October 24, 2020

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Extraordinary measure invoked during crisis

Editorial

Fifty years ago, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau took an unprecedented step that still echoes in 2020.

It was on Oct. 16, 1970, that Mr. Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act — the first time in Canada’s history it had been used in peacetime — to quash a terrorist movement in Quebec that threatened to tear the country apart. The infamous "October Crisis" was triggered by the Front de libération du Quebec, a violent separatist group aiming to turn that province into an independent socialist state.

The FLQ had since the early 1960s engaged in a bombing campaign throughout Quebec, setting off more than 200 devices — including one that heavily damaged the Montreal Stock Exchange and injured 27 people — to further its political goals.

A newspaper headline describes the extraordinary measure taken in 1970. (Peter Bregg / The Canadian Press files)

A newspaper headline describes the extraordinary measure taken in 1970. (Peter Bregg / The Canadian Press files)

But on Oct. 5, 1970, the campaign escalated, when British diplomat James Cross was kidnapped at his Montreal home and the group demanded the release of detained or incarcerated FLQ members, and the broadcast of its manifesto on the CBC.

Five days later, Quebec’s deputy premier, Pierre Laporte, was kidnapped at gunpoint; his strangled body was found a week later in the trunk of a car near Saint-Hubert airport, outside Montreal.

The murder horrified Canadians and united the country in grief. In Quebec, sympathy among youthful sovereigntists for the FLQ began to evaporate. With the country on edge and elected officials in Quebec demanding police protection, Mr. Trudeau sent troops into the streets of Ottawa and Montreal.

On Oct. 13, CBC reporter Tim Ralfe famously asked Mr. Trudeau how far he would go to stop the FLQ. With a shrug, the prime minister uttered his now-famous reply: "Just watch me."

Three days later, at the request of Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, Mr. Trudeau’s government invoked the War Measures Act, suspending basic civil rights and liberties and allowing police officers to arrest and detain people without probable cause or a warrant. Some of the more than 450 people arrested under the act were kept behind bars for 21 days, though most were released after a few hours without charge.

Half a century later, this curtailment of civil liberties still sparks bitter arguments, and there is a body of scholarly assessment that considers it a vast overreach, but at the time it was widely supported and quickly shattered the FLQ. Within months, the uprising had collapsed and 23 members of the group were in prison, four convicted of murder. A threat to form a 100,000-strong revolutionary army vanished into thin air.

In 1988, Ottawa replaced the War Measures Act with the less extreme Emergencies Act, which is subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and forces cabinet to seek Parliament’s approval.

Soldiers took over guard duty, Oct. 16, 1970 at the Montreal home of British Trade Commissioner James Cross, one of the two political hostages whose kidnapping by the FLQ has brought on the use of the war emergency act measures in Canada. (The Canadian Press files)

Soldiers took over guard duty, Oct. 16, 1970 at the Montreal home of British Trade Commissioner James Cross, one of the two political hostages whose kidnapping by the FLQ has brought on the use of the war emergency act measures in Canada. (The Canadian Press files)

It is difficult to say precisely what lessons were learned from the crisis and the decision to invoke the WMA, but at the time the clear message to ardent separatists was that resorting to violence was morally and politically untenable.

What echoes today, however, is that Canadians in 1970, with a modicum of grumbling, were willing to endure a temporary suspension of their rights to put down an enemy that posed a deadly threat.

On the 50th anniversary of the key day in that long-ago crisis, most Canadians, despite a modicum of grumbling, are stoically following public-health orders such as the mandatory use of face masks in order to slow the spread of an invisible threat far more deadly and far-reaching than the FLQ.

Fifty years have not changed the simple fact that pragmatic Canadians are willing to endure sacrifices when lives are on the line.

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