Pierre Trudeau War Measures Act Essay Examples

“Every government in this country is well aware of the existence of deep and important social problems…there is available everywhere in Canada an effective mechanism to change governments by peaceful means.”

Those were Pierre Trudeau’s words on October 16, 1970 in a televised statement justifying using the War Measures Act (later the Emergencies Act, 1988), supposedly to confront members of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ).

Trudeau hypocrisy
Trudeau, as a student years earlier, wrote a “Letter from London” chastising the use of the War Measures Act by the MacKenzie King government, which acted “outside the bounds of Common Law and in violation of justice, without due process, adequate defense, known punishment, nor with judgement independent of the executive branch.” In a display of liberal hypocrisy that would rival today’s politicians, Trudeau’s words eloquently describe his own government’s actions in October 1970.

Within days of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapping British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laport, military were patrolling the streets and habeas corpus suspended, permitting the arbitrary arrest and detainment of anyone suspected of FLQ ties.

While Trudeau is falsely praised as a champion of charter rights, his defence of the War Measures Act provides a different story: “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 this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a soldier’s helmet... 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.” A reporter asked, “At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?” His infamous answer: “Well, just watch me.”

Civil liberties and national liberation
While the Act was in effect, 465 people were arrested and hundreds jailed without charge. Only two were actually convicted of FLQ ties and none provided information leading to the kidnappers.

Indeed, many had nothing to do with the FLQ. A 2010 Radio Canada investigation revealed Quebec police had “at most 60 names” of FLQ sympathizers, so the RCMP (under political pressure to bolster numbers to justify such extreme measures) added hundreds to the list, likely from their PROFUNC arrest list of over 60,000 suspected communists and sympathizers .   

As then NDP leader Tommy Douglas remarked, they were “using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.” But perhaps such state action against civilians is not intended to simply uphold “rule of law” or “public safety,” but for control.

Trudeau’s use of the War Measure Act had little to do with capturing the kidnappers. Since 1962, when the FLQ were deemed a possible terrorist threat by the RCMP, they and other separatist movements were seen through the lens of Cold War anticommunism, in the same vein as “national liberation struggles” .

The use of the War Measures Act in 1970 (which had overwhelming approval in English Canada) can perhaps be seen in the context of McCarthyesque ideological hysteria against those deemed an ideological threat, in Quebec and beyond. As Montreal Gazette columnist Don MacPherson wrote, “Many Quebecers remain convinced…the Trudeau government applied the War Measures Act not only to deal with the crisis…but as a psychological ploy to halt the rise of the Quebec nationalist movement.” 

State repression
It is commonly said the October Crisis is unique in that the War Measures Act was used in a time of peace. This, however, misses the purpose and function of such extra-constitutional executive powers in Canada and other western democracies: namely, to ensure conformity when dissent and debate is most dangerous to state power, albeit most necessary.

The peacetime distinction of the October Crisis neglects the idea of perpetual war, whereby imperialist states need an enemy, internal or external, to legitimize their own use (or threat) of force.

To understand this function, we can look to when the War Measures Act, 1914 was first passed in the imperialist jingoism of World War I. In Canada, the War Measures Act was used to declare foreigners “enemy aliens,” to intern over 8,600 mostly Ukrainians, and make it illegal to hold meetings, or publish in a foreign language.

The War Measures Act would later be used during and after WWII—against communists and socialists; to intern Japanese Canadians; to control wartime strikes and lockouts; to enforce conscription; and censor the wartime press.

Civil liberties today
Much has changed since, and these events are seen as unfortunate aspects of history. However, the precedent is perhaps more relevant than ever. We are in a new paradigm, where the implications of information and surveillance technology on civil liberties may not even be comprehended.

For example, the NSA revelations (and Canada’s response) are truly frightening in a context where those in power have routinely employed extreme measures to collect dossiers on, infiltrate, and detain anyone deemed a threat to established power.

Events surrounding the Toronto G20 showed how today, executive branches in Canada infiltrate and entrap those exercising their democratic and constitutional rights. Leaked information, such as that from Stratfor shows how corporations now employ surveillance technology and state informants to monitor and silence critics.

Events like the October Crisis, and other temporary suspensions of civil liberties by the state, are now overshadowed by ongoing and routine violations of constitutional rights that transcend national boundaries. The fight for civil liberties continues.

The next two essays were written to mark anniversaries — the tenth anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970, and the sixtieth anniversary of Canada’s imprisoning eight communists in 1931. In both cases, men and women were jailed not because of anything they’d done, only because of their political beliefs.

“There are very few times in the history of any country when all persons must take a stand on critical issues. This is one of those times; this is one of those issues.” — Pierre Trudeau, October 16, 1970

he War Measures Act, which Pierre Trudeau invoked ten years ago this month, outlawed the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). The police and armed forces needed only suspect FLQ membership to arrest anyone, anywhere in Canada. Suspects could be held for twenty-one days without being charged, and for ninety days without a trial date being set. When a trial finally was scheduled, normal legal processes were to be reversed; suspects were guilty until proven innocent. Under the War Measures Act, hundreds were thrown in jail. Only two were convicted of FLQ membership. And none of those arrested provided police with information leading to the kidnappers of James Cross and Pierre Laporte.

Canadian “deference to authority,” as Edgar Z. Friedenberg describes it, was never more apparent than in our response to being the first western democracy to suspend civil liberties in peacetime. Four days after Trudeau brought in the WMA, a Gallup Poll revealed that eighty-eight per cent of us either approved of what the government had done or thought it should have gone farther. Only four per cent of those polled were opposed.

The media sometimes refer to themselves as the Fourth Estate. But Canada’s media seem uncertain about what the term means and implies. (In a speech to the British parliament, Edmund Burke listed the various estates of the realm that held control of the government — the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons. But then, pointing to the press gallery, Burke added, “And yonder sits the Fourth Estate, more important than them all.”)

Canada’s media were almost unanimous in accepting the imposition of the WMA. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald, which had earlier asked for martial law (“a military court does not have to concern itself with the niceties and the mores and morals of capital punishment, or the channels or frustrations of criminal law”), was delighted. The Vancouver Sun declared: “At last, government has armed itself to fight fire with fire and match ruthlessness with ruthlessness.”

The two newspapers one might have expected most from lest us down. The Toronto Globe and Mail’s masthead daily proclaims in the words of Burke’s contemporary, Junius, that “The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.” On the subject of the WMA the Globe was at first positively mealy-mouthed: “Only if we can believe that the Government has evidence that the FLQ is strong enough and sufficiently armed to escalate the violence that it has spawned for seven years now, only if we can believe that it is virulent enough to infect other areas of society, only then can the Government’s assumption of incredible powers be tolerated.” It wasn’t until later that the Globe began to ask tough questions.

Claude Ryan of Le Devoir initially opposed the use of the act. Its invocation simply confirmed “that Ottawa is the seat of real national government and that Quebec is after all only a rather more troublesome province than the others.” But the murder of Laporte made him reassess his position. The War Measures Act was excessive, he still felt, but perhaps exceptional measures were necessary.

Most editorials said the government wouldn’t have acted as it had without good reason. After all, as The Montreal Star put it, wasn’t Pierre Trudeau himself a civil libertarian? The Edmonton Journal accepted the situation because “we do not have the information available to the Government.” The Kingston Whig-Standard told its readers that the government is “obviously in possession of alarming information.” Le Soleil of Quebec City concluded that “if the authorities chose to resort to such extreme measures it is because they had good reasons.”

The government encouraged the view that it knew things that we, as mere citizens, couldn’t know. John Turner, then minister of justice, told the House of Commons on October 16: “It is my hope that some day the full details of the intelligence upon which the government acted can be made public, because until that day comes the people of Canada will not be able fully to appraise the course of action which has been taken by the government.” (That day still hasn’t come.) Some other cabinet members told Peter C. Newman of the Toronto Star that the real reason the WMA had been invoked was to prevent a coup d’état. The Star ran the story, unsigned, on page one. Other reporters had the story confirmed by their own sources and it was given wide circulation. Trudeau then accused the press and the opposition of spreading false rumours.

The only newspaper in Canada I know of that took an unequivocal editorial stand against the WMA was the Brandon Sun: “Prime Minister Trudeau has struck a great blow for the FLQ. Not at them. No single action can do more to bring people over to the side of violent separatism than the invoking by the Prime Minister of the War Measures Act....”

The October Crisis, continued > 

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