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Veteran readers may recall I’ve often written of the October crisis of 1970 over the past 30 years.

It’s engaged me again with the recent release of federal cabinet records from the crisis period.

The crisis developed as police in Quebec failed to apprehend kidnappers of a British diplomat, and then of a Quebec cabinet minister. The crimes were avowedly political, not done for money, and were claimed by unknown radicals of the FLQ – the Front for the Liberation of Quebec.

My interest in the crisis has much to do with a brief personal encounter with John Turner, then Minister of Justice, near midnight on Oct. 15, 1970 beside his car in a Parliament Hill parking lot. I have kept recalling it because he told me his views on the matter differed from those of the prime minister, Pierre Trudeau.

As I recollect, Turner said: “Our philosopher-king’s dialectic takes him beyond common sense. But he is the prime minister.”

Fair enough, but this hardly squared well with what Turner had to say in the House of Commons the next day, a few hours after Trudeau invoked the mighty War Measures Act. He told the MPs why the government decided to invoke the powers of this long-dormant but available law.

It “apprehended an insurrection in Quebec” and the act empowered it to assign troops and allow immediate arrest of hundreds of suspects (only one of whom was ever convicted).

Turner’s assurances to MPs have intrigued many journalists, particularly as we asked Trudeau over the years about them and he kept denying that anything of significance had gone untold.

“It is my hope,” Turner told the House, “that someday the full intelligence upon which the government acted can be made public, because until that day comes the people of Canada will not be able to fully appraise the course of action which has been taken by the government. The element of surprise was essential, and members of the House will have to rely upon the judgment of the government.” (Hansard, Oct. 16, 1970.)

The latest revelations of discussion and decisions of the federal cabinet indicate it was desperately short of “full intelligence” about the threat, but full of rumours of violence to come and even of a revolutionary plot to unseat Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa.
In particular, two ministers from Quebec, Jean Marchand and Bryce Mackasey, had been purveying the horror tales to colleagues (and also to a handful of journalists, of whom I was one). These tales also emphasized how fearful and shaky Bourassa and Mayor Jean Drapeau of Montreal were becoming.

Of course, a few months after the crisis ended, hindsight was aware that the numbers, resources and skills of the revolutionaries had been hugely overblown. Civil libertarians wondered why Canadians had been so ready and enthusiastic to accept a wholesale surrender of their liberties at the time, and subsequently were not much concerned about the unreadiness of the federal government and its police and intelligence services.

It is fair to say the “crisis” electrified and engaged the close attention of more Canadians than any other happening in our nation’s history. And yet, after the threat had been revealed as relatively minute in scale and with muddled intentions, widespread public interest in it disappeared, notably in the rest of Canada and relatively so even in Quebec.

Minutes of the cabinet meetings during the crisis confirm there was some panic in its ranks, and not confined just to Quebec ministers. It seems obvious from the minutes that this fearfulness concerned both Trudeau and Turner, his justice minister. But as I interpret the situation from the record, and also from what I heard then from Turner as well as from Mackasey and Marchand, neither the prime minister nor Turner was initially convinced the threat to the Quebec government and national unity was well-organized and calamitous.

Through days of cabinet deliberations, though, anxieties grew. Pressure from Bourassa and Drapeau for help grew; so did the realization that none of the three police forces had useful information about the perpetrators or the scope of their organization.
The documents indicate Turner was the pole star for moderate responses without invoking wartime powers.

But the angst in the public drama kept mounting as the kidnappers threatened to kill the kidnapped men, Richard Cross, a British diplomat, and Pierre Laporte, a minister in the Bourassa government. The kidnappers were addressing their demands to Bourassa, not to Trudeau in Ottawa.

Eventually, it seems clear, Trudeau, who had been restrained in his public reactions for several weeks, decided the panic in the Bourassa and Drapeau circles was spreading to the rest of the country and had to be stopped by bold, even excessive, measures.
Turner disliked the abandonment of civil rights but clearly did not have the backing of most of the ministers.

Trudeau hung much of the responsibility for invoking the War Measures Act on the fact the elected leaders of Quebec and the city of Montreal “apprehended an insurrection,” and he demanded and got letters of request from Bourassa and Drapeau.
It is also clear the prime minister’s decision to act vigorously and thoroughly did coincide with rumours bruited by ministers Mackasey and Marchand of a scheme to replace the Bourassa government with a provisional government of nationalistic Quebecers. These heralds of pending doom found many ready to believe that Montreal was dotted with radio-controlled bombs and rife with cells of FLQ activists trained in guerrilla warfare. Lives and governments had to be saved, a frightened populace calmed.

In large part, the fears of Bourassa and Drapeau related to their own leadership dilemmas in the fall of 1970. The mayor was in a bitter battle for re-election with a radical political action group, and the popularity of the Bourassa government, re-elected just six months before, was being battered by a collapse in medical services and rising unemployment.

Just as worrisome to Bourassa and Drapeau, and chilling to the Ottawa federalists, was the 23% of the vote won in the provincial election by the new Parti Quebecois, led by Rene Levesque, that put seven PQ candidates into the National Assembly.
The new evidence confirms to me that Turner did argue the case strenuously in cabinet against using the War Measures Act, but even so, why would he immediately thereafter stress that someday we’d understand why the government had to do it? Remember that years later Turner stil insisted there was unrevealed but “real intelligence” which prompted the use of the act.

Also remember that Trudeau later insisted the reasons for the move had never been concealed. Simply put, his government received urgent letters of request from the heads of the two governments most germane to the crisis created by the FLQ and acted on them.
Does it matter whether or not there was “full intelligence” behind the use of the War Measures Act? Only in terms of settling which of these leaders, Trudeau or Turner, was truthful with us about the crisis.

As one whose experiences bend him towards Turner as the truthful one, I realize I may have to live four or five more years – until his own documents are released – to learn what he knew was “full intelligence” in the cabinet on Oct. 16, 1970.

Column: Parliament Hill