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Trudeau And The War Measures Act History Essay

Info: 4461 words (18 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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Although in recent years Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s decision to implement the War Measures Act during the October Crisis of Nineteen Seventy has been marred with criticism and opposition, during the Crisis itself, few of his contemporaries disagreed with his decision to invoke the Act. This is likely due to the fear nearly everyone in the country was feeling during the insurrection in Quebec. The October Crisis was a time of panic and alarm in a country previously experiencing peace and prosperity. Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision was likely made out of fear of the unknown; he did not know what was going to happen in one day, one week, or one month’s time. During the duress Trudeau and the nation found itself in during the October Crisis, the decision to invoke the War Measures Act was the correct one for four main reasons. The first is the Sureté du Quebec (the Quebec provincial police) found itself incapable of dealing with both the maintenance of public order and the investigations needed to bring an end to the terrorist actions of the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ). The second is the fact that, although a contentious issue in Canada, other nations worldwide have enacted Acts of Emergency during peacetime, with the two most notable examples being the United States and the United Kingdom. The third is the nearly unanimous decision by the Canadian public in support of the Prime Minister’s resolution to enact the War Measures Act during the October Crisis. The fourth is the lack of information on the Front de Liberation du Quebec, namely their membership numbers and geographical scope. As the above reasons demonstrate, Prime Minister Trudeau was not only implementing the War Measures Act on the request of the Sureté du Quebec, but he did so due to the lack of solid information on the FLQ’s membership information. In addition, the general public in Canada agreed with the decision, and other nations have enacted similar legislation to deal with matters of national security. Prime Minister Trudeau, despite what many revisionist historians may claim, was correct in his decision to implement the War Measures Act during the Nineteen Seventy October Crisis.

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Although the lead-up to the October Crisis (years Nineteen Sixty-Two to Nineteen Sixty-Nine) was relatively slow-paced, actions of the FLQ began becoming increasingly more violent throughout Nineteen Seventy. It was this rapid increase in both the number and severity of the FLQ crimes that led the Sureté du Quebec to call on the federal government (Prime Minister Trudeau in particular) to implement the War Measures Act. The Sureté du Quebec wanted three things of the federal government. The first was to send the military in as a show of force against the FLQ terrorists. The second was the Sureté du Quebec’s need to have Quebec cities and towns under military control to protect the public. The third was to establish control in the cities in order to facilitate a proper and full-investigation into the terrorist actions taking place in Quebec by the Sureté du Quebec and other law enforcement agencies. The Sureté du Quebec did in fact have a three-pronged approach in asking the Prime Minister to implement the War Measures Act and to send in the military. [1] 

The Sureté du Quebec, like any police force in the province of Quebec during the October Crisis, had a very hard time sending a message to the FLQ terrorists. Hitherto, the action by the police had been relatively mild, and certainly did not send any particular message of strength or power to the radical separatists. Without currently delving into the need for the physical support of the military (as this essay will do in the coming pages), the Sureté du Quebec knew that by sending in the military and imposing restrictions on the freedoms of everyone in the nation, a psychological message was being sent to the FLQ that ‘life was going to get much tougher’. In a battle with an enemy that is willing to cause mass public destruction, the Sureté du Quebec realized that winning the mental battle with the FLQ was going to be a major part of their overall October Crisis strategy. This symbolic request truly changed the nature of the October Crisis, making the Sureté du Quebec’s battle with FLQ much more serious and powerful.

But the battle with the FLQ was not fought solely in the mind; the Sureté du Quebec legitimately needed military boots on the ground in many major Quebec cities and towns. Law and order needed to be kept in the province and with a limited scope of man-power; the Sureté du Quebec was not up for the job. The military had thousands of reservists ready to be deployed on a moment’s notice. [2] Not only were these men available, but weapons and military tools (such as tanks) begun being utilized as physical weapons and mental ones (tanks tend to make the enemy feel weak). This military presence not only provided the Sureté du Quebec with an able group to secure towns and cities, but also expanded the scope of law enforcement beyond what the Sureté du Quebec, alone, would have been capable of. However, despite having the semblance of martial law, the military’s role in during the October Crisis was limited to supporting the Sureté du Quebec, and not taking a proactive role in the judicial side of policing. [3] Thus although the military played a key role in the providing security in the cities and towns of Quebec, the Sureté du Quebec (and the Quebec Court System) were still in charge.

The Sureté du Quebec made a wise decision in asking the Prime Minister to ‘send in the troops’ to Quebec. Although they are considered a provincial police force, the Sureté du Quebec could not handle law and order, while at the same time running in-depth investigations into the plethora of terrorist acts occurring during the October Crisis. It was for this reason (among others) that the Sureté du Quebec asked for military assistance. By easing pressure off of their own force, they were able to free-up manpower to complete full and thorough investigations into the serious crimes being committed during the Crisis. It is likely that had the Sureté du Quebec not asked for military assistance, they would not have been able to secure the freedom of James Cross as soon – or at all. Policemen previously busied with the relatively simple task of keeping order and peace were now able to work to free James Cross, investigate the FLQ and key information on their cells, and put more pressure on the FLQ by arresting and exposing as many members as possible.

As the frequency and severity of FLQ attacks began increasing during the latter portion of Nineteen Seventy, the Sureté du Quebec began finding itself increasingly more strained with keeping order and peace in Quebec cities and towns and needed a solution. The Sureté du Quebec’s decision to ask for military assistance in the form of the implementation of the War Measures Act by Prime Minister Trudeau created both a new mental and physical battle between the government and the FLQ. October Fifteenth marked the day that things got serious. The Sureté du Quebec literally called in the troops, a strong psychological message to the FLQ that the government was serious about restoring order to society. The military presence did in fact create order in the cities and town of Quebec as populace understood the severity of the presence of tanks in urban Canada. The military also eased the burden on the Sureté du Quebec and allowed them to focus on the investigative and recovery portion of their policing duties. The Sureté du Quebec was smart in calling for the military, and had they not done so, the October Crisis could very well have taken many more lives.

Although many claim that Canada was put under ‘military control’ during the October Crisis, other nations have imposed similar pieces of legislation in much less dire times. Some critics claim that because the October Crisis was the first time the War Measures Act was used in peacetime its implementation was reserved for far more serious and nationwide events. [4] Of course, the War Measures Act differs from its American, British, or even French counterpart, however the basic raison d’être of emergency acts is to provide the government with powers it did not previously have to deal with a crisis. Three comparisons that will be made in this essay exist on differing continents. The first, the United States of America, has been under varying states of emergency since President Bill Clinton. The second, the United Kingdom, utilized their Emergency Powers Act [5] a number of times to disband strikes and wage disputes throughout the Twentieth Century. The third, France, has declared a state of national emergency five times since Nineteen Fifty Five. Not only was Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act appropriate, but in contrast to implementations of similar acts in other nations, Trudeau’s decision seems nearly beyond reproach.

The United States of America, since the attacks on September Eleventh Two-Thousand and One, has seemingly found herself continually under one type of declaration of emergency or another. But even before those attacks, the United States has declared ’emergency embargoes’ on certain areas of the world since Nineteen Ninety-Five. The first of which, imposed by President Bill Clinton, was the Executive Order 13099 of Prohibiting Transactions with “Terrorists Who Threaten to Disrupt the Middle East Peace” [6] . This order formed an embargo targeted at Osama Bin Laden and his supporters. Although more of a foreign imposition of an act of emergency, Executive Order 13099 was still established under the United States National Emergencies Act, which is very similar to Canada’s Emergencies Act – the successor to the War Measures Act. Since Nineteen Ninety-Five, the United States has made a number of declarations of national emergency, including a sweeping declaration and continuation of emergency made by President Bush after the September Eleventh attacks on New York City. This declaration of national emergency continued until Two Thousand and Eight. [7] Not only has the United States utilized her powers of emergency, but it has done so on a nearly continual basis since the presidency of Bill Clinton. Canada, on the other hand, has used her powers of emergency only three times, and only once during peacetime.

Many critics would claim that the reasons the United States has used her powers of emergency so many times were justified. In contrast, Britain has used her powers of emergency for far different reasons. Unlike Canada, Britain did not use either of her Emergency Powers Acts (Nineteen Twenty and Nineteen Sixty-four) in any insurrection (namely the disputes in Northern Ireland). Britain almost exclusively used her emergency acts during employment strikes. Since the first Emergency Powers Act was created, the Act has been used a staggering twelve times – mainly during peacetime. For example, Harold Wilson – one of Britain’s more notorious Labour leaders – imposed the Act during a seamen’s in Nineteen Sixty Six. [8] This more casual use of her emergency shows how different British attitude is compared to Canadians and makes Trudeau’s imposition of the War Measures Act seem less controversial.

A country that has actually utilized her emergency powers in a similar manner as Trudeau during the FLQ Crisis is France. France has imposed her own emergency powers, called an État d’Urgence (literally State of Emergency), five times for a variety of reasons. The most recent imposition of État d’Urgence occurred in Two Thousand and Five when President Jacques Chirac declared a State of Emergency due to the escalation of violence in Paris caused by tensions in the immigrant community. Like the FLQ Crisis, the French imposed her emergency act to quell a violent uprising, but unlike Canada, even in hindsight the public had little issue with the invocation (although they took issue with the immigration policies enforced by the Chirac government).

Many opponents of Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to impose the War Measures Act during the October Crisis claim that the Act should not have been used in peacetime. However, nearly all other similarly-sized nations have utilized their own emergency acts during peacetime – mostly with little public backlash. Canada, on the other hand, seems to take issue (in hindsight of course) with Trudeau’s decision. As discussed above, three other nations have done the same in imposing acts of emergency during peacetime. The first, the United States, has utilized both economic and military arms of her own National Emergencies Act in recent years to combat terrorism and even Western African ‘blood diamond’ production. The second, the United Kingdom, has implemented her own Emergency Powers Act in peacetime – to break up strikes. The third, France, has used her État d’Urgence for similar reasons as Prime Minister Trudeau did during the October Crisis. When compared with invocations in other nations, Trudeau’s decision to implement the War Measures Act seems more robust and less controversial. An insurrection is a serious occurrence and as other nations can attest, responding to it with a Declaration of Emergency (such as the War Measures Act) can and likely will have the desired effect.

Although there has been substantial debate within both the academic and public realm throughout the past number of years, at the time when Trudeau made the decision, the Canadian public’s opinion – gathered through Gallup polls – was unambiguously in support of the imposition of the War Measures Act. There are three main reasons why this is important. The first is that nearly ninety percent of all English-Canadians agreed with Trudeau. [9] The second is that although some did disagree with his decision, the number only rested at six percent in English-Canada. [10] The third is the fact that most opponents of the decision to impose the War Measures Act switched their views in hindsight – a privilege Prime Minister Trudeau did not have at the time. Even though nearly all of the Canadian population was in support of the implementation of the War Measures Act, there remains a steady debate on the merit of Trudeau’s decision to this day.

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During the Nineteen Seventies, the international polling company Gallup asked Canadians what they thought of Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to invoke the War Measures Act. Unsurprisingly, when they analyzed their data, English- (or Anglophone-) Canada widely supported the Prime Minister’s decision – eighty-nine percent of those polled. [11] Gallup decided to split up the poll between English and French Canada as different results could be expected. However, when the results came in for French- (or Francophone-) Canada, the public also widely supported the Prime Minister’s resolution with eighty-six percent agreed with the executive decision. [12] This plurality of opinion in agreement with the Prime Minister’s decision shows the measure of fear the people and government of Canada faced. The Canadian populace was willing to have certain rights withheld from them if their overall freedom and safety was going to be retained by the government. Although these opinion poll results do not provide just cause for the implementation of the War Measures Act alone, they do cast light upon the climate of fear present in Canadian society during the October Crisis.

In the Gallup poll there were some who did not agree with the Prime Minister. Many would claim that those who did not agree with the Prime Minister were against his actions. This is not the case. Only six percent of those polled in English-Canada stated that they disagreed with the Prime Minister’s actions, the rest were undecided. [13] In French-Canada, the results were similar: nine percent of those polled disagreed with the Prime Minister and five percent claimed they were undecided. [14] These numbers are important in that they show the surprisingly low percentage of people who disagreed with the Prime Minister’s decision to enact the War Measures Act. There were a few notable exceptions in government. For example, Tommy Douglas the leader of the NDP disagreed with Trudeau’s decision on the basis that it infringed on the rights of Canadians. Even with those exceptions however, had the general public disagreed with the decision to enact the War Measures Act, not only would the approval ratings of Prime Minister Trudeau have plummeted, but a constitutional challenge could have resulted. [15] 

What is important to understand when looking at the plethora of opinions of modern historians on the decision made by Trudeau to enact the War Measures Act is that the public (and nearly all members of government) agreed with the Prime Minister’s decision. Looking in hindsight at a decision made by a man under extreme pressure in a window of a few hours and claiming he made the wrong choice is both unfair and unjust. Trudeau received the urgent call from the Sureté du Quebec late on October Fifteenth, early the following morning, the Prime Minister granted their wish. The Prime Minister had to make a quick, yet deeply important, decision on whether to enact the War Measures Act, and his ultimate resolution was one that the vast majority of Canadians agreed with.

The general public, according to the Gallup polls taken during the October Crisis, agreed heavily with the Prime Minister’s decision to enact the War Measures Act. Those who did not were in such small numbers that it is surprising to many that there is such a wide debate on the merits of the Prime Minister’s decision. The Prime Minister, however rushed, made the right decision according the general public of Canada. Although this in itself is not justification for his decision, it shows that the FLQ had truly made an impact on the psyche of Canada and its government – an impact that swayed the Prime Minister into invoking the War Measures Act.

A major reason there was such a sense of fear during the October Crisis was the sense of mystery surrounding the FLQ. This mystery truly scared both the police and the people of Quebec. The FLQ just seemed to be an organization bent on creating terror and alarm. They had no visible leader and were split up into cells (different cells, for example, kidnapped James Cross and Pierre Laporte) that operated secretly. There are two main reasons why the FLQ posed such a threat to the public. The first is the fact that the organization itself was incredibly secretive and both the public and the police alike did not have very much information on them. The second is the widely varying membership numbers that the FLQ claimed. Had the FLQ been less secretive, it is likely that the police could have dealt with them in a swifter manner, and the military may have not needed calling in.

Starting in the early Nineteen Sixties, the Front de Liberation du Quebec – or FLQ – committed few serious attacks on the government and public in Quebec. They did blow up mailboxes in the Anglophone Westmount community, but beyond those simple bombings (one of which unfortunately led to the death of a bomb-diffusing policeman) the FLQ stayed mainly underground and out of the public eye. In the late portion of the Nineteen Sixties, however, the FLQ planned and committed a number of larger bombings, including one on the Montreal Stock Exchange. This rapid escalation of their violence sent shockwaves throughout Quebec and Canada as a whole. In late Nineteen Seventy, however, the public was shocked by the kidnapping of James Cross and the murder of Pierre Laporte. By the time the October Crisis had begun, the Canadian public were mystified about just how the FLQ rose to such notoriety in the span of a couple of months. Fear was a major element in the decision of Prime Minster Trudeau to enact the War Measures Act. The FLQ posed a major threat in that they somehow, secretly, ended up holding Quebec at its mercy. Fear of the unknown was a major factor in Trudeau’s decision, and the FLQ was more than ready to provide that fear.

Directly after the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross, the FLQ released a ransom note called “Le Manifesto” which made a number of claims. One of these claims was that the organization had “100,000 revolutionary workers, armed and organized!” [16] This was of course worrying to both the people of Quebec, but also to law enforcement officials who needed an indication of the membership numbers of the FLQ in order to commit to an accurate response. Due to the mysterious nature of the FLQ, the officials had no idea whether or not the Manifesto claim was accurate. Worrying still was the fact that the Sureté du Quebec did not know the geographical scope of the FLQ and where most of their members were located. These unknown membership numbers were a large factor in the Sureté du Quebec’s decision to ask for the implementation of the War Measures Act from Prime Minister Trudeau. Had the true scope of the FLQ been known to police officials, the use of military action may not have been necessary.

The mysteriousness of the FLQ played heavily into the decision to enact the War Measures Act. The organization’s quick rise to full-scale terrorism not only scared the general public, but also scared law enforcement officials. This fear was aggravated further with the release of the FLQ Manifesto that claimed “100,000 revolutionary workers, armed and organized!” [17] Without knowing specific details about who the FLQ were, how many followers the organization had, and where in the country cells were located, the police were unable to measure their response. The call for military assistance in the form of the War Measures Act was inevitable and likely justified simply due to this cloud of uncertainty. The Sureté du Quebec needed the military to enforce law and order while police officials investigated the FLQ around the clock. Had the organization’s membership information been leaked to the public, it is likely that the Sureté du Quebec could have dealt with the group without military assistance. But because this information was not known, the Sureté du Quebec had no better option than calling for the implementation of the War Measures Act.

Although in contemporary Canada there exists a solid debate on the decision Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau made to implement the War Measures Act during the Nineteen Seventy October Crisis, during the Crisis itself, the vast majority of Canada’s people and politicians agreed with the Prime Minister’s decision. The October Crisis was a complete aberration in a country usually associated with peace – this aberration however, needed to be responded to with utmost care and vigilance. Prime Minister Trudeau reacted just this way, enacting the admittedly sweeping legislation that allowed him to send the military into a Canadian city. However sweeping the legislation was, it did play a major role in the attainment of peace and order and was the best resolution the Prime Minister could have made to a very tricky situation. Trudeau’s decision was correct for four main reasons. The first is that the military was needed by the Sureté du Quebec to maintain peace while police investigators tracked down the FLQ cells that captured James Cross and killed Pierre Laporte. The second is that while controversial, other emergency acts have been used in other nations around the world and are not as unacceptable to democracy as some claim. The third is the fact that public opinion was vastly in agreement with Trudeau’s decision. The fourth is that the mystery surrounding the FLQ and their membership information was unknown to police and this caused concern about what type of response was needed by the police. The Prime Minister’s decision to implement the War Measures Act was a multi-lateral one, one that was correct for the situation. Had Prime Minister Trudeau not enacted the War Measures Act during the October Crisis, there is a strong possibility that many more people would have been injured or killed in what was a dark point in Canadian history.


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