Culture & Conversation

Fear and Loathing in October

On October 5, 1970, British trade commissioner James Cross was abducted in Montreal by members of the FLQ as, five days later, was the Quebec Minister of Trade, Pierre Laporte. Ostensibly in response to these “political crimes,” the federal government of Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act during the night of October 16. That response has been characterized, by the editors of this anthology and by most of the writers collected in it, as Trudeau’s “darkest hour.”

The Act allows the government essentially unlimited and unrestrained powers of search and seizure, suspension of habeas corpus, and permission to arrest and detain anyone suspected of conspiracy or action against the peace and security of the nation.  It exists, as its name implies, to enable the government to suppress sedition and espionage in time of war, without the delay of Parliamentary debate or democratic consultation.  Because of the power it places in the hands of a prime minister and his cabinet and the extent to which it overrides the basic civil rights which Canadians have fought wars to establish and preserve, the validity and morality of the Act itself have been questioned continually – in and out of wartime.

Four decades after the October Crisis, political scientists Guy Bouthillier (who is also a lawyer) and Édouard Cloutier have gathered a collection of essays, observations and memoirs addressing the nature and value of the War Measures Act and its imposition by the Trudeau government.  Part of their thesis is that the use of the Act was, in the circumstances, a panicked reaction not simply to specific actions by the FLQ, but in response to fear in English Canada that Quebec was about to explode in revolution. Historians, columnists, poets, and members both of cabinet and the opposition are cited (from before, during and after the Crisis), sharing profound unease with the government’s response, consistent in all but the degree of their outrage.

The editors’ views are not hidden, as they preface various entries with their own analysis, but the book remains a considered and clinical examination. It is clear that their efforts have been to present a wide range of views on the events of the time and to place them in an historical and political context. That the attitude of Eric Kierans, the Liberal cabinet minister who opined that “all our common sense went out the window” should closely parallel that of the NDP leader Tommy Douglas, who describes the Act’s imposition as “overkill on a gargantuan scale” is not a rhetorical device. It is an academic proof of the editors’ contention:  that the use of the War Measures Act in 1970 was in defiance of essential principles.

In 1948, a letter was published in Notre Temps, written by a young student at the London School of Economics. Excerpts of the letter are presented here in which the author attacks the Canadian government’s internment of Adrien Arcand, an avowed Nazi sympathizer, during the Second World War under the powers of the same War Measures Act. He describes the Act as “a tyrannical law” in violation of “the fundamental principles of the society of equals.”  That student was Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

Neil MacRae is a poet and musician from the Maritimes. He has made his home in Hinchinbrooke, Québec.

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