that “I don’t think this has ever been a country that had an enormous interest in civil rights.”

There were nonetheless courageous people in 1970 who opposed the War Measures and the Trudeau government, which was more determined to wipe out the peaceful, democratic Quebec independence movement than to free the hostages and capture their kidnappers. First and foremost among the courageous was the leader Canada’s New Democratic Party Tommy Douglas, father of public health care in Canada (and also grandfather of Kiefer Sutherland). The very morning the War Measures were imposed, he stood up in Parliament and condemned the state terrorism of the Trudeau government. “Right now there is no Constitution in this country, no Bill of Rights, no provincial constitutions. This government now has the power by Order in Council to do anything it wants—to intern any citizen, to deport any citizen, to arrest any person or to declare any organization subversive or illegal. These are tremendous powers.” Then on November 4, 1970 he further explained his party’s position:

“I have no hesitation in saying that those of us who voted against that motion did so for two reasons: first, because we have not been given any evidence that there was a state of apprehended insurrection in this country and, second, because we could not approve the regulations enacted under the War Measures Act because they deprive Canadian citizens so extensively of basic civil liberties … as a member of Parliament standing in my place I have no right to restrict the liberties of 21 million Canadians without adequate proof.”

Tommy Douglas paid the price for his courage. He was attacked in Parliament and polls showed that his party lost a third of its support within days or hours of his speech. In hindsight, it was probably his finest hour.
And it was definitely Trudeau’s darkest hour!

GUY BOUTHILLIER and Édouard Cloutier have just published an anthology entitled Trudeau’s Darkest Hour, War Measures in Time of Peace October 1970 (Baraka Books). GUY BOUTHILLIER and Édouard Cloutier are honorary political science professors at the Université de Montréal.

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