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In 1970, a hostage crisis turned Quebec upside-down and put many of Canadians' freedoms on hold. Today, historians still argue whether Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act was an overreaction or not

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Ottawa, Oct. 16, 1970: A newsboy holds up a copy of The Ottawa Journal reporting that, for the first time in peacetime, the federal government had invoked the War Measures Act to deal with a hostage crisis involving the Front de libération du Québec.The Canadian Press

Simon Lewsen is a writer based in Toronto and Ottawa.

In his 1974 film Les Ordres – one of the few Canadian movies that can rightly be called a classic – the director, Michel Brault, attempts to answer a tricky question: Why do authoritarian excesses happen in liberal democracies? Or, more precisely: Why, in the fall of 1970, were nearly 500 Canadians rounded up and jailed, mostly without warrants or charges, in a manner befitting a police state?

Mr. Brault’s lightly fictionalized film is set during the height of the October Crisis. The events leading up to it are well known. In early October, 1970, members of the Front de libération du Québec, a separatist paramilitary group, kidnapped two public officials, British diplomat James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, and threatened to kill them unless the authorities released 23 FLQ prisoners. In the case of Mr. Laporte, the kidnappers eventually carried out this threat.

The government of Pierre Trudeau responded first by calling in the army to patrol key locations in Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. Then, in the early hours of Oct. 16, and with the consent of the governor-general, Mr. Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, an emergency law from 1914 that gave the prime minister and his cabinet wide-ranging powers.

Under the act, they retroactively banned the FLQ, and anybody with vague or even suspected connections to the group was subject to arrest. To combat what the government deemed an insurrection, the police conducted thousands of warrantless raids and jailed 497 people. Just 62 were ever charged with a crime and a mere 18 convicted.

Mr. Brault tells the story of five prisoners – a left-wing social worker, a stay-at-home dad, a doctor who’d once run for office as a socialist, a union leader and his apolitical wife – their experiences compiled from interviews with 50 sources. The film depicts the trauma of the arrests (many carried out in front of frightened, tearful children), the terror of being consigned to a jail cell, the prosaic indignities of prison life and the abuses – violent interrogations, a mock execution and stints in solitary confinement.

At the finale, a character tersely sums up his thoughts on the ordeal: “It shows that something is rotten somewhere.” A liberal society that engages in such cruelties is in a terrible state of decay.

This is a common opinion on the October Crisis, but it isn’t the only one. There’s an alternate story that is much more flattering to Mr. Trudeau and the Canadian state. In this version, the government’s actions – the emergency laws, the mass arrests – were indeed unprecedented, but not irrational. Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet didn’t overact; they simply reacted, in a manner commensurate with the crisis at hand – at least as they understood it.

This story is strikingly different to the one Mr. Brault and other critics of the government have told over the years, but it remains prevalent. As the 50th anniversary of the crisis nears, we owe it to ourselves to figure out which is true.

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Soldiers stand guard at the Montreal home of James Cross, the British trade commissioner, on Oct. 16, 1970, the first day that the War Measures Act took effect.

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At left, prime minister Pierre Trudeau speaks with reporters Peter Reilly and Tim Ralphe on Oct. 13, the exchange where, when asked how far he would go against the FLQ, Mr. Trudeau said 'just watch me.' Five days later, at left, protesters denounce the War Measures Act as a step too far.Photos: The Canadian Press

For many leading Québécois cultural figures – not just Mr. Brault, but also his fellow filmmaker Pierre Falardeau, Quebec politician and eventual premier Bernard Landry, and poet Gaston Miron, who was imprisoned during the crisis – the events of October, 1970, suggested that the Canadian state couldn’t be trusted to honour its liberal ideals, at least in its dealings with francophones. Perhaps such attitudes have softened over time, but they haven’t disappeared. Many Quebeckers still remember the mass arrests as an appalling betrayal.

Proponents of this opinion often point to the apparent gap between the magnitude of the crisis and the government’s response. (In his memoir, No Surrender, native Montrealer and former senator Hugh Segal writes, “The hard truth is that a monster was unleashed the night in October 1970 when Trudeau imposed the War Measures Act.”) According to this argument, mechanisms like the War Measures Act are normally reserved for acts of war.

Yet the kidnappings were carried out not by a revolutionary insurgency but, rather, by a ragtag band of terrorists with roughly 35 active members. Between 1963, when the first FLQ bombing occurred, and October, 1970, when Mr. Laporte’s body was found in the trunk of a car near a Longueuil aircraft hangar, the FLQ killed a total of seven Canadians. (One of Mr. Laporte’s kidnappers, Paul Rose, insisted the murder was itself a response to the War Measures Act, which had come into effect a day earlier.)

Critics argue that, surely, such a crisis could’ve been handled using normal constitutional means. One expects the government to investigate and prosecute crimes; one doesn’t expect it to suspend civil liberties to do so. In addition to arresting known FLQ operatives, the police rounded up poets, musicians, journalists, academics, students and left-wing activists under the McCarthyite pretext that anybody who’d once had FLQ sympathies – or had spent time with those who did – was a potential collaborator. They even arrested a teenager whose only offence was having politically outspoken parents.

Due process was put on hold. For the first week behind bars, detainees weren’t able to consult lawyers, seek bail, request information as to why they’d been confined, or challenge their confinement in court. Many were denied contact with the outside world; to their loved ones, it was as if they’d disappeared.

The average detainee spent seven days confined, but others were jailed for more than three months, and according to sociologist Christopher Hewitt, some reported being physically abused or beaten during their arrests or interrogations. The War Measures Act did not explicitly give police the right to abuse prisoners, but it did hugely increase their discretionary powers. Abuse was a predictable outcome.

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A Quebec provincial police officer handcuffs a young man in one of the first War Measures Act raids on Oct. 16.The Canadian Press

As research by the sociologist Dominique Clément reveals, the cultural impact of the War Measures Act reached far beyond Quebec.

Newspaper editors received ominous phone calls from the Prime Minister’s Office warning them against printing the FLQ manifesto. The mayor of Vancouver publicly threatened to use the emergency powers against hippies and draft dodgers. And the premier of British Columbia made an order-in-council banning teachers and university professors from expressing opinions that might be deemed favourable to the FLQ.

Were such tactics really necessary to combat a terrorist movement barely larger than the Royal Winnipeg Ballet? Surely, Mr. Trudeau’s critics argue, a liberal nation that resorts to autocratic measures so quickly and on such flimsy pretexts can’t rightly be called liberal at all.

But there’s an alternate version of the story – favoured, for instance, by journalist D’Arcy Jenish and former Quebec cabinet minister William Tetley, authors of the two most prominent English-language books on the crisis – in which Canada didn’t succumb needlessly to despotism. Proponents of this viewpoint often point out that desperate times call for desperate measures: That’s why emergency legislation exists in the first place.

(The most succinct formulation of this argument comes from Mr. Tetley’s book The October Crisis, 1970: “Admittedly it was a drastic measure, but the times were perilous. It was not perfectly democratic in theory but there was no alternative to preserve democracy in practice.”)

As for Mr. Trudeau and his ministers, they weren’t the knee-jerk autocrats their critics have made them out to be. They behaved, rather, as statesmen sometimes must, by making imperfect decisions in the midst of a confusing, high-stakes situation.

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Mr. Cross plays solitaire in a photo released by his FLQ abductors in early November of 1970.The Canadian Press

One can see too where this argument comes from. The kidnappings may have been anomalous, but they were legitimately terrifying: Mr. Cross was captured during an armed home invasion and Mr. Laporte was picked up on his front lawn. Over the years, the FLQ had created a climate of paranoia and fear.

Prior to the events of 1970, the group had planted hundreds of bombs, conducted dozens of bank robberies, hijacked a plane and assembled a sizable arsenal of guns and dynamite. The fact that only seven Canadians died at the hands of the FLQ is a testament not to the group’s benevolence but rather to the tireless work of Robert Côté – the head of the Montreal bomb squad and a character in Mr. Jenish’s 2018 book, The Making of the October Crisis – who bravely dismantled explosives, sometimes minutes before they detonated.

If the FLQ was never a sizable revolutionary army, Mr. Trudeau had no way of knowing this fact, since terrorist organizations don’t publicize their membership rolls. What he did have was anecdotal evidence of a growing insurrectionist mood. On Oct. 15, 1970, 3,000 people crowded into a Montreal arena to chant FLQ slogans, and 1,000 University of Montreal students endorsed the group’s manifesto.

Rumours were circulating that a cabal of Quebec luminaries, including Parti Québécois leader René Lévesque, were building a provisional government in case the existing one in Quebec City collapsed. Having neither the means nor the time to establish whether such rumours were true, Mr. Trudeau can be forgiven, his defenders argue, for taking the threat of insurrection seriously.

To say Mr. Trudeau’s decisions were undemocratic is to miss the fact that they were popular – and enacted via institutional means. At the time the War Measures Act was in force, 89 per cent of anglophones and 86 per cent of francophones supported its invocation, including Quebec premier Robert Bourassa and Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau.

Before invoking the act, Mr. Trudeau engaged in agonized debates with his cabinet. He later put the decision to Parliament, where it got near-unanimous consent. Just 16 MPs voted against it. From the outset of the crisis, Mr. Trudeau promised Canadians the emergency measures would be temporary. The fact that he kept this promise would seem to indicate – at least to his defenders – that he never had authoritarian ambitions.

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Soldiers stand guard on the roof of a Montreal courthouse on Oct. 20, where Pierre Laporte's body was lying in state before a funeral at Notre Dame Basilica.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

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The Chénier cell of the FLQ, which kidnapped and killed Mr. Laporte, included the brothers Paul and Jacques Rose, left, and Francis Simard, top right. The Libération cell, which captured Mr. Cross, included Marc Carbonneau, bottom right.The Canadian Press

These two narratives are the most common versions of the October Crisis story. To the question of which is correct, the answer, it should be clear, is both. What’s striking about these seemingly contradictory accounts is they aren’t really contradictory at all. When Mr. Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, he was indeed responding, rationally and in good faith, to what he deemed a terrifying situation. But it is simultaneously true that this course of action was unforgivable – a decision no leader in a liberal democracy should ever make.

In the provocative essay The Reichstag Fire Next Time, journalist Masha Gessen discusses how national emergencies often result in the diminishment of human freedom and the consolidation of state power. Mx. Gessen discusses some of the most notorious tyrants of the past hundred years: Adolf Hitler, who, immediately after the Reichstag fire, began rounding up dissidents and sending them to camps, and Vladimir Putin, who, following a series of apartment bombings in Moscow in the late 1990s, assumed ever-greater powers, including, in time, the power to suspend regional elections.

But Mx. Gessen also brings up figures one normally thinks of as liberal pluralists. They mention Abraham Lincoln’s policy, during the American Civil War, of detaining suspected secessionists without due process, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt, some 80 years later and in the midst of a similarly awful war, would consign Japanese Americans to internment camps.

Mx. Gessen mentions Barack Obama as well, who, eight times during his eight-year presidency, extended the suite of emergency measures his predecessor, George W. Bush, had enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks. One might bristle at any argument that mentions Mr. Obama, a committed liberal, alongside some of the most sinister figures in living memory. Mx. Gessen is mindful of such distinctions, but argues that, if you want to understand how repression works, you have to recognize that liberal societies aren’t immune. It doesn’t take an autocrat to enact autocratic policies.

And while the emergencies that precipitate such policies are occasionally hoaxes (some historians believe the Nazis set the Reichstag fire themselves), they don’t have to be. In 1971, when then British prime minister Edward Heath consented to Operation Demetrius – a military campaign resulting in the imprisonment without trial of 342 suspected IRA dissidents – he was responding to a genuine crisis that would eventually claim thousands of lives. And when, each year, on the anniversary of Sept. 11, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama renewed emergency directives that gave them powers not normally afforded by their office, they were seeking to prevent a repeat of the most deadly attack in the United States since Pearl Harbor.

The emergency Mr. Trudeau faced was likewise real, and the crackdown was a rational response to it – insomuch as it is always rational for a leader, in the midst of a horrifying crisis, to wish to respond using any means at hand. But while such an argument is defensible, it’s also beside the point. To say that the mass arrests were rational is not to say that they were right – or that, in a liberal democracy, these things ever are.

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Army troops head along the wall of provincial police headquarters in Montreal on Oct. 18.The Canadian Press

When, during two secret meetings on Oct. 15, Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet debated the War Measures Act, some people – including Allan MacEachen, house leader and future deputy prime minister – expressed trepidation. It’s worth asking what might’ve happened if Mr. Trudeau had listened to his more cool-headed deputies and declined to invoke the act.

Such a decision would have compelled the police to rely on traditional investigative techniques, such as search warrants and lawful interrogations, rather than imprisonment, arbitrary raids and intimidation. It would have put an additional burden on the army to do everything it could to keep watch and ensure further kidnappings didn’t happen. It would’ve honoured the distinctions – fine-grained at times, but sacred in a liberal society – between criminals versus suspects, and terrorists versus intellectual non-conformists. And in a country full of anxious citizens calling for strong leadership, it would’ve made Mr. Trudeau look weak – a look that, in his opinion, never suited him.

None of this would’ve been easy. But then again, leadership rarely is, and we should expect our leaders to defend due process not only when it is convenient and safe to do so, but also when it isn’t. To argue otherwise is to position civil liberties as a happy byproduct of social harmony: We can have them, but only on good days.

And to point out the War Measures Act was a time-limited, emergency ordinance – an aberration rather than a norm – is to ignore the many ways it shaped Canadian society. The most obvious consequence was the further breakdown in trust between anglophones and francophones, culminating in the 1976 election of the Parti Québécois and the sovereignty referendum of 1980. (Francophones may have supported the War Measures Act at the time of its invocation, but the mass arrests created lasting resentment.)

Moreover, even after the emergency measures expired in April, 1971, months after Mr. Cross had been saved and Mr. Laporte’s killers arrested, the spirit of paranoia persisted. Once they’ve been given extra-legal powers, police don’t quickly relinquish them. During the 1970s, the RCMP illegally harassed and surveyed suspected sovereigntists and raided the offices of the Parti Québécois.

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Demonstrators and police face off in the rain in downtown Toronto in June, 2010, during the G20 summit.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Perhaps the most lasting outcome of the War Measures Act, though, was the peacetime norms it helped establish. Previously, prime ministers Robert Borden and Mackenzie King had authorized brutal internment campaigns during the First and Second World Wars. But by invoking the War Measures Act in 1970, Mr. Trudeau asserted that, even in an era of peace, prosperity and rising liberalism, mass arrests were still acceptable.

It would be an exaggeration to say such measures led directly to the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 – which enabled the government to arrest suspects pre-emptively – or to the 2010 crackdown at the Group of 20 summit in Toronto, during which 1,100 protesters were detained. But it’s fair to say they set a cultural precedent, making the excesses of 2001 and 2010 that much more likely. Among voters and members of the political class, the events of 1970 expanded the sense as to what’s possible – and permissible – in a democratic country at peace.

Pierre Trudeau is often remembered as Canada’s greatest liberal – the man who made multiculturalism an official policy, patriated the Constitution and enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enshrining, among other things, a right against arbitrary detention and imprisonment. That this same man was instrumental in one of the most egregious campaigns of arbitrary detention and imprisonment isn’t something we should ever forgive.

Mr. Brault’s Les Ordres begins with an epigraph from Mr. Trudeau: “When a man is abused unjustly by any form of authority, all men are responsible, for it is they who, by their silence, commit and condone such abuse.” Unlike most epigraphs, this one is meant ironically, particularly in light of the narrative of abuse that follows. Here’s what the prime minister believed, Mr. Brault is saying. And here’s what he did. Both of these things are true.

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