The October Crisis: Deference to Authority

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

THE 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….”

A few brave columnists shared that view. Alexander Ross, writing in The Financial Post, said “The police action now going on in Quebec makes anything Duplessis ever dared attempt look like bleeding-heart liberalism. If Trudeau can’t produce a really hairy conspiracy… to justify his action, it could have the effect… of making René Lévesque look more credible than ever.” James Eayrs, a Toronto Star columnist, reminded us that the WMA had been brutally employed once before in our history, to deprive Canada’s Japanese citizens of their liberties.

Most columnists, however, sounded much more like Charles Lynch of Southam News, who described Trudeau as an inspiration, “a new kind of hero.” The Globe and Mail’s Bruce West argued that “Those who have taken to the streets and the public squares with their bullhorns to attack the courageous stand of the Canadian Government in this grave hour should be plainly informed that the vast majority of our people are no longer in a mood to indulge in long and academic arguments about possible threats to our civil liberties.” West’s comments appeared on the same page of the Globe on which you will find a photograph; if you look hard enough, you’ll see my own earnest face peering out from a crowd of a few hundred demonstrators gathered in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square to protest the government’s action. (I’m just to the right of the bullhorn). If I look puzzled, it’s because the men and women around me are chanting, “Power to the people,” and I’m wondering if they’re aware of what they’re saying. We were being protected from an angry and much larger crowd that wanted to have at us by a circle of police. The papers that morning reported that 90% of Canadians approved of the imposition of the WMA.

Gérard Pelletier, secretary of state in 1970, phoned several important media figures, including George Davidson, then president of the CBC. He later said he called Davidson as an “individual” rather than as the minister to whom Davidson was responsible. Davidson, on the other hand, was sure Pelletier was acting as an official government spokesman. But he insisted that Pelletier’s call hadn’t influenced him. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that after their conversation the CBC began censoring itself in what became the most shameful episode in its history.

On October 15, a day before the WMA was brought in, Peter Trueman, then executive producer of CBC national news, was called into his superior’s office. In his book Smoke & Mirrors, Trueman recalls: “We were to avoid commentary and speculation of all kinds. We were not to use man-on-the-street interviews or shoot film of any public demonstration. We were to air no panel discussions on the October Crisis and were to avoid reporting speculation, particularly speculation about what the government was doing.”

The irony is that the CBC couldn’t even get its censorship act together. The night Pierre Laporte’s body was found, the CBC continued to broadcast the one thing it should have kept quiet about. It was still announcing that the body of James Cross had also been found, long after the news had been officially denied.

In October, 1975, CBC-TV presented a fascinating two-and-a-half hour drama-documentary, The October Crisis, that made up at least in part for the network’s shameful conduct five years earlier. It provided some important new pieces of information. The programme, for instance, included an interview with Eric Kierans, who was a cabinet minister in October, 1970. “It was a clear question of overkill,” he said. Robert Stanfield, leader of the opposition in 1970, told the CBC he personally hadn’t approved of the use of the WMA. His party voted for it because of the Gallup Poll’s figures. “I compromised,” he explained sadly. Robert Bourassa said he hadn’t believed Québec was facing an apprehended insurrection. He’d had to use those words to justify bringing in the WMA.

There was some media reaction to the programme. Peter Trueman apologized publicly not only for going along with CBC censorship but also for criticizing reporter Tim Ralfe, who had angrily confronted Trudeau. “I should have given Ralfe a medal,” he said. A few newspapers that had supported the government in the first place made it clear they now felt differently. The Montreal Gazette, for example, declared, “The use of the War Measures Act to stem the so-called apprehended insurrection in October 1970, was an unjustified act of mass intimidation not supported by the facts available at the time, facts that were manipulated by our highest political leaders to suit their own purposes.”

But for the most part, the media greeted The October Crisis with a yawn. There was no great cry of outrage that Trudeau had refused to be interviewed. Or that following the programme, Mitchell Sharp had said we’d probably have to wait until the year 2000 to get details of the events leading up to the WMA. (Cabinet minutes aren’t made public for thirty years.) We had vicariously experienced Watergate and the WMA seemed small potatoes by comparison.

Somehow it seems to me that what Trudeau did to us ten years ago is worse than what Nixon did to the U.S. What Nixon did hurt himself and his cronies far more than it hurt anyone else. As a result of Watergate, the American Fourth Estate is now, if anything, too cocky, too vigilant in guarding against government abuse. There’s no certainty that the Canadian media learned anything from 1970.

I would guess is that Canada’s Fourth Estate will respond as timidly the next time as it did the last. “On issues of this sort,” James Eayrs writes, “a citizen takes his stand not by a protracted process of reasoned calculation, but rather by instantaneous and instinctive commitment to values he holds because of all that life has made him. Response comes first, then rationale.” The sad fact is that we Canadians aren’t knee-jerk civil libertarians. If anything, we’re knee-jerk authoritarians. Our media merely reflect and reinforce that attitude.

— Saturday Night, October 1980

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