The October Crisis – War Measures Act

The date was October 17, 1970 and I remember my father fiddling with the battery powered radio trying to find any channel in our camp – a group of us were fishing in a remote area of northern Ontario Canada. Listening through the static of an AM station we could barely distinguish the news; the body of Pierre Laporte had been found in the trunk of a car and the joys of the day faded as our cabin filled with disbelief and a solemn hush.

Pierre Laporte.jpg
Pierre Laporte – Member of the National Assembly of Quebec

The very day before, Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister of the time, with the support of both the Mayor of Montreal and the Premier of Quebec had invoked the War Measures Act – we were amid the October Crisis.

Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Trudeau (1919 – 2000) at Claridge’s hotel, London, 4th January 1969. (Photo by Watson/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mr. Laporte was the Deputy Premier of Quebec. He along with James Cross, a British Diplomat, had been kidnapped by an extremist group, a small radical faction within the Quebec Sovereignty movement known as Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). Since the early 1960’s the FLQ had been responsible for numerous bombings, robberies and violent acts and until that shocking day the FLQ had the support of many Quebecers.

The War Measures Act was a Federal Law established in 1914 giving extensive powers to the Canadian government (Cabinet) to maintain security during times of war or civil emergency. Up until 1970 the Act had only been utilized during the first and second world wars, which led to numerous accounts of both Civil Rights and Civil Liberties abuses by the then governments. When invoked it suspends Civil Liberties and in 1970 the associated Regulations made it illegal to belong to the FLQ.

October 1970 Girl and Soldier – The October Crisis
Library and Archives Canada

With the Act invoked and the Canadian Army occupying most of Montreal, Police searched premises without warrant and arrested almost 500 people without charges, legal counsel or opportunity for bail.

Eventually all but 62 people were released, the negotiation and safe release of James Cross was realized and a few remaining FLQ members were granted safe passage to Cuba only to return years later to face trial – the crisis and days of the FLQ were over.

It is reported that at the time of the Crisis, the vast majority of Canadians supported the governments reaction and use of the Act however I doubt this included Quebecers as it was only after the discovery of Mr. Laporte’s body that the FLQ fell completely out of favor. Over time many have condemned it’s use and have sited Prime Minister Trudeau’s response to the Crisis as unwarranted, excessive and a flagrant abuse of Civil Liberties.

Mr. Trudeau utilized extreme methods during extreme circumstance and acted with a political will rarely seen since – right or wrong, and much different from governments of today, they acted, and acted using the best means they felt were available – for that I applaud Mr. Trudeau.

Everything is about balance and while Rights and as in this discussion, Civil Liberties are the fundamentals and cornerstone of Canadian society, to what extent should Liberties protect the Rights of people who are infringing upon the Rights and more importantly the safety of others? I just do not believe this is the will of Canadians. Over time, this imbalance has trickled down to our police forces making services today a reactionary function rather than preventive. Put plainly, do I want to catch the killer or to prevent the murder?

As in Mr. Trudeau’s case, I want today’s government to act rather than spew rhetoric. I want policing to include more Ride Checks to stop impaired driving, to have the ability to question and take names of people in suspicious circumstance, why not?, and I do not understand why members of known criminal organizations and gangs cannot be targeted and searched.

Does this create the potential for abuse and Civil Liberties violations? For certain, but why not focus on developing regulations and harsh consequences to prevent abuses rather than backing away from society’s problems – there is a fine line to be walked and some will say a slippery slope.

Handcuffed Detainee

In 1988 the War Measures Act was abolished and replaced by the Emergencies Act. The key difference is that the Cabinet cannot declare an Emergency without the approval of Parliament and any suspension of Civil Liberties is subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which basically means that Civil Liberties are guaranteed but these can be limited if the government can show reasonable grounds.

So government still has a legal ability to act in emergency situations as before.

What about today’s gun problem? If this is not an Emergency, at what point does it become one. To date, government has avoided the issue, half heartedly pointing to tougher gun laws when everyone knows the problem is illegal guns, illegally traded and transported by criminal organizations.

This problem will get worse until government leaders are willing to act – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau certainly isn’t Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Hôtel du Parlement du Québec, Ville de Québec
Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

One last thought about the October Crisis. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s actions were not in response to a separatist movement but in response to an escalation in violence perpetrated by an extremist faction. I love Quebec and would never want the people of Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada. But if that day should come as a result of Quebecers voting in a majority, I hope to have a terrific neighbor! These are the Rights that Canadians have lived and died for.

4 thoughts on “The October Crisis – War Measures Act

    1. Thanks for the comment MIke! In 1982 one of Pierre Trudeau’s greatest accomplishments was patriating Canada’s Constitution – transferring the highest law, the British North America Act, from the British Parliament to Canada’s federal and provincial legislatures.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Lillie, what an interesting and thoughtful analysis. I barely remember all this—I was in college at the time, or just graduated, and my attention wasn’t on anything but Vietnam. These times of upheaval seem to occur in cycles, and it fascinates me that things can go bad at the same time in different countries amid very different situations (e.g., May 1968). All the questions you ask are valid ones.

    Liked by 2 people

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