Trudeau’s Darkest Hour was published last autumn to mark the 40th anniversary of what came to be labelled the October Crisis. It is impossible for me to review this anthology without a sense of embarrassment. Readers are entitled to know why.
At the time of the crisis, I was in my mid-thirties. For nearly two decades, I had admired Pierre Trudeau for his public stands on a number of important, but controversial, issues. In my eyes, his courageous defence of causes such as civil liberties and personal rights was as praiseworthy as it was unpopular. I trusted him. Accordingly, while I winced at his patronizing “bleeding hearts … weak-kneed … just watch me” remarks to CBC journalist Tim Ralfe, I nevertheless accepted his judgement that extreme measures were required to halt what struck me as escalating terror. Of course, I entertain no retrospective sympathy for the Front de Libération du Québec. In the sixties, its home-made bombs concealed in mailboxes and elsewhere maimed and killed innocent people, some of whose names (Walter Leja, Thérèse Morin) will remain forever etched in my mind. The FLQ’s surreptitious attacks imperilled all Montrealers, including my parents and friends.
Although I, and others, may not have fully appreciated our good fortune, and notwithstanding the 1955 Maurice Richard riots, Quebec society had been, on the whole, peaceable, and FLQ violence was particularly disquieting. I therefore welcomed vigorous action to put an end to its unwonted savagery. As it turned out, in defending the government’s indiscriminate counteroffensive, I was wrong.
One last observation with a bearing on what will follow. The federalist perspective from which my views have evolved is quite different from that of the editors of this collection of speeches, articles and other documents. Both retired university professors of political science, Guy Bouthillier and Édouard Cloutier are committed sovereigntists of long standing. They explain that their purpose is to dispel an “objectionable notion hampers our ability to establish good neighbourly relations and continues to isolate Quebecers” − that notion being that “‘they’ stood united against Quebec.” I never shared this perception, but acknowledge it is held firmly by some: I therefore applaud the editors’ determination to lay it to rest.
In their introduction, Bouthillier and Cloutier write,
We believed that there were people in Parliament, in the media, and among the population at large in English Canada who refused to march to the Trudeau drum. Some may not have stood up in October 1970, but they spoke out later to set the record straight. Our hypothesis was well founded. Many English Canadians spoke up, acted, reflected, and above all wrote, with much less unanimity, with nuance, and sometimes in strong opposition to the official truth.
Their anthology proves it.
The excerpt from Peter Newman’s Here Be Dragons (2004) discloses how Prime Minister Trudeau and Marc Lalonde, at the time the PM’s Principal Secretary, gulled Newman into believing in the existence of a conspiracy of eminent Quebecers – René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau and Claude Ryan among them – to set up a “provisional parallel government” to replace the Bourassa administration, and manipulated the influential journalist into spreading this “meticulously concocted lie” through the Toronto Star, of which he was editor-in-chief.
Federal government sources referred to in Reg Whitaker’s Queen’s Quarterly article, “Apprehended Insurrection? RCMP Intelligence and the October Crisis,”1 convincingly support his claim that the RCMP never requested the invocation of the War Measures Act, weren’t consulted about its usefulness and, had they been asked, would have advised the government against availing itself of its wide-ranging powers. Whitaker also supplies powerful evidence that although in a formal sense Ottawa was responding to requests from the Montreal municipal and Quebec provincial authorities, the decision was in fact that of “the Prime Minister and his inner circle of Quebec ministers and advisers.” He further asserts that “the RCMP saw the crisis as requiring good, patient, careful police work to solve. The Quebec ministers in Ottawa deliberately chose to escalate the political magnitude of the crisis to justify emergency powers as a means of intimidating nationalists and separatists, with whom the Quebecers were locked in a bitter conflict for the allegiance of Quebec.”
Newman and Whitaker offered their assessments of the government’s actions after the fact, as did others in this collection. Some very early: Prince Edward Island Progressive Conservative MP David MacDonald did so in a speech the very next month; Ontario PC Senator Grattan O’Leary a month later. Robert Stanfield, who was Leader of the Opposition at the time of the events, did so in his 1979 introduction to the second edition of Ron Haggart and Aubrey Golden’s Rumours of War. Even members of Trudeau’s cabinet later acknowledged reaching similar conclusions: Don Jamieson in posthumously published writings (A World unto Itself, 1989) and Eric Kierans in his memoirs (Remembering, 2002); Jamieson and Kierans also report that four cabinet colleagues had harboured “grave doubts” or were “obviously troubled.”
Bouthillier and Cloutier also quote British Foreign Office documents, unsealed 30 years after the event, to the effect that Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mitchell Sharp, confided to his British opposite number, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, that “there was no evidence of an extensive and coordinated FLQ conspiracy.”
Borrowing a tribute from Eric Kierans, the editors dedicate their anthology to the memory of Tommy Douglas for his “political courage of the highest order” – and with good reason. On October 19, 1970, to heckles from government benches in the House of Commons, Douglas voted disapproval of the drastic measures adopted under powers of the WMA and, on November 4, he delivered a persuasive, yet nuanced, speech against the WMA’s successor, the Public Order (Temporary Measures) Act:
More than two weeks since the War Measures Act was invoked, the government has not produced one shred of evidence, either publicly or privately, which would lead me to the conclusion that a state of apprehended insurrection existed in Canada on October 16. This is the kind of situation in which one cannot be dogmatic. It may be that when the government some day produces information which we do not now have, they may prove to be right; but as a Member of Parliament standing in my place I have no right to restrict the liberties of 21 million Canadians without adequate proof that a state of apprehended insurrection exists in this country …
If the government knew there were these thousands of guns, bombs, and machine guns, if they knew there were 1,000 to 3,000 FLQ people in high posts, they must have known who they were and where they were. But what has happened? Was the minister 2 simply drawing on his imagination? And are the forces of law enforcement in this country so incompetent that they have not been able to apprehend any of the people referred to by the Minister of Regional Economic Expansion? …
Has the War Measures Act been used to settle political scores and to intimidate groups like the Quebec Federation of Labour? I think it is significant that to date most of those detained seem to be members of either FRAP3 or the Parti Québécois. Although I disagree with the separatists, it is not a crime to be one as long as they do not seek to use violence and unconstitutional means to advance their objectives.
Douglas predicted accurately that, when the evidence became available, it would show the operation had jailed far more innocent parties than guilty, a fact that was swept under the rug by those in charge and, alas, is forgotten by most Canadians.
“The shame – or guilt – about October is palpable, at least in Quebec and particularly among sovereigntists,” Bouthillier and Cloutier write. “Perhaps it stems from the very goal of the authorities in 1970, which was to link the FLQ and its crimes to the Parti Québécois.” I know of no evidence to prove their claim conclusively, but, whereas in 1970 I would have judged the charge preposterous, today it seems altogether plausible. The editors then ask if it “can be posited that this shame or guilt was, and remains to this day, the ultimate and unquestionable victory of censorship imposed under the War Measures Act.”
Stephen Harper’s “anti-coalition” rhetoric in the 2011 federal election campaign would seem to suggest – it does to me – that demonizing the Québécois in general, and sovereigntists in particular, remains electorally profitable in the rest of Canada and among English-speaking Quebecers. One would like to think that Trudeau’s Darkest Hour will contribute to dissolving an unfair stereotype pinned on sovereigntists, namely that they condone violence to reach their ends. But this would require a much wider readership than this book can get; prejudices die hard.
A French translation, which I’m told is planned, should contribute to melting another unfair stereotype − that, for all their talk, English-speaking Canadians have little regard for the civil liberties of others, especially the Québécois. Should it see the light of day, a translation should serve to remind readers that the operation was entirely conceived, designed, justified, launched and managed by a French-speaking Prime Minister with French-speaking advisers and cabinet ministers, all from Quebec, at the behest – encouraged by Ottawa – of the French-speaking Mayor of Montreal and Premier of Quebec, and supported overwhelmingly by Quebec’s French-speaking MPs. Although, of course, most English-speaking Canadians endorsed the government’s actions (as David MacDonald observed, “Pierre Elliott Trudeau the ideal solution for English-speaking Canadians who want to settle the Quebec problem once and for all”), the handful of MPs who refused to fall in line were almost all English-speaking and from outside Quebec.
Each selection in this book, taken by itself, is informative and credible. Taken as a whole, the collection shows that a small but significant number of English-speaking Canadians outside Quebec (MPs, local politicians, academics, writers, artists, musicians and others), sensing the motives behind the operation and conscious of the abuses likely to ensue, courageously and, it turned out, wisely raised their voices to oppose the invocation of the WMA, or criticized it later when they had had time to reflect on it. In assembling these documents, Bouthillier and Cloutier have performed an invaluable public service. By bringing together the testimony of various witnesses, they have beamed a well-focused ray of light on the circumstances and events of what historian Ramsay Cook has called “that doleful October.”
Some shortcomings will be found in the editors’ notes. To harp on a Gallicism here and there would be to quibble. There is, however, one conspicuous error: David MacDonald, correctly identified on page 150 as a minister of the United Church of Canada, becomes an Anglican minister on page 162. The mistake is perhaps attributable to haste in meeting a self-imposed October deadline; fortunately, it doesn’t undermine the overall credibility of the anthology.
While today most observers dismiss the prospect of a successful referendum on Quebec independence, I don’t see it that way. Since my youth, the rise of this initially quixotic yearning may have ebbed and flowed, but, from time to time, its advance has been propelled by unexpected events which have elicited and intensified the unexpressed, and unconsciously shared, dissatisfaction of large numbers of Québécois over their lot, the dwindling importance of their number in Canada, and the ever growing hegemony of Ottawa.
Among the most spectacular, but unforeseen, of these were the 1955 Maurice Richard riots; the 1959 CBC French network producers strike; the 1976 air traffic controllers’ and airline pilots’ strike, on the eve of the Montreal Olympics, over authorizing the use of French as well as English in air-ground communications at a few small Quebec airports (leading to the election of the first Parti Québécois government and, as a result, the first referendum); the patriation of the BNA Act against overwhelming opposition in Quebec; and the subsequent failure, in extremis, of a diluted Meech Lake Accord, which would have enabled Quebec to sign on to the constitution with honour (leading to the election in 1993 of a Bloc Québécois majority of Quebec MPs, uninterrupted until 2011, as well as to the election of a new PQ government in Quebec City and to the second referendum). The resentment accumulated through this chain of occurrences may not be active, but – je me souviens – it lingers and could be reignited unexpectedly.
In 1856, speaking of the Canadiens, John A. Macdonald wrote as follows to the editor of the Montreal Gazette: “Treat them as a nation and they will act as a free people generally do – generously. Call them a faction and they will become factious.” While the adoption – a mere 150 years later! – by the House of Commons of a motion recognizing the people of Quebec as “a nation within Canada” may be a small step in the right direction, to be meaningful it will have to be followed by substantial constitutional reforms along the lines sought in Quebec for ages by governments of all parties.
In their notes, Bouthillier and Cloutier quote a statement by Tommy Douglas cited in Doris French Shackleton’s 1975 biography of the former NDP leader. It sums up my feelings and provides an appropriate ending to a review of this valuable anthology:
Separatism is not going to go away. The strong-arm methods aren’t going to work. They never have. I don’t want to see Quebec leave Confederation, but I wouldn’t have one drop of blood shed to keep them in Confederation. It’s possible we will have to work out methods to separate and then work out agreements, though I hope it won’t come to that. It would be better than a civil war. The Americans are still suffering from the civil war they fought a hundred years ago.
1 Queen’s Quarterly, Vol. 100, No. 2 (Summer 1993), pp. 383−406.
2 Earlier in his speech, Douglas had referred to a statement to this effect Marchand had made on a Vancouver radio program.
3The Front d’Action Politique, a Montreal opposition party that contested the municipal election of October 25, 1970 (nine days after the War Measures Act was declared).
Guy Bouthillier and Édouard Cloutier, eds., Trudeau’s Darkest Hour: War Measures in Time of Peace October 1970. Montreal: Baraka Books, 2010. 212 pages.