Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

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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....”

The October Crisis, continued > 


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