David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.
Canadians would be forgiven if they watched the U.S. President speak this month and felt a sense of déjà vu.
In early June, a protest group took over parts of east-end Seattle, pronouncing it a police-free area, and declaring what they called a “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.” Both the Governor of Washington State and the mayor of Seattle urged calm.
“If there were more toughness, you wouldn’t have the kind of devastation that you had in Minneapolis and in Seattle. I mean, let’s see what’s going on in Seattle,” Mr. Trump told Ms. Faulkner. “I will tell you, if they don’t straighten that situation out, we’re going to straighten it out.”
In short: Just watch me.
That famous vow of course, came from Pierre Trudeau, who in the October Crisis in 1970 invoked the War Measures Act, deployed military forces in Quebec after the kidnapping of a Quebec political leader and a British diplomat, and suggested in a press scrum that he might take even more drastic steps to battle the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ).
And that vow’s spirit found another echo in an entirely different context, 50 years later, from the mouth of the U.S. President, after peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis spurred street skirmishes with police and squalls of store break-ins, as well as furious debate across the United States about the sanctity of dissent in civic life, the role of the military in domestic life, and the President’s judgment, temperament and commitment to democratic values.
Mr. Trump’s threat of military intervention to handle domestic unrest created a cultural sonic boom that raised many of the same questions that coursed through a different country in different circumstances in a difficult time.
Mr. Trudeau’s decision to invoke a law enacted in 1914 to confront a crisis in 1970 had some of the same elements – and provoked some of the same passionate debate – as Mr. Trump’s threat to invoke a law enacted in 1807 to confront a crisis in 2020.
In both cases, the question turned on the legitimacy of the application of the four syllables of the word “insurrection” to the situation. Mr. Trudeau identified an “apprehended insurrection” in Quebec after the kidnapping of Quebec’s deputy premier Pierre Laporte and British diplomat James Cross when he invoked the War Measures Act. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has rested his authority to make his threat on the Insurrection Act, passed during the administration of Thomas Jefferson and intended to be employed in “an insurrection in any State against its government.”
The authority to mobilize federal troops has also been used in both countries. Mr. Trudeau had himself deplored the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1942, when he criticized prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King for using it to strip those of Japanese descent or nationality of their property and to intern them during the Second World War. And Jefferson, regarded as an apostle of civil liberties, had employed the Insurrection Act his administration crafted when he declared parts of New York and Vermont around Lake Champlain “in a state of insurrection” over violations of the Embargo Act of 1807 prompted by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe.
Yet, one of America’s most curious character flaws remains its inability to look northward for inspiration in good days and instruction in hard days.
The upheavals of 1970 and 2020 – though very different in tone and consequence – underline the discomfort prompted inside democracies over military boots on civilian streets. And while Mr. Trudeau would experience unease after his initial bravado – and, later, perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt, or at least persistent anguished reflection – and that likely led him to fortify his longstanding effort to win a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enshrined in law a dozen years after the October Crisis.
Mr. Trump’s angry threat, meanwhile, has so far prompted an impassioned reaction that only underlined the broader divisions in American life.
While Mr. Trump’s call for military forces likely grew out of an impulse rather than deep ideological introspection, the Trudeau case was far more complex. The prime minister had been involved in social movements in Quebec since the 1940s and was a leading Quebec civil libertarian, but by 1970, had seen explosions in mailboxes near his neighbourhood. He understood the issues involved in questions of Quebec culture and sovereignty, and knew that as a result of his actions he would come to be regarded by some of his oldest friends and intellectual fellow-travellers as a traitor.
The employment of federal troops was, for many in francophone political circles, as if a dream had died.
“As soon as they started putting our friends in jail, it’s a whole new story,” Jacques Parizeau, a Parti Québécois leader who for 17 months beginning in September, 1994, would serve as Quebec’s premier, said at the time. “They’ve become an autocracy.’’ The opposition, moreover, didn’t come only from Quebec nationalists: NDP leader Tommy Douglas said Mr. Trudeau’s decision was the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.
Mr. Trudeau, who clearly saw the October Crisis as a moment when the War Measures Act’s provisions regarding the “security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada’’ directly applied, responded to Mr. Douglas: “Peanuts don’t make bombs, don’t take hostages and don’t assassinate prisoners. And as for the sledgehammer, it was the only tool at our disposal.”
For the prime minister, the FLQ offensive was a threat to Canada’s survival, especially after Mr. Laporte was killed.
“Public opinion was hardening and a hard-line approach seemed desirable to Trudeau,” said John English, a University of Toronto historian and onetime Liberal member of Parliament for Kitchener who has written an authoritative biography of Mr. Trudeau. “But as time went on, both sides would cling to the opinions they had. In the referendum campaigns it became, for separatists, a symbol of federal authoritarianism, and some people have stuck to that view. But it was an appropriate response in the period, and in the context of the later period – especially after 9/11 – it seems a modest interference with civil liberties.’’
Irwin Cotler – a former Liberal MP and professor at McGill University who served as Canada’s attorney-general decades after the October Crisis – recalled to me that shortly after the denouement, Mr. Trudeau told him that the “fact that an insurrection did not occur didn’t mean that it should not have been apprehended.”
And yet 50 years later, the echoes of those boots on the streets still ring in the ears of some Quebeckers, particularly francophone ones.
“It meant military in the streets, surveillance and fear,” said Elisabeth Vallet of the Royal Military College of Canada. “And those boots on the ground were federal at a time where separatism and sovereignty were central issues in Quebec.”
A half-century later, Mr. Trudeau’s son is Prime Minister and Mr. Trump – who in 1970 was only 18 months out of the University of Pennsylvania and watching the Broadway production in which he invested flop – is commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world. And with an election only five months away, the President clearly was trying to show strength at a time when the country was in tumult.
“Trump’s threat was extraordinary because it was not discriminating in its outlook,” said William Howell, a presidential expert at the University of Chicago. “It was more about shoring up his credentials than to bring order to the streets – and it came against the background of grief and outrage.”
There is no evidence Mr. Trump has studied his presidential predecessors. But it should be said that his warning was a distillation of the view of Harry Truman, who, in a 1952 labour controversy that led to federal seizure of the country’s steel mills, told critics, “Tell ‘em to read the Constitution … The president has the power to keep the country from going to hell.”
And yet even conventional military leaders felt the President was going too far. “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire situations,” Mark Esper, Mr. Trump’s Secretary of Defence, told reporters in early June. General Mark Milley, Mr. Trump’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a memo to military leaders reminding them of their oaths to protect the U.S. Constitution and the “right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly” and added in a handwritten addendum: “We all committed ourselves to the idea that is America. We will stay true to that oath and the American people.”
In a recent interview, former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, a Navy veteran and the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, told me that “our troops should not be called on to do this except in the most extraordinary circumstances, and only if the governors request it,” adding that “the last thing in the world we want is someone like Trump declaring emergencies and sending in troops.” And 89 former Pentagon officials – including four secretaries of defence, two Democrats and two Republicans – signed a letter asserting that the proper role of the U.S. military was “to fight our nation’s enemies and to secure – not infringe upon – the rights and freedoms of their fellow Americans.”
Even some advocates of expansive executive power looked with skepticism at Mr. Trump’s view. “The president should really only introduce troops when the violence grows beyond their control,” said John Yoo, an influential Justice Department official in the George W. Bush years who had argued for broad presidential powers after the 2001 terrorist attacks. “This is the classic federal role, to back up and support the states, who retain the primary responsibility for public safety, just as with the coronavirus.”
Federal troops were employed in the the 1794 liquor-tax uprising that was the Whiskey Rebellion, the 1787 rural debt protest Shays’ Rebellion, and in 1932, when 25,000 First World War veterans gathered in Washington to demand early redemption of congressionally funded wartime bonus payments to alleviate economic distress during the Great Depression. President Herbert Hoover ordered the breakup of that encampment in the capital; General Douglas MacArthur, with the support of six tanks, did so with tragic dispatch.
“By and large we have faced so few of these situations,” said Eugene R. Fidell, a Yale expert in military law, “and in the course of our history this is basically unimaginable except in cases of extreme civil unrest or to enforce the order of a federal court.”
Whether in 1970 or in 2020, the question rebounds to a classic clash between civil liberties and civil order.
“I don’t put Trudeau in any way in the same position Trump was in,” Mr. Cotler said in an interview. “Trudeau understood the civil liberties issues, and Trump doesn’t have the historical perspective, the sensitivities required and he utterly politicizes every issue.”
Today, it is Mr. Trump whose ethos is “just watch me.” But now – as U.S. protesters have been chanting for decades – the whole world is watching.
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