The October Crisis Remembered: Nous pardonnerons ou oublierons

We will never forgive or forget.  Nor should we.

Pierre Trudeau was part of the liberal government that nationalized health care in Canada in 1966.  As justice minister, he decriminalized homosexuality in 1969. (“There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”)  His government started Petro-Canada in 1975 and the National Energy Program in 1980 which kept oil and energy prices affordable for Canadians (especially important in long, cold winters).  He helped formalize the Canadian constitution and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

So what?

Any and all good he may have otherwise done was nullified by his crimes against Canadian people during the October Crisis in 1970.  Trudeau’s crimes went unpunished and he was never held accountable for thirty years until his death in September 2000.  We wouldn’t forgive a man who was arrested beating his wife even if he spent a life (before and after) doing charity work.  Why should Trudeau get a pass?

A quick recap: The FLQ kidnapped British trade commission James Cross on Monday, October 5, 1970.  Five days later, on Saturday, October 10, another FLQ cell kidnapped Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte.  On October 12, the military were on the street in Ottawa, intimidating citizens.

On October 13, Trudeau and federal parliament held a secret session where the War Measures Act was invoked on October 16.  The War Measures Act allowed the government to do three things without challenge:

  • permit the arrest and search of people without a warrant
  • detain citizens for up to 21 days without a reason
  • suspend the Canadian Declaration of Rights and Freedoms

More below the fold.

On October 16, Trudeau appeared on national television to “explain” and rationalize his actions.

“Violent and fanatical men are attempting to destroy the unity and the freedom of Canada.” That’s rich, coming from someone who violated the rights of millions to catch a few dozen criminals.

“Canadians have always assumed that it could not appen here, and we are doubly shocked that it has. Our assumption may have been naive, but it was understandable.”  Growing up learning about the October crisis, the US’s panicked response and overreaction to September 11, 2001 and actions afterward was predictable and déjà vu.  Bush repeated each one of Trudeau’s mistakes and crimes, every overstepping of authority and stomping on individual rights and freedoms.

The CBC’s Tim Ralfe and CJON-TV’s Peter Reilly did a confrontational interview of Trudeau on October 13, 1970.  His was the same arrogance and disregard for rights and procedure that Bush displayed thirty one years later, referred to as the “just watch me” speech:

Ralfe/Reilly: I still go back to the choice that you have to make in the kind of society that you live in.

Trudeau: Yes, well there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of –

Ralfe/Reilly: At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?

Trudeau: Well, just watch me.

Ralfe/Reilly: At reducing civil liberties? To what extent?

Trudeau: To what extent?

Ralfe/Reilly: Well, if you extend this and you say, ok, you’re going to do anything to protect them, does this include wire-tapping, reducing other civil liberties in some way?

Trudeau: Yes, I think the society must take every means at its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in this country and I think that goes to any distance. So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representative of the people I think that power must be stopped and I think it’s only, I repeat, weak-kneed bleeding hearts who are afraid to take these measures.

We “just watched him” alright as 497 people were arrested and terrorized. . .I mean, “interrogated” by the RCMP.  Quoting verbatim from the link in this paragraph, emphases mine:

Everyone who was arrested under the War Measures Act was denied due process. Habeas corpus (an individual’s ancient right to have a judge confirm that he or she has been lawfully detained) was suspended. The Crown could hold suspects for seven days before charging them with a crime. In addition, before the seven days expired, the attorney general could order that the accused be detained for up to twenty-one days. Prisoners were not permitted to consult legal counsel, and many were held incommunicado. Membership in the FLQ became a criminal offence. In essence, criminal guilt was determined, not in a court of law, but through executive decree. Most importantly, the crime was retroactive. Under the terms of the Public Order Regulations, a person who had attended a single FLQ meeting in the early 1960s was criminally liable.

The use of the emergency powers resulted in extensive human rights abuses. Media censorship was rampant, especially for student newspapers. Several prominent media personalities were arrested and interrogated, including CKAC radiohost Louis Fournier, Journal de Montréal photographer Yves Fabre, and journalist Paul Chantraine. Radio-Canada vice-president E.S. Hallman cautioned his reporters about commenting on the crisis. Michel Bourdon was suspended and later fired from Radio-Canada for insubordination, and three other newsmen were dismissed from Radio-Canada’s news service for lack of objectivity. One scholar has suggested that “the most troubling aspect of the October Crisis was the pressure and the repeated attempts of intimidation [of the media] from the Canadian Prime Minister’s colleagues.”

It’s well documented that the US tortured detainees kidnapped from Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s unproven if the RCMP tortured those arrested in 1970.  Given the century old history of human rights abuses by the RCMP, it’s almost a certainty.

This was not a short term event.  This suspension of rights and freedoms lasted seven months.  Any statement that could be interpreted as “pro FLQ” could lead to arrest.  This is on par with ludicrous “blasphemy” charges you hear from Pakistan or Afghanistan.

At the time, 87% of the panicked public supported the government’s actions (5% opposed), but those were people not directly affected by it.  The innocents whose rights had been violated and falsely accused of crimes felt differently.

Despite hundreds of arrests, wire taps and suspensions of rights, only eighteen individuals were ever charged with either kidnapping or other activities, and several of them chose exile in Cuba.  The only difference to post-2001 US is that the government’s reign of terror actually ended on April 30, 1971.

“One had the impression that, but for a few voices crying in the wilderness, all critical reflection had practically ceased in English Canada.”

– Claude Ryan, Le Devoir, 1 February 1971

This was a textbook example of using a hammer to squash a fly.  How very much like the US’s “war on terror”.

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Trudeau wasn’t the only one never held accountable for his actions.  Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau was a loathsome individual.  He ruled Montreal for decades (much like Maurice Duplessis ruled Quebec for 18 years) treating it as his personal fiefdom, constantly seeking bread and circuses.  In the 1960s when there was a police strike in the city, his focus was landing a Major League Baseball team, what became the Montreal Expos.

Drapeau used the October crisis for his personal benefit.  During the civic election of 1970, he falsely asserted that members of the opposition  Front d’action politique (FRAP) party were members and supporters of the FLQ.  This was ludicrously false, but in a time of unthinking panic, facts were extraneous.  The leaders and members of the opposition were arrested, and Drapeau’s Civic Party won all the seats.  He received 92% of the vote in an uncontested election.

In May 1970, Montreal “won” (read: lost) the bid for the 1976 olympics, one of Drapeau’s circuses.  He promised an “affordable” olympics in Montreal at C$310 million, but in the end it cost $1.3 billion. (Keep in mind that from 1971 to 1976, the Canadian dollar was usually worth more than the US dollar.)  Would another mayor have cancelled the games or done a better job of preventing waste and overruns?

Olympic stadium alone was supposed to cost $250 million but instead cost C$1.4 billion.  The debt on the stadium wasn’t paid off until 2006.  As of 2020, the roof STILL isn’t finished.  It was officially nicknamed “the Big O”, but referred to by everyone as “the big owe”.  His ego cost the city at least $2 billion taxpayer dollars that could have been better spent.


    • says

      Ma français est terrible. I’m using google translate for a lot of it.

      Not studying when I had free lessons in elementary and high school is the second biggest regret of my life. Back then I had the common ignorant western Canadian attitude, “They can speak English!” 9_9

  1. jrkrideau says

    Very interesting. But , of course, you were not there. I was.

    I do not think anyone understood what the War Measures Act entailed. But no one really objected to it.

    It clearly violated the rights of any number of Quebecois politicians but to be honest, we were much more worried about the hostages.

    I still think Trudeau was correct. He squashed any terrorism attack in Canada for the next 40 years.

    • says

      I’m not all knowing, I can only go by what I learnt in school, books I’ve read and the sources I’m quoting. If I’m wrong, please point out and I’ll amend it.

      I’m writing these partly to raise awareness of what happened since a lot of people don’t know, especially outside Canada. It’s also to make people see parallels to how the US responded after 2001.