The October Crisis of 1970 and Bill C-51: When is the government more important than the individual?

The introduction of Bill C-51 has garnered some of the fiercest debates over individual rights and government powers in recent Canadian history. While its supporters point to its purpose in defending Canada from the threat of terrorism, many of its critics reject its necessity as a means of protecting Canadians. Some have alluded to another time in Canadian history when individual rights were compromised in the name of the greater good, the 1970 October Crisis. Today we examine this comparison and consider whether there are any lessons from government reaction to the FLQ that can be applied to the debate over C-51 in 2015.

First, we should write that it’s abundantly clear that C-51 is a different sort of situation than the enactment of the War Measures Act (WMA) by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1970. We are entirely convinced by the legal examination and concerns of C-51 presented by Kent Roach and Craig Forcese, which you can find in a five part series that deconstructs the exact legal problems with the law as it is written. Their criticisms are reasonable, logical, and most importantly, grounded in a non-partisan perspective of problems with how the proposed law would be implemented (rather than more amorphous discussions of its “impact”). While we are examining a political historical comparison here today, our contemporary position is rooted in the legal problems with the bill, rather than the political ones.

Critics of the bill have often compared it unfavourably to the government overreach during the October Crisis of 1970, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act in order to respond to the threat of the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ). As NDP MPs have noted, it was a drastic violation of civil liberties oversold to Canadians as necessary, and as Chantal Hébert wrote, fostered an atmosphere of distrust and fear against the country’s French Canadian minority. Such comparisons highlight the tenuous justification and uncertain impact of C-51, but fail to appreciate the chaotic insecurity of October 1970.

The FLQ Crisis should be an event that most Canadians remember from history class. The Front de Liberation de Quebec was a nominally Marxist organization that was inspired by other decolonization movements from around the world. In places like Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba and in Latin America, peoples were violently resisting their former oppressors, usually European nations. In Quebec, some believed that French Canadians had similarly suffered and it was now their time to throw off the shackles of English Canadian domination. The FLQ had begun a bombing campaign in 1963 that rose and fell in intensity as various cells were caught and arrested. From 1963 to 1972, the FLQ committed 166 violent acts in the name of their campaign to free Quebec.

After this campaign of bombings, all levels of government from Montreal, to Quebec, to Ottawa, were aware of the dangers of the FLQ by 1970. They were aware that cells of the FLQ could be planning some sort of kidnapping since they had arrested two (alleged) members of the FLQ who were attempting to kidnap the Israeli consul in Montréal that February. Their plan had been part of a strategy of political kidnapping in order to radicalize the masses. In April, in a report from Director-General Security and Intelligence John Starnes, RCMP Assistant-Commissioner J.E.M. Barrette noted that “unsubstantiated information” suggested that the FLQ intended to kidnap the premier of Québec and murder hostages if their demands were not met, storing the bodies in abandoned stolen cars. Which is exactly what did end up happening to Pierre Laporte. Other investigations prior to October 1970 (stretching back to FLQ formation in 1963) repeatedly emphasized the unity, cohesion, and danger of the FLQ. The provincial and federal governments believed that there was a wide-ranging and well-financed network of political radicals whose sole aim was to destabilize the government and induce revolutionary action. It was this fear of an “apprehended insurrection” that led Trudeau to enact the War Measures Act on 16 October.

We know now that despite the government fears before (and during) the October Crisis, the FLQ was not nearly as organized as the government thought. While Trudeau’s Cabinet was worried that there may have been hundreds or thousands of FLQ members hidden in Quebec, this vastly overstated their organizational and ideological cohesion. Members of the Liberation cell which kidnapped James Cross, while very clear on their understanding of Quebec's “colonial status,” did not have any detailed ideological knowledge of Marxism (particularly revolutionary Marxism in Latin America or elsewhere). Cross reported after he was freed that he had no sense that the kidnappings were steps towards increasingly dangerous action, let alone a well thought out plan to bring down government. The FLQ was a group of separated, radical cells that operated with no clear purpose or goal. So despite justifications from Trudeau at the time that an "apprehended insurrection" was imminent in October 1970, we know (with the benefit of hindsight) that this was not the case. Further, apprehended insurrection is NOT actual insurrection - two very different situations, the second offering a clearer defence for the War Measures Act.

In the context of C-51, we ought to focus in on the reasons offered for the WMA and its serious abrogation of Canadian rights. Was the FLQ a serious enough of a threat to Canada that the government ought to violate individual liberty? Many then and since believed yes. However, the October Crisis was not understood the same way we understand C-51. All of the discussions about the FLQ was about a revolutionary group, not a terrorist group, and the WMA was justified due to the threat of insurrection, not the threat of terrorism. Even if we apply the term terrorism to it, it was not understood then the way we perceive it today after the attacks of 9/11. Perhaps today the threat of terrorism seems like a justifiable reason for C-51 (as its proponents argue), but it was not enough of a reason to justify the WMA.

Trudeau's cabinet was itself aware that “apprehended insurrection” was a weak argument for the WMA. By December 1970, the RCMP told the government that there was no mastermind plan for the FLQ, or the organization of hundreds of members towards insurrection. When Conservative and Official Opposition leader Robert Stanfield asked for a commission to investigate "the background of the terrorism and other events leading up to the War Measures Act as well as the administration of the Act," the government rejected it. Gordon Robertson, the Clerk of the Privy Council, advised Trudeau to turn it down for fear that it would have no worthwhile conclusions and “could not do other than reopen for contention a whole host of arguments that would be damaging both in Quebec and in the country generally.” That is, they could not prove that terrorism or insurrection was sufficient to justify the WMA to the Canadian people.

Its impact on civil liberties was widespread, as police immediately conducted searches and arrests in Quebec. The police conducted over 3,000 searches between October 1970 and January 1971, resulting in 497 people being detained. The majority (87%) were never charged. Sixty-two were charged by January 1971, but within 30 days half of those were released and charges were dropped. Only 18 of these 497 were actually convicted. Student newspapers at universities across the country were forbidden from reprinting the FLQ manifesto, in some cases their newspapers were confiscated and destroyed. In British Columbia, Premier W.A.C. Bennett declared that the provincial cabinet had approved a regulation banning any teachers in the province, including college and university professors, from expressing sympathy with the FLQ.

Protesters against the War Measures Act in Toronto, Toronto Telegram, October 19, 1970, via the Torontoist.

It also propelled new state apparatuses to counter terrorism, In Quebec, the Cabinet created a Centre d’analyse et de documentation to advise the government on national security threats in 1971. The centre was severely criticized by the provincial human rights commission and it was dismantled in 1977. At the time, the centre had dossiers on more than 30,000 citizens. The RCMP continued tactics it had been using for decades to combat the FLQ after October 1970, though they were illegal police actions, such as opening people’s mail, distributing false communiqués and raiding the offices of the Parti québécois to steal membership lists. A 1981 Royal Commission investigated the RCMP and led to the creation of a civilian agency charged with national security (CSIS) to take over the RCMP role. Government intervention stopped what could have been a lasting erosion on Canadian rights against government intrusion during the campaign to stamp out the FLQ in the province of Quebec.

The question that lingers is whether the WMA was worth the cost? Trudeau’s actions were incredibly popular in English Canada, though since 1970, the WMA has been considered a black mark on the Prime Minister who created the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The reasons for the WMA, that an insurrection was imminent, may have necessitated drastic action.

However, more recently historian Michael Gauvreau has delved into newly declassified documents to explore the philosophical underpinnings of Trudeau’s actions. In Gauvreau’s words, the October Crisis was a “profound crisis of social authority affecting the legitimacy of a specific concept of liberal democracy.” Trudeau's address to the nation on 16 October 1970 pledged that his government would introduce legislation to address “the social causes which often underlie or serve as an excuse for crime and disorder,” though also warned that those who defied the law and ignored democratic opportunities for change “will receive no hearing from this government.” According to Gauvreau, Trudeau was warning the radicals of the 1960s that less open definition of liberal democracy was necessary in order to preserve it from radicals who sought to dismantle it. Thus, as Gauvreau writes, "this reconstruction would be accomplished through the marginalization and de-legitimization of definitions of liberalism which conceded too much ideological scope to radicalism."

In this light, we can understand that the October Crisis signaled a shift in Canadian liberalism away from more left-wing notions of radicalism (be it the NDP, or the revolutionaries of the FLQ) as a means of protecting the nation from ideological extremes.

When offering comparisons between today and the October Crisis, we should be aware of its contemporary context - not as a direct comparison to the situation today or that sometimes government infringement of the individual can be justified. Let’s consider the justifications for the WMA, be it the threat of insurrection or Trudeau’s conception of liberalism, and ask what threshold justifies C-51 today given the impact it would have on individual rights and freedoms. Is the threat of terrorism enough? Was “apprehended insurrection” enough? Bill C-51, particularly with its ambiguous wording, undermines the spirit and conduct of a liberal democracy. Dissent cannot be criminalized nor can the government be absolved of proper oversight over the limitation of rights in the name of security. Trudeau and his Cabinet were aware that their actions had a cost, and committed to them only in the extreme circumstance of the FLQ crisis – does our current government have the same conditions?