As Bloc Québecois leader Yves-François Blanchet has reminded Quebecers this week, it was fifty years ago that the federal government of Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act (WMA) to deal with a perceived insurrection by the separatist FLQ, a violent terrorist group in Quebec that had been traumatizing residents of the province for several years. Sadly Blanchet is framing this event to suit his own purposes, using typical separatist mythology and dismissing inconvenient truths. For him it is not the terrorists who were guilty of extreme violence, but the federal government. Likewise he portrays the federal government as invading the province for crass political purposes, rather than as responding to provincial pleas for aid in the face of this violence. Trudeau himself is accused of being a knee-jerk autocrat, rather than a leader reluctantly taking a difficult decision, one overwhelmingly supported by parliament and public opinion. In short, this is yet another separatist attempt to rewrite history.
What are the facts? To begin with, between 1963 and 1970 the Felquistes, as they were known, stole huge quantities of dynamite from construction sites, committed numerous armed robberies, hijacked a plane, and were responsible for more than 200 bombings of mailboxes, banks, the Montreal Stock Exchange, a department store and an armed forces armoury. They had already killed six people before the events of 1970, when they escalated their threats by kidnapping a provincial cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte, and the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross. In exchange for their hostages they demanded the release of 23 Felquistes imprisoned for various criminal offences described above. The Bourassa government refused. A week later Laporte’s body was found and Cross was still missing, although he was later released unharmed.
Apprised of these developments, the federal cabinet of Pierre Trudeau met on October 15 to debate whether or not to invoke the WMA, having been informed by the RCMP that they had no idea of the extent of the group’s reach or membership, and could not predict when or whether other violent incidents were likely. In Montreal the same day, some 3,000 people gathered in an arena to chant FLQ slogans and more than 1000 university students in the city formally endorsed the group’s manifesto. Meanwhile the premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, had implored Trudeau to send in the army to quell what he perceived to be an out-of-control insurrection and subsequently formally requested that Trudeau invoke the WMA.
Numerous accounts by federal cabinet ministers involved in the discussions indicated that they were agonizing over the potential use of force, the dispatch of the military within Canada, and the temporary suspension of civil liberties. In the end, concluding that they had a duty to protect Canadian citizens in the light of so many unknowns, the decision was reluctantly taken to comply with Bourassa’s request, sending the francophone Twenty-Second Royal Regiment (the Van Doos) to Montreal and invoking the War Measures Act, which the government repeatedly stressed was a temporary measure. The decision was also put to parliament, which supported the move with near-unanimous consent,[i] as did the Quebec premier, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, and 86% of francophones in the province.[ii]
Yet Trudeau was widely criticized by sovereignists for this intervention, as they played fast and loose with the facts. Conveniently ignoring that the premier and the mayor of Montreal had requested military support, they spoke of the armed “occupation” of Quebec by the federal government. They implied that Trudeau’s decision to invoke the act had been politically motivated, and was really an effort to eliminate the Parti Québecois, a legitimate political party led by the charismatic René Lévesque. They also falsely claimed that it was the federal government that had ordered the indiscriminate arrest of sovereignist sympathizers.
Unfortunately, few would disagree that provincial and municipal police forces in Quebec abused their powers under the WMA, arresting not simply known FLQ members but also many leading journalists, musicians, academics, and students who were merely believed to have separatist sympathies. With due process temporarily suspended under the Act, some prisoners were physically harmed and others were detained for up to a week without charge. Not surprisingly, many of these individuals became ardent supporters of the PQ and of Quebec separatism, if they had not been before. But the fault hardly lay with the federal government. In fact, the PQ’s own lawyer provided the party executive with a legal opinion on the wording of the Act which specifically noted that the law did not target any groups which did not advocate violence, and in particular that “neither the law nor the regulations target the Parti Québecois.”[iii]
Still, the fallout from the crisis led to the rise to power of Lévesque and the separatist Parti Québecois in 1976, and a referendum on Quebec separation from Canada called by Lévesque in 1980 which, notably, was handily defeated by Trudeau and the federalist forces. A second referendum in 1995, called by former Lévesque Finance Minister and PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, suffered a second defeat, although much narrower due to the incompetence of the federalist forces. It also led to the introduction of the Clarity Act by the Chrétien government, a measure which enjoys widespread popularity nationally and in Quebec.
The caravan has moved on. As Lucien Bouchard, the former Bloc Québecois founder and later PQ premier of Quebec discovered to his dismay, support for separatism had plummeted in the province. The PQ is now a spent force and, until the 2019 federal election, so was the Bloc.
But the selection of Yves-François Blanchet as the new leader of the federal separatist party in early 2019 proved to be an inspired choice. Blanchet, a former cabinet minister in the PQ government of Pauline Marois, was best known as a fiery demagogue and Marois’s pitbull, particularly on Bill 21, the so-called “secularity” legislation banning religious attire and symbols. After he assumed the leadership of the nearly moribund Bloc he somehow managed to portray himself as a moderate elder statesman. He avoided all mention of separatism — despite the fact the party’s constitution still calls for Quebec’s separation from Canada – and instead presented the party as some sort of harmless lobby group promoting Quebec interests in Ottawa. The transformation convinced many Quebec voters.
Another major reason for the party’s success was Blanchet’s strident defence of Bill 21, hugely popular in the province but widely seen outside Quebec as a discriminatory violation of Charter rights. Knowing that no other federal party would support the bill, Blanchet – who has no reason to concern himself with national unity issues — deliberately goaded the other party leaders in the election debates, thereby reminding Quebecers of this cultural divide.
The end result was gratifying for a party that had been on life support only a few months earlier. Instead of fading away in the 2019 election as expected, the Bloc not only held on to its 10 existing seats but added another 22.
Yet as Blanchet is only too well aware, that success may be fleeting. Rather than the Bloc, it is Justin Trudeau, (another Quebecer) and his Liberal government who have become the face of Quebec in Ottawa during this lengthy pandemic, the real federal counterpart to CAQ premier François Legault. With Legault’s initially positive reviews fading fast as cases in that province soar and he too has been obliged to request aid from Ottawa, including a detachment of the Canadian military to rescue him from the long term care home crisis, Trudeau’s positive image in the province increases daily. Meanwhile the minority status of Trudeau’s government suggests that an election cannot be that far way, and possibly by the spring of 2021. What is a Bloc leader to do?
The answer, apparently, is to resurrect the debate over the invocation of the War Measures Act, demanding an apology from the federal government for the abuse of civil rights that occurred, clearly hoping to once again turn Quebecers against the federal government and particularly the Liberals, now led by another Trudeau.
This patently opportunistic move would be bad enough. Raising ancient history in the middle of a national crisis greater than anything seen since the Second World War is clearly both cavalier and self-serving. But the damage may not end there. Relying on half-truths, outright lies and mythology, separatists in the past have exploited Quebecers’ faith in their leaders to create a toxic political environment and decades of federal-provincial conflict. If not addressed firmly and promptly, Blanchet’s ploy is likely to have the same effect as the fact-free attack that Quebec separatists launched yet again after the federal-provincial negotiations that led to the Constitution Act, 1982 and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Among other things, separatist leaders claimed that Quebec had been ambushed by the other provinces and the federal government, who had agreed to changes that premier Lévesque opposed without consulting him, and then had presented him with an unpalatable fait accompli. Even though personal accounts by two of the participants (Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and Lévesque himself) [iv], later admitted that the so-called “Night of the Long Knives” never occurred and was a deliberate fabrication, separatists over the ensuing years have continued to promote this and other fallacious accounts and outright lies in their attempts to discredit federal governments and solidify their base.
After the 1995 referendum, prime minister Jean Chrétien launched a series of measures to prevent a repeat performance. One of those measures was to recruit a Quebec academic, Stephane Dion, to carefully and systematically address each and every incorrect statement made by Quebec separatist leaders, including premier Bouchard and his intergovernmental affairs minister, Joseph Facal. The approach, known as Plan B, worked. By the time Chrétien left office in 2003 support for separation in the province had fallen to levels below that of the 1970’s.
Both Bloc and PQ fortunes also plummeted until M. Blanchet’s surprising revival in 2019. With that revival now threatened, can anyone doubt that his ploy to raise the War Measures Act is a deliberate attempt to once again promote separatist mythology for political gain? The time to set the record straight is now, not during an election campaign.
[i] Both Conservative leader Robert Stanfield and NDP leader Tommy Douglas gave speeches opposing the move, but only 16 MPs voted against the measure in a House of Commons of 264 members.
[ii] For more detail and alternative perspectives see D’arcy Jenish. The Making of the October Crisis (2018); William Tetley. The October Crisis 1970: An Insider’s View (1978); and Michael Kennedy. The FLQ and the Efficacy of Terrorism.(2014)
[iii] Cited in Simon Lewsen. “Elusive Truth: The FLQ Crisis’s Competing Narratives”. Globe and Mail. October 3, 2020.
[iv] R. Levesque. Attendez Que Je Me Rappelle (1986) and P. Lougheed. Constitutional Patriation: The Levesque-Lougheed Correspondance. (1999)