D’Arcy Jenish is a magazine journalist and the author of 10 books, including The Making of the October Crisis.
You have to hand it to Yves-François Blanchet: He’s one smooth operator.
Over the summer, the Bloc Québécois Leader announced plans to introduce a non-confidence motion when the House of Commons resumed sitting after more than a month of prorogation. But when it proved to be a non-starter with the other opposition parties, he cleverly changed tack.
In a September interview with La Presse, Mr. Blanchet stated that the Bloc would demand an official apology from the Government of Canada for the imposition of the War Measures Act (WMA) during the October Crisis of 1970 – a crisis that began when members of the Front de libération du Québec kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte.
This is a clever bit of political mischief with electoral implications for both the government and the Conservatives. Justin Trudeau could never support an apology, since it was his father who invoked the WMA – albeit at the request Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau and Quebec premier Robert Bourassa. But a refusal by Mr. Trudeau could put him on the wrong side of a significant swath of Quebec public opinion in the run-up to the next federal election. At the very least, the Bloc hopes to embarrass the Prime Minister, who has issued more official apologies for historical wrongdoings than any previous prime minister – and in the space of five years, no less.
Conservative House Leader Gérard Deltell – one of the party’s 10 Quebec MPs – has categorically rejected an official apology. To do otherwise would risk antagonizing Conservative voters, especially those in the West. Mr. Blanchet undoubtedly anticipated that response and surely hopes it will cost the Conservatives some of their seats in the province.
Mr. Blanchet asserted in his La Presse interview that Ottawa has a historic obligation to apologize for wrongs committed against Quebeckers during the October Crisis. Acting under the WMA, police in Montreal and other Quebec cities arrested and detained almost 500 individuals. Most were held long enough to be interrogated – hours in some cases, days in others – and the vast majority were never charged with criminal offences. According to Mr. Blanchet, the detention of hundreds of innocent people not only violated their civil rights, it was “an act of extreme violence.”
If this constitutes “extreme violence,” then what does the Bloc Québécois Leader make of the seven-plus years of FLQ-inspired urban terrorism that preceded the October Crisis, which roiled Quebec society and inflicted grave damage on Montreal, the epicentre of the violence?
Felquistes, as these terrorists became known, stole hundreds of pounds of dynamite from quarries and construction sites. They were responsible for more than 200 bombings. They committed dozens of armed robberies and caused the deaths of six people, including a 16-year-old who was planting a bomb and a 65-year-old night watchman who was about to retire. All this before the kidnappings and before Mr. Laporte was murdered by two of the four men who abducted him at gunpoint, on the Saturday evening of Thanksgiving weekend, while he played catch with his nephew in front of his suburban home.
By any reasonable definition, it was the radical and misguided young hotheads of the FLQ who were guilty of “extreme violence,” not the Government of Canada.
But then, sovereigntist politicians have never accepted the elder Trudeau’s handling of the October Crisis and have played fast and loose with the truth. The deployment of combat-ready troops to Montreal and elsewhere in the province has been termed “the occupation of Quebec.” Yet it was Mr. Bourassa’s government that requested the military assistance. Furthermore, soldiers of the Royal 22nd Regiment – the Van Doos, a francophone regiment – were among those sent to Montreal.
It has also been said – and said so often that it has achieved the weight of conventional wisdom among sovereigntists – that the Trudeau government used the October Crisis as a pretext for crushing their movement by imposing the WMA, deploying the military and allowing police to conduct mass arrests. This is an outright falsehood, proved to be so by the historic record.
Indeed, on Oct. 18, 1970, two days after the imposition of the WMA, the Parti Québécois’s own lawyer, Pothier Ferland, presented a legal opinion at a meeting of the party’s national council. “It should be well noted,” Mr. Ferland wrote, “that the law itself does not target and is not aimed at other associations or political parties that do not advocate the use of violence or force, but on the contrary employ democratic methods. It is therefore evident that neither the law nor the regulations target the Parti Québécois.”
Fifty years have passed since the October Crisis – more than 50 since the emergence of the FLQ and its long campaign of urban terrorism. The passage of time should have deepened and clarified our understanding of these events. But that has not happened, thanks to the kind of revisionist narratives peddled by sovereigntist politicians such as Mr. Blanchet and his fellow travellers.
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