Sunday, October 11, 2015

Trudeau’s Hero Myth: The October Crisis

Forty-five years ago, on October 16, 1970, in the middle of the night the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau proclaimed the War Measures Act following two political kidnappings by the Front de liberation du Québec. Under the War Measures Act the Constitution and all civil liberties were suspended. 12,500 troops were sent into Quebec —7,500 in Montreal alone (For comparison, 8000 troops were sent to Dieppe in August 1942, a major Canadian operation; and a no more than 3000 Canadian troops have ever been deployed to Afghanistan.) Nearly 500 men, women, and children were arrested without charges, detained incommunicado, without bail and without the right to communicate with a lawyer.  Many of those arrested were poets, writers, artists, and grass-roots organizers. The combined police forces (RCMP, the Sûreté du Québec and the Montreal Police) entered and searched more than 10,000 homes without warrant. Two days after War Measures were proclaimed, one of the hostages, Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte, was found dead in the trunk of a car.

It is a wonder that Pierre Trudeau maintains the aura, internationally and domestically, of the consummate liberal and progressive. Time has come to reassess his record and the best place to start is his proclamation of War Measures in October 1970. For a starter, people should know that one of the first to congratulate Trudeau was Nixon’s National Security adviser, Henry Kissinger, the man who has admitted that he was already in the process of organizing a coup against Salvador Allende.

To justify the War Measures, the Trudeau government claimed that Quebec was in a state of “apprehended insurrection.” In the speech on television explaining the measures, Trudeau spoke of the two kidnappings, the request for help received from the government of Quebec, and “confused minds” in Quebec. However, the leading police force at the time, the RCMP, was opposed to invoking such sweeping measures as a means to free the hostages and arrest the kidnappers. In an exhaustive study based on hitherto confidential documents, security expert and political scientist Reg Whitaker pointed out that “the RCMP never asked for the War Measures Act, were not consulted as to its usefulness, and would have opposed it if they had been asked their opinion.” It has also been shown that Prime Minister Trudeau’s Principle Secretary Marc Lalonde drafted the Quebec government’s request for War Measures and personally carried the letter to Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and oversaw its signing. The third reason, “confused minds,” does not even deserve an answer. Since when is “confusion” a reason for suspending the Constitution and all civil liberties?

War measures were devised for war, hence the name of the act introduced into Canada’s political life in August 1914. War measures were invoked in Canada during both World Wars. Under the War Measures, the federal government can use all the powers it deems useful—and it alone is judge—to achieve its goals. The government is not required to obtain authorization from anybody. The measures entitled Trudeau in 1970 to say exactly what Louis XIV said three centuries earlier, “L’État, c’est moi.”

The War Measures suspend civil liberties and judicial rights. Censorship is applied, and suspicion, distrust, and denunciations run rampant. When Montreal morning man Rod Dewar declared on October 16, 1970, “I went to bed in a democracy and awoke to find myself in a police state,” he was immediately suspended.

It becomes easy and common to arrest and detain people incommunicado simply because they have, or are suspected of having, ideas deemed to be dangerous by the government. They have no right to their day in court before a judge or to communicate with a lawyer. That was how Italians in Quebec and Ontario were interned during the Second World War. That was how the federal government settled scores with what it considered to be an ethnically closed community of Japanese on the West Coast: 22,000 Japanese Canadians were sent to camps for the entire war and more, and were never again able to reorganize as a community. The War Measures Act was also used to combat opposition to compulsory military service (conscription) in Quebec. The spectacular arrest and four-year internment without trial of Camillien Houde, the Mayor of Montreal, Canada’s largest city at that time, was a severe warning to anybody who might be tempted to oppose conscription. The War Measures Act is based on unbridled authority, fear, and the threat of violence.

With time, truth will out

Three members of Trudeau’s cabinet have stated that the government had no proof whatsoever of an “apprehended insurrection” when the War Measures Act was pushed through cabinet.

Former Trudeau minister Eric Kierans explained in his memoirs that they made a “terrible mistake” and that “their common sense went out the window.” Another minister, Don Jamieson, said in memoirs that they “did not have a compelling case” and that when they met the police just after War Measures were imposed, they were upset to learn that the police had no evidence justifying those measures. Worse yet, declassified British documents revealed that in November 1970 Canada’s External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp told his British counterpart that the government knew “there was no evidence of an extensive and coordinated FLQ conspiracy,” adding that the FLQ was known to be no more than “a small band of thugs; there was no big organization; just a gang of ‘young toughs’.” Yet at that very time, the government was still applying war measures in Canada and telling the population about the “apprehended insurrection.”

When the claim of an “apprehended insurrection” began to appear flimsy, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his Principle Secretary Marc Lalonde floated a story about a revolutionary provisional government that was preparing to usurp power from the legitimately elected government of Quebec. The man used as a conduit for the story was Peter C. Newman, editor-in-chief of Canada’s most widely distributed daily, The Toronto Star. Newman, however, has provided all the details of what he described as the “meticulously concocted lie” that Trudeau and Lalonde told him. That lie continues to be repeated over forty years later.

Might makes right

Just watch me take peoples' rights away
In spite of the lies, Canadians still massively support Trudeau’s decision to invoke the War Measures Act in 1970 and at the time support for Trudeau's actions in English Canada was almost obscenely enthusiastic. Journalist Robert Fulford remarked that, “The people of Canada believe, not in civil rights, but in civil rights when they are convenient.” And historian Ramsay Cook has noted that Canadians like “peace and they like order” but that “I don’t think this has ever been a country that had an enormous interest in civil rights.

But why invoke the War Measures Act in the first place? The police didn’t ask for it and it arguably lead to the death of one of the hostages. In fact, if we look at the October Crisis as a simple hostage situation then Trudeau's actions seem heavy-handed and reckless. However, if we consider that Trudeau was elected to do battle with the separatist threat in Quebec then his actions make much more sense. The War Measures Act basically gave the FLQ two options: they could carry out their threats or run. Either outcome was a victory for Trudeau. If they chose to run, they were cowards who would never be taken seriously again, and if they carried out their threat, they were separatist murderers who could then be used to tarnish the entire sovereignist movement. Trudeau also exploited the situation to justify terrorizing his political enemies, Quebec nationalists, by rounding them up in the middle of the night and stripping them of their rights. In the end, Trudeau played politics with other people's lives as much as the FLQ did. He didn't pull the trigger but he certainly shares responsibility for Laporte's death.

What Trudeau did was wrong in every sense. It was wrong in the sense of law enforcement; in fact from that perspective, one could call his performance criminally reckless or at best dangerously incompetent. And it was wrong in a larger political sense; he violated the rights of thousands of innocent people. Rights aren't rights if they can be taken away, they are only temporary privileges.

While Trudeau is falsely praised as a champion of charter rights, his defense 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.

People who admire Trudeau for his handling of the October Crisis are possibly closet fascists who long for a strong man to take charge and put people in their place, but it is unlikely that they would have supported such actions had they been directed towards English Canadians. Declaring martial law in Quebec, on the other hand, was just the kind of thing Canadians were expecting from Trudeau when they hired him, and he delivered. Trudeau rocketed to the head of the Liberal party in the late 1960s because he was seen as someone who could put Quebec nationalists in their place and he used this crisis like a true Machiavellian opportunist to score political points. Unfortunately, Trudeau's martial law machismo also cost Laporte his life. 

Worse than Watergate

The events that followed the October Crisis are even more troubling. More than 400 illegal RCMP break-ins were revealed by the Vancouver Sun reporter John Sawatsky on December 7, 1976 in his front-page expose headline “Trail of break-in leads to RCMP cover-up”. Finally, on April 19, 1978, the Director of the RCMP criminal operations branch admitted that the RCMP had entered more than 400 premises without warrant since 1970. Among the over 400 admitted incidents were the following:

  • In April 1971, a team of RCMP officers broke into the storage facilities of Richelieu Explosives, and stole an unspecified amount of dynamite. A year later, in April 1972, officers hid four cases of dynamite in Mont Saint-Gregoire, in an attempt to link the explosives with the Le Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ). This was later admitted by Solicitor General Francis Fox on October 31, 1977.
  • In 1971, the RCMP chief superintendent Donald Cobb oversaw the infiltration of FLQ cells with federal agents, and the releasing of a fraudulent "Manifesto" on behalf of the La Minerve cell, calling for increased violence.
  • The issuing of 13 false FLQ press releases in 1971 from a dummy FLQ cell called André Ouimet, which claimed responsibility for the firebombing of the Brinks Company office in Montreal in January of the same year.
  • On the night of May 6, 1972 the RCMP Security Service burned down a barn owned by FLQ member Paul Rose’s mother in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Rochelle, Quebec. They suspected that separatists were planning to meet with members of the Black Panthers from the United States. The arson came after they failed to convince a judge to allow them to wiretap the alleged meeting place.
  • The kidnapping of André Chamard, a law intern involved in the defence of the accused FLQ members on June 7, 1972. The RCMP first attempted to recruit Chamard as an informer using a drug case he was involved in as blackmail and subjected him to beatings and death threats.
  • A break-in at the Agence de Presse Libre du Quebec office on October 6, 1972 had been the work of an RCMP investigation dubbed Operation Bricole. RCMP speculated in the media that right-wing militants were responsible. The small leftist Quebec group had reported more than a thousand significant files missing or damaged following the break-in. The RCMP eventually pleaded guilty on June 16th, 1977 to the break-in. A similar break-in occurred in late 1972, orchestrated by RCMP, at the office of the Quebec Political Prisoners Movement.
  • In 1973, more than thirty members of the RCMP Security Service committed a break-in to steal a computerized list of Parti Quebecois (PQ) members, in an investigation dubbed Operation Ham. 
  • In 1974, RCMP Security Service Corporal Robert Samson was arrested planting explosives at the house of Sam Steinberg, founder of Steinberg Foods in Montreal. While this bombing was not officially sanctioned by the RCMP, at trial he announced that he had done “much worse” on behalf of the RCMP, and admitted he had been involved in the APLQ break-in.

In June 1977, the Quebec government, headed by the Parti Québécois, decided to launch an inquiry into the RCMP activities in Quebec, the Commission d’enquête sur des opérations policières en territoire québécois (also known as the Keable Commission). Every step of the way, the Commission met with resistance and obstruction from both the RCMP and the federal government who challenged the Commission’s jurisdiction to examine the affairs of a federal agency, arguing that it was invading the prerogatives of the federal government. The Trudeau government succeeded in having Canadian courts declare the investigation unconstitutional, even though a large number of the dirty operations were directed against the people of Quebec. It charged that the Keable Commission would be violating the Official Secrets Act. Solicitor General Francis Fox, refused to hand over subpoenaed documents, using the “absolute privilege” accorded to the Solicitor General under Canada’s Federal Courts Act, a privilege without any recourse to appeal.

Trudeau immediately setup his own competing inquiry, the McDonald commission. The mandate of this commission was formulated with a view to restricting and controlling disclosures of police activities. The reasons for invoking the War Measures Act were not to be examined on Trudeau’s orders. The final report was, according to former solicitor general Allan Lawrence, a “partial whitewash” in that while there was some embarrassing revelations for the Trudeau government, such as when John Starnes, head of the RCMP Security Service, told Trudeau and some of his ministers during a cabinet meeting in December 1970 that the RCMP had been doing illegal things, there was much that didn’t make it in the report. And, unlike the Keable commission, the McDonald commission did not recommend that any charges be laid against RCMP officers involved in illegal activities. Of all the recommendations the McDonald commission did make, only one was implemented by Trudeau’s government with astounding speed: taking the security services away from the RCMP and giving it to a civilian agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS). But right from the outset, some critics wondered why a civilian agency would be less prone to committing illegal acts than the RCMP? Today, CSIS is overseen, on behalf of Parliament, by the Security Intelligence Review Committee. But since we know that bozos such as the weasel-like Phillipe Couillard and his partner-in-crime Arthur Porter were members of that committee at one time, it would seem that the critics were right.

Empire and ambition

Occasionally, an ambitious politician from a peripheral nation within an empire manages to rise to the top. Stalin, for example was Georgian, not Russian, but he became the supreme ruler of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union and an important event in Stalin's rise to power was something called the Georgian Affair.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia declared independence in May of 1918, in the midst of the Russian Civil War. However, in February 1921, Georgia was attacked by the Red Army. Stalin played a decisive role in engineering the Red Army invasion of Georgia following which he adopted particularly hard-line, centralist policies towards Soviet Georgia. Stalin favored the elimination of local nationalism and insisted that all three Transcaucasian republics – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – join the Soviet Union together as one federative republic. The Georgians wanted their country to retain an individual identity and enter the union as a full member. Lenin disliked Stalin's policy towards Georgia, as he believed all Soviet states should be on equal standing with Russia rather than be absorbed and subordinated to it.

Basically, Lenin did not want the U.S.S.R. to appear as an empire as Communists were meant to be anti-imperialists. Stalin, for his part, needed to prove his loyalty to this new Russian-dominated empire or "union". Crushing his own people did the trick and having a Georgian invade Georgia deflected  accusations of imperialism. Win-win!

Like the Soviet Union, the Canadian state is an relic of empire and remains a “prison of nations.” The use of repression as an instrument of government policy is rooted in the very nature of Canada. But in an age of democracy and the end empires, it was important to get a Quebecer to implement the hard-line on the rising Quebec nationalism of the 1960s. Trudeau was just the kind of unscrupulous bastard that Canada needed.

As for Trudeau's motives for despising Quebec, we can only guess that he wanted revenge on the closed, conservative French-Canadian Catholic society he knew in his youth, not realizing that it was the product of Canadian imperialism, the net result of the collusion between the Anglo-protestant bourgeoisie and the Catholic church. The Canadian empire gave him the means to carry out his retribution against Quebec. All he needed to do was flatter the Canadians on their supposed greatness and assure them that he will take care of their Quebec problem.

Based on a text by Guy Bouthillier


  1. Salut. Love your blog. I just discovered it. A gold mine of information. I hope you don't mind if I cite you in my recently launched (bilingual) blog - An Americain in Québec ( Bien à vous.

    1. Thanks Thomas... Feel free to cite, copy/paste or whatever you like. That's what this blog is for. I'll be sure to check out yours as well.

  2. Nope i disagree. Quebec is a part of Canada.