A fresh take on Trudeau’s act

The October crisis

Chuck Mitchell/CP

In October 1970, Terry Mosher, the wonderful Montreal cartoonist known as Aislin, published a cartoon in Maclean’s. The subject was the FLQ kidnapping crisis and Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act. Terry drew Jean Marchand, Trudeau’s justice minister, smoking a pipe and announcing, “Nous avons maintenant des listes de suspects!” We now have lists of suspects. Marchand is clutching the telephone directories for Montreal, Quebec City, Hull and Sherbrooke.

Ha! I don’t need to explain the joke, but what the heck: Aislin was saying the arrests under the War Measures Act were arbitrary and sweeping. He published his critique in one of the country’s largest magazines. And no ill seems to have come to him for his cheek.

This meditation is occasioned by the arrival on my desk of Trudeau’s Darkest Hour: War Measures in Time of Peace, October 1970, a fascinating anthology edited by Guy Bouthillier and Édouard Cloutier. The two men are long-time Université de Montréal profs. Bouthillier ran Quebec’s nationalist St. Jean Baptiste Society from 1997 to 2003, although the jacket bio doesn’t mention that. The book is published by Baraka Books, whose president is Robin Philpot, a likeable U.S.-born (UPDATE: Ontario-born, actually — pw) anglophone convert to Quebec separatism.

This month is the 40th anniversary of the October Crisis, when FLQ terrorists kidnapped British trade minister James Cross and Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte. Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act to relax restrictions on police action. Almost 500 people were arrested. Laporte was strangled to death by his FLQ captors.

Bouthillier and his associates have chosen to mark the anniversary of that crisis by publishing English-language critiques of Trudeau’s actions. “Many English Canadians spoke up,” they write. By pointing that out, “we can cast some doubt on and perhaps even overcome the notion that ‘they’ stood united against Quebec.”

What follows will surprise people who’ve paid only vague attention to the events of that October. There are excerpts from two Trudeau cabinet ministers’ memoirs. Don Jamieson writes that, “In concrete terms, we did not have a compelling case to put forward” for invoking the act. Eric Kierans recalls speaking in favour of the act at cabinet and noting the look of relief on Trudeau’s face. Kierans was left wishing he had “said what I ought to have said,” which was what Jamieson thought.

There is a tremendously entertaining excerpt from our colleague Peter C. Newman’s 2004 memoir. Days before invoking the act, Trudeau calls Newman, who was editing the Toronto Star. These kidnappings, the prime minister tells the scribe, are part of a plot to replace the legitimate Quebec government with an insurrectionist provisional government. Newman asks: where’s your evidence? Trudeau replies: “I acted on information I’ve been accumulating since I was three years old.” Then he hangs up.

Newman cites an account, classified at the time, of a meeting between Trudeau and his RCMP commissioner William Higgitt. Trudeau was offering powers his top cop didn’t want. “The Commissioner said he saw no necessary action being prevented by existing laws. He said that a broad sweep . . . was not likely to lead to the abductors and that he could therefore not recommend the use of special powers.” Trudeau didn’t care.

Bouthillier and Cloutier survey all this and, in a concluding chapter, write: “The authors in this anthology do not mince their words in qualifying that denial of justice: ‘authoritarian,’ ‘totalitarian,’ ‘dictatorial’ and even ‘fascist,’ with all that those words bring to mind. Hugh Segal described it as ‘something right out of Mein Kampf. ’ Had the struggles of peoples throughout the centuries to conquer democratic rights and freedoms been of no avail?”

I think I can answer that. I think the struggles of people throughout the centuries to conquer democratic rights and freedoms were in better shape in Canada in October 1970 than in a lot of places. Dented, to be sure; manhandled, jostled, besmirched, but still of some avail. My evidence is that cartoon by Aislin, which Bouthillier and Cloutier print in their book. The regime that actually came right out of Mein Kampf would not have been so tolerant of open dissent. There seems to have been much of it around.

Historian Jack Granatstein reports a University of Toronto crowd shouting him down for criticizing Trudeau. But he had company. A critical pamphlet published at the height of the crisis was signed by June Callwood, Dalton Camp, Ramsay Cook, George Grant, Flora MacDonald, Roy McMurtry, Lloyd Axworthy and dozens of others. A petition against the War Measures Act was signed by Barbara Frum, Northrop Frye, Robert Fulford, Anton Kuerti and a dozen others.

Taken all in all, Bouthillier and Cloutier’s book is eloquent about Trudeau’s excesses, and more eloquent than they may have wanted about the limits to his villainy. And it’s a curiously federalist book: leading Quebec sovereignists conscripting English Canadians into their fight against the memory of a fellow Quebecer. It’s a funny country.

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