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A newsboy holds up a newspaper with a banner headline reporting the invoking of the War Measures Act on Oct 16, 1970, following the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte by the FLQ. (CP)
A newsboy holds up a newspaper with a banner headline reporting the invoking of the War Measures Act on Oct 16, 1970, following the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte by the FLQ. (CP)

40 years later: Security and the FLQ Add to ...

The October Crisis began at 8:15 a.m. on Oct. 5, 1970, at the home of the British trade commissioner in Montreal, James Cross.

Two members of the Libération cell of the Front de libération du Québec knocked at his door, disguised as delivery men. Admitted to the house by a maid, they pulled their guns and kidnapped him.

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By the time the crisis ended on Dec. 28, Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte had also been kidnapped and then murdered, the national government of Pierre Trudeau had invoked the first peacetime use of the War Measures Act - suspending Canadians' civil liberties - and the army had been deployed in Ottawa and throughout Quebec.

Canadians watching their television screens saw every appearance of a country under martial law. Tanks were on the lawns of Parliament. Hundreds of union leaders, artists, scholars, students and other political activists in Quebec were rounded up by police, arrested and detained without charge. The mayor of Vancouver tried to employ the security regulations to clear the city's beaches of hippies.

Forty years later, the legacy of the October Crisis challenges the notion of who we think we are.

The steps taken under the aegis of the War Measures Act - overwhelmingly supported by both French- and English-speaking Canadians - remain a symbol of the country's fragile attachment to civil liberties and human rights, with echoes along the road from anti-terror legislation in the wake of 9/11 and the policing of the streets of Toronto during the G20 summit.

Despite the Charter of Rights and Freedoms being cherished as a symbol of national identity, it is the mantra of Canada's first Constitution of 1867 - "peace, order and good government" - that appears to trump all other mythologies of the country that Canadians want.

"They like peace and they like order," says Ramsay Cook, one of Canada's greatest historians. "I don't think this has ever been a country that had an enormous interest in civil rights."

The imposition of the War Measures Act indelibly stained the stature of Mr. Trudeau as a civil libertarian and advocate of democracy - even though it was done at the request of Quebec's premier Robert Bourassa and Montreal's mayor Jean Drapeau.

Recent scholarship by, among others, historian John English, author of an exhaustive two-volume Trudeau biography, has lent support to the former prime minister's declaration that he acted to deal with an apprehended insurrection. Yet his response of "Just watch me" to a CBC reporter who asked him how far he would go to defeat the FLQ was tied to him for the rest of his life, and ignited a still-ongoing debate over whether the act's application was justified.

But the FLQ crisis was hardly the first time in Canadian history that civil liberties have taken a beating; the impulse toward law and order is woven into the fabric of the country.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the Métis of the Prairies were starving, the buffalo herds on which they depended had been killed off, land promises had been reneged upon. Yet their resistance to government measures - which eventually led to the Northwest Rebellion - was met only by relentless demands from newspapers of the day that their defiance be crushed.

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was ended by gunfire from police. The communism that took root among the unemployed of the Great Depression was criminalized. The federal government of Mackenzie King that invoked the War Measures Act at the beginning of the Second World War refused to allow Parliament to discuss its regulations - regulations harsher than measures under comparable legislation imposed by Britain, which was under direct enemy attack.

Following the cessation of hostilities, the courts upheld the government's decision to use the War Measures Act to deport Canadian citizens of Japanese descent.

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