- The October Crisis, 1970: An Insider's View
On 16 October 1970 at 4:00 a.m., the Trudeau Cabinet passed the War Measures Act and Regulations (WMA) which immediately sent the Canadian army into Montreal. The army summarily dragged 497 people out of their beds and into jail. Of these, 435 were released within two days, while 62 were charged and 32 held without bail. There was near-unanimous public support for these drastic measures at the time. But this support has now given way to many second thoughts and to more than a few mea culpas.
William Tetley has written a valuable account of this bizarre chapter in our history. He has drawn on new documentary sources, journalistic reports, and his own political conversations and diaries. (He was a minister in the Bourassa Cabinet at the time.) Tetley's is the most complete record we have of this turbulent period, and it is meticulously researched, artfully written, and thoroughly polemical.
His purpose is stated clearly: he aims to counter 'the whole industry of revisionist history that has sprung up since 1970' (your reviewer is among the revisionists). 'My analysis is partisan,' Tetley tells us. Those who held dissenting views, he claims, supported the terrorists. (Your reviewer is not among them.)
Tetley justifies the WMA mainly, but not exclusively, by the murder of Minister Pierre Laporte, who was strangled by the Front de liberation du Québec (FLQ). The death of Pierre Laporte was indeed a tragic event. But a major conundrum remains to be addressed: why did Prime Minister Trudeau, this country's leading civil libertarian at the time, throw his own lifelong credo to the winds to send in the army and rouse hundreds people out of their beds in the middle of the night? Why did this action in turn seem so self-evident, indeed axiomatic at the time? The premier of Ontario, John Robarts, for example, issued a call for 'a general war' against the FLQ. And some eighty-seven per cent of the Canadian population agreed.
Thirty-seven years later it may be time for us all (even the dissenters) to revisit that period. Opinion has shifted and the 'self-evident' has become less so. Tetley's detailed account helps.
Stepping back from those impassioned days, a few things come to the fore. In politics as in law, it is well understood that raison d'état, a threat to the life of the state, trumps every other consideration. But how cogent was the actual threat to the state in this case?
To put things in perspective, there were, during those same years of upheaval, thousands of incidents in the United States around the [End Page 409] Vietnam War. Bombs were exploded, political murders were committed, undercover radical groups sprang up, and student riots were ubiquitous. But never during this time did the Americans invoke the national equivalent of aWar Measures Act. It took the events of 9/11 some thirty years later for the Americans to launch their lesser version called 'Homeland Security' and their more egregious version – Guantanamo Bay.
Did we in Canada make too much of what we were facing – supposedly an 'apprehended insurrection'? On this point it seems to me, Tetley's apologia flounders badly. The WMA, he tells us, 'wisely did not require an insurrection in order to act, but only an apprehended insurrection' (italics in the original). And what does apprehended mean in this instance? The term eludes definition, and its meaning, Tetley tells us, is analogous to some aspect of international maritime law. The legal fog is total.
In other words, there need not be an actual insurrection to have an apprehended insurrection. And apprehended may mean . . . ? We're really not quite sure but it is a sufficient basis to proclaim the WMA.
Semantics aside, there remains the enigma of the actual events. It is the crisis that reveals the normal. Our commitment to one of the underlying premises of our political culture – 'peace, order and good government' – outweighed by far our commitment to...