National Security

AuthorAlan Borovoy
chapter ten
National Security
Emergency Powers
In October 1970, the political landscape in Canada was sudden-
ly and perhaps irrevocably transformed. After a decade of sporadic
and mostly futile bombings, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ)
pulled off a political kidnapping. One of its cells seized the British trade
commissioner, James Cross, and hid him somewhere in the province of
Quebec. In order to relinquish him, the FLQ demanded that the author-
ities perform certain political handstands including: the release from
jail of all FLQ members who had been involved in those previous terror-
ist bombings and the broadcasting over the CBC of the FLQ manifesto.
It appeared that the idea was to humiliate the governments of Can-
ada and Quebec. Such humiliation would undermine their authority
with the people under their respective jurisdictions. That, in turn, would
set the stage for an FLQ takeover of the province of Quebec. The FLQ
object was to drive Quebec out of Confederation and establish there a
government responsive to the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism
The then prime minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, owed
his election, in large part, to the leadership he had provided against the
forces of Quebec nationalism. In particular, he was hostile to any sug-
gestion of Quebec’s separation from the rest of Canada. Not surprisingly,
“at the barricades”
therefore, he refused to implement the demands of the FLQ or even to
engage in any negotiations with them.
As the entire country awaited a coherent response from the Quebec
government of Robert Bourassa, the FLQ struck again. Within only a
few days of the James Cross kidnapping, another cell of the FLQ seized
Quebec’s labour minister, Pierre Laporte. The brazenness of the FLQ
action shocked Canadians from coast to coast; FLQ operatives grabbed
Laporte in the middle of a touch football game in which he had been
playing with members of his family. At this point, the FLQ appeared to
have acquired the upper hand. The noose tightened around the political
throat of the Quebec government.
A new group of players soon surfaced. A coalition of Quebec com-
munity leaders convened a press conference at Montreal’s downtown
Holiday Inn. This coalition included Quebec’s democratic separatist
leader, René Lévesque, Le Devoir publisher, Claude Ryan, and the pres-
idents of Quebec’s three leading labour federations: the FTQ, the CNTU,
and the Quebec teachers’ union. The coalition called upon the govern-
ment of Quebec to effectively break ranks with the federal government;
they urged the Bourassa government to negotiate with the FLQ kidnap-
pers. And, as a further politically protective measure, the coalition called
for a government of national unity which would include coalition
members to replace the Quebec government during the course of
this crisis.
The ensuing political tensions could almost be cut with a knife. All
over Quebec, people were echoing the message of the coalition: “Ne-
gotiate with the FLQ.” Large street demonstrations were planned for
downtown Montreal. There were widespread fears that the impending
demonstrations would be accompanied by severe violence. (Just months
before, Montreal had witnessed a number of violent demonstrations in
connection with a taxi dispute.) Moreover, many people feared that the
FLQ would soon strike again.
Into the midst of this confusion, the federal government dispatched
a number of combat units from the Canadian military. Armed soldiers
began to patrol the streets of Montreal. On the steps of the House of
Commons in Ottawa, a group of reporters encircled Prime Minister
Trudeau as he was about to enter the chamber. They began to question
him about the presence of armed soldiers in Montreal. His replies were
Chapter Ten: National Security
typically testy Trudeau. He warned that law and order were more im-
portant than the feelings of some “bleeding hearts.” When the reporters
asked what he was going to do next, Trudeau replied, “Just watch me.”
Indeed, the combination of tensions in Quebec and prime min-
isterial bravado provided the perfect backdrop for the next major de-
velopment. In the wee hours of Friday morning, October 16th (about 3
a.m.), the federal government invoked the War Measures Act. (This was
a stand-by emergency powers law, f‌irst enacted during World War I and
last invoked during the Second World War.)
The operative regulation adopted under the Act proclaimed the exist-
ence of an “apprehended insurrection.” With that, a new crime was cre-
ated: membership in the FLQ. Those found guilty of this crime could
be jailed for up to f‌ive years. But, even without being found guilty, they
could be held on mere suspicion for up to twenty-one days, without bail
and without even being charged. Moreover, the police were equipped
with additional powers of search, seizure, arrest, and detention. Almost
immediately following this invocation, police in the province of Quebec
began to round up and detain many people suspected of radical and
separatist proclivities. By the time of sunrise on October 16th, some two
hundred new prisoners were being held in Quebec jails.
In a special broadcast to the country, Prime Minister Trudeau ex-
plained that this action had become necessary because of the terrorist
activities of the FLQ. By way of additional explanation, he pointed to
what he called the state of confusion in Quebec and the fact that the
Quebec government had explicitly requested him to take this action.
One consequence of the invocation that became immediately obvious
was the virtually instant relaxation of the tensions throughout Quebec.
When the bottom fell out of Canada’s political tranquility in this way,
I had been general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association
(CCLA) for approximately eighteen months. A year and a half’s experi-
ence was hardly a suff‌icient background for me to draw on in order
to grapple with the civil liberties implications of this unprecedented
crisis. Indeed, I remember muttering something monumentally incon-
sequential when the press woke me on the morning of the sixteenth to
tell me what Trudeau had done. But, as soon as I was able to gather my
wits, I telephoned CCLA vice-president, Syd Midanik, and board chair,
Eamon Park. The crisis situation demanded a crisis response: the three

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