by J.D. Benjamin – BASICS Issue #23 (Nov/Dec 2010)
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the invocation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis of 1970; the largest mass detention in Canadian history, only surpassed by the arrests during the G20 protests of this year.
Although the October Crisis began with the kidnapping of James Cross by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), the federal government had been considering using the War Measures Act against the left and nationalist movements in Quebec since at least May 1970.
While the FLQ was a small organization with never more than 35 members, “member or supporter” was very loosely defined by the government.
Unless you could produce evidence otherwise, merely attending an FLQ meeting, speaking publicly “in advocacy” of the FLQ or passing on its statements was considered proof of membership in the organization.
It was immediately apparent that the government was not just going after the FLQ, but intended to crush the entire left wing opposition and nationalist movement in Quebec, whether or not they had any violent inclinations.
Within 48 hours, over 250 people were rounded up, including well known labour leaders, artists, intellectuals and members of the Parti Québécois.
As the late Trudeau-era cabinet minister Eric Kierans wrote in his 2001 memoirs: “None of the secret police raids turned up the guns, rifles, machine guns, bombs or dynamite, although they did sweep up Pauline Julien, who sang separatist songs.”
The police also targeted various socialist organizations, including ones that had been long-standing critics of the FLQ. Their offices were raided, members arrested for the “crime” of selling newspapers, and books and other materials were confiscated or vandalized.
In all, 3,068 police raids took place, 468 people were arrested without charges and only two were ever charged.
Those arrested were held incommunicado and denied access to legal advice for days on end, with their families unable to contact them.
Other state authorities tried to seize the opportunity to abuse their new powers. The mayor of Vancouver (hardly an FLQ stronghold) attempted to use the new security legislation to clear city beaches of hippies.
There was also a broad campaign of censorship directed at the media and various student newspapers, including in English Canada at the University of Guelph, the University of Lethbridge, St. Mary’s University, and Memorial University.
However, several student newspapers defied the censors and published the FLQ manifesto anyway.
In addition to their expanded legal powers, the RCMP and police escalated their campaign of “dirty tricks.”
It was later revealed at various official inquiries that the RCMP and police had staged break-ins at press offices sympathetic to Quebec nationalism, entered over 400 premises without a warrant and held people illegally.
Not only that, they also burned down a barn, stole dynamite and then blamed the FLQ for the theft, issued fake FLQ statements advocating violence and stole lists of names of members of the Parti Québécois.
It was also revealed that police had allowed FLQ actions to proceed despite information from an informant, and that from the beginning they had a small list of suspects to the kidnapping that included actual FLQ members and could have had all the kidnappers under arrest within the year.
The authorities had been more interested in mass repression than in solving any crimes or going after the FLQ.
Indeed, the FLQ was so heavily controlled by police agents that one Montreal police intelligence agent later admitted that by 1972 “we were the FLQ.”
The War Measures Act is another example of how little respect the Canadian state has for basic human rights. Ultimately, its commitment is to maintaining order, no matter how unjust that order may be.