When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, faced with Canada-wide standoffs over the Coastal Gaslink pipeline project, declared “There is no question of sending the Army against Canadian citizens,” alarm bells should have gone off across the country. After all, Trudeau’s father had no such scruples.
Fifty years on, few people remember that many eminent contemporaries of Pierre Elliott Trudeau were very critical of his government’s decision to invoke the War Measures Act in October 1970, following two politically-motivated kidnappings by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ).
NDP leader Tommy Douglas led the way in voicing his opposition, when 12,500 troops rolled into Québec on October 16—7,500 in Montréal alone. That day, hundreds of people were arrested in the middle of the night.
The same morning the war measures were imposed, Douglas rose in the House of Commons and condemned the actions of the Trudeau government:
Right now there is no Constitution in this country, no Bill of Rights, no provincial constitutions. This government now has the power by Order in Council to do anything it wants—to intern any citizen, to deport any citizen, to arrest any person or to declare any organization subversive or illegal. These are tremendous powers.
Douglas also pointed out that the Liberals had provided “not one shred of evidence” in support of its claims about “apprehended insurrection.”
A long-standing opponent of the War Measures Act, Douglas recalled he was booed off his platform in the 1940s for opposing Canada’s use of the very same act to intern all Japanese Canadians and confiscate their property during the Second World War. The Government of Canada finally recognized that injustice and issued a formal apology in 1988.
Members of Trudeau’s own cabinet were also very critical of the War Measures Act, saying that invoking it was simply not justified. Transport Minister Don Jamieson wrote in his memoirs that “In concrete terms, we did not have a compelling case to put forward” for invoking it. In his opinion, the Québec ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet used the act to defeat their political adversaries, be they federalist or sovereigntist.
Eric Kierans, another important minister in the Trudeau government, devoted several pages in his memoir to the October Crisis, referring to the use of the War Measures Act as a “massive injustice.” Describing the October 15 cabinet meeting when the decision was made to invoke the act, he recalled that “Ontario’s Premier John Robarts was calling for ‘all-out war’ on the terrorists,” while “newspaper editorials were screaming for drastic action.” The hysteria, he added, was “inflamed and endorsed” by statements made by fellow ministers, including Jean Marchand, Gérard Pelletier and John Turner. “We lost our nerve, and our common sense,” recalled Kierans, who concluded, “It was Tommy Douglas of the NDP who stood in the House, day after day, and hammered the government for suspending civil liberties… He showed political courage of the highest order.”
Some say the War Measures Act was needed to round up the FLQ kidnappers and their accomplices. Yet Reg Whitaker, Professor Emeritus at York University and a specialist in security issues, demonstrated that nothing is further from the truth. “The reality,” he wrote in 1993, “is 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.”
The other reason for supporting war measures in 1970 was the story of a “provisional government” set up by a group of eminent Québecers including René Lévesque and Claude Ryan. That story originated in the Toronto Star. Yet Peter C. Newman, then editor-in-chief, debunked it totally, writing in his book, Here Be Dragons, that “the entire scenario had been a meticulously concocted lie” that came directly from the prime minister and his principal secretary Marc Lalonde.
Tommy Douglas was right to denounce the internment of Japanese Canadians under the War Measures Act in 1940. He was also dead right to denounce the act again in 1970.
50 years on, the time has come for the Government of Canada to recognize this injustice and apologize.
Robin Philpot is the president and publisher of Baraka Books. He is the editor, with Guy Bouthillier and Édouard Cloutier, of the anthology Pierre Trudeau’s Darkest Hour, War Measures 1970 (Baraka Books, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @BarakaBooks.