Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had not even been born when his father uttered the three fateful words that would capture Pierre Trudeau’s ineffable mystique for a generation of English Canadians, but which would stick in the craw of countless Quebeckers for decades to come.
On Oct. 13, 1970, after the kidnappings of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec deputy premier Pierre Laporte by different cells of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), Pierre Trudeau was asked by CBC journalist Tim Ralfe how far he was prepared to go to protect other public figures from being taken hostage.
“Just watch me,” he responded.
Three days later, Mr. Trudeau invoked emergency powers under the War Measures Act, sending the army into Montreal and leading to the suspension of basic civil liberties. In the ensuing weeks, nearly 500 people were subject to arbitrary arrest and thrown in prison, most on the mere suspicion of having ties to, or sympathizing with, the FLQ kidnappers. Canada had, in essence, become a police state.
On the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis, the debate over whether Mr. Trudeau’s response was proportional to the threat continues to divide Quebec from the rest of Canada. Among Quebec’s intellectual elite, Mr. Trudeau remains accused of exaggerating the menace of an “apprehended insurrection” to discredit the broader Quebec independence movement by seeking to associate it with the FLQ.
In English Canada, Mr. Trudeau’s response receives kinder treatment. Even those who deplore the arbitrary arrests tend to give his government the benefit of the doubt. The idea that Mr. Trudeau’s motives were mostly political, rather than based on legitimate security concerns, has not received a lot of airtime in the rest of Canada.
This may explain why, outside Quebec, there does not appear to be much sympathy for recent calls for Justin Trudeau to offer an official apology, on behalf of the government of Canada, for the suppression of civil rights of hundreds of Quebeckers in 1970. But nor is there much of a groundswell among Quebeckers themselves for the younger Mr. Trudeau to apologize.
On the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis – which led to the assassination of Mr. Laporte, and the subsequent release of Mr. Cross in exchange for the safe passage to Cuba of his FLQ captors – it is striking how removed modern Quebec seems to be from its own past. Chalk it up to the ahistoricism that has infected all Western societies in recent years. Most Québécois born after 1970 have little inkling of what the October Crisis represents in their nation’s centuries-long struggle for political affirmation.
Emerging in the early 1960s and inspired by Marxist revolutionary movements in Cuba, Africa and Latin America, the FLQ sought to overthrow the capitalist system that it blamed for the oppression of French Canadians. It was a terrorist group that targeted symbols of anglophone capitalist dominance, planting bombs in mailboxes in Westmount and at the Montreal Stock Exchange. The 1970 kidnappings of Mr. Cross and Mr. Laporte, the group claimed, were undertaken to win the release of FLQ members who had been imprisoned for previous acts of violence. The group called them political prisoners.
The October Crisis was a cathartic moment in Quebec’s political evolution. Political movements, from ETA in Spain’s Basque Country to the Black Panthers in the United States, continued to resort to terror throughout the 1970s. But armed violence in Quebec ended with the October Crisis as the leaders of the province’s independence movement united to unanimously condemn non-democratic forms of political action.
Would that have happened had Pierre Trudeau not used the strong arm of the law? Competing versions of the history of the October Crisis and its aftermath still make it impossible to answer that question. Perhaps that will always be the case.
For Justin Trudeau, the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis nevertheless offers an opportunity to atone for his father’s perceived sins by making a formal apology to the hundreds of Quebeckers whose rights were summarily infringed. Very few were ever charged with a crime, and fewer still ever ended up being convicted of one.
Despite calls by the Bloc Québécois and New Democratic Party, expectations remain low that Mr. Trudeau will apologize. At 91, Marc Lalonde, who served as Pierre Trudeau’s chief of staff during the October Crisis, has called the idea “wacky.”
Yet, like his father, Mr. Trudeau has a knack for flourish. So, perhaps, we should just watch him.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.