50 years after the October Crisis

Labour, democratic, civil and equality rights in the crosshairs

October marks 50 years since the October crisis of 1970, during which PM Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, suspended civil and democratic rights across Canada and sent thousands of troops to occupy Quebec. The government’s real purpose for this unprecedented act during peacetime was to suppress the struggle for national self-determination in Quebec, and to intimidate the working class and democratic forces in Quebec and across Canada.

The PM cited as the government’s justification, “a state of apprehended insurrection” in Quebec. But there was no insurrection in Quebec, only the criminal actions of a small sect of fewer than 30 people, self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” whose terrorist acts had escalated from mail box bombings during the 1960’s to kidnapping British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Minister of Employment Pierre Laporte in 1970. The government was in the middle of negotiations with the FLQ when Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act. Pierre Laporte was murdered one day later.

Public opinion across Canada showed that 85 percent of those polled in both English-speaking Canada and Quebec were appalled and repulsed by the murder. Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau’s assertion that Quebec citizens were preparing for an FLQ “revolutionary dictatorship” was completely baseless. There was no support for the FLQ’s terrorist acts, and no “apprehended insurrection” in Quebec.

As NDP Leader Tommy Douglas put it at the time, the government used “a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.” The War Measures Act was not required to deal with the FLQ – it was invoked to terrorize the growing movement for sovereignty and equality in Quebec, and for expanded labour, democratic and equality rights across Canada.

Rather than deal with the national question in Quebec, the government opted for confrontation and repression. In Quebec, 497 people were arbitrarily arrested without charge and held incommunicado for days or weeks, all their rights denied. Only 2 of these people were eventually found to be FLQ members. The majority were trade unionists, civic activists, Quebec personalities and cultural figures, Communists and other left-wingers. The police used the PROFUNC list (PROminent FUNCtionaries of the Communist Party, compiled by the RCMP during the Cold War) to target for arrest and detention many of those arrested.

Across Canada, the civil and democratic rights were wiped out, including the rights to free speech and assembly, while the government assumed dictatorial powers. Sweeping repressive laws were put in place by government orders-in-council, enabled by the War Measures Act. The government aimed to crush dissent, to silence disagreement, to create an atmosphere of panic and fear across the country. The absolute powers of the police and military were used to settle accounts with political adversaries and critics.

This included the growing movement for national sovereignty and equality in Quebec. In 1960, wages in Quebec were 34 percent lower than in Ontario, while by 1970 unemployment in Quebec had risen to 200,000 people – 41 percent of the unemployed across the country.  Employers required workers to speak English and English-speakers occupied all senior positions in workplaces. Poverty and slum housing were widespread, along with impoverished social conditions for the majority of working people. Young people had no future. Alienation was widespread. These were the well-documented realities that fuelled the sovereigntist movement and the fight for national and social equality.

The government’s answer was state terrorism. The crimes committed by the police and the RCMP are laid out in the scathing report of the McDonald Commission which enumerated many of the illegal acts committed during this time, including “Operation Checkmate” which involved RCMP arson, break-ins, wire-tapping, forgeries, letter openings, invasion of privacy and the writing of a false “FLQ communique.” RCMP targets of these illegal acts included the Communist Party, trade unions, farm organizations, Indigenous Peoples, the NDP, the PQ and many others. The report’s exposé was so damning that its recommendation that the RCMP be removed from security functions was widely endorsed. In Quebec, the Keable Inquiry was struck and exposed similar illegal acts by police, RCMP and military.

To their credit, sixteen of twenty NDP Members of Parliament voted against imposition of the War Measures Act after NDP Leader Tommy Douglas denounced the WMA to the media and in Parliament. Four Tories also voted against.

The Communist Party immediately responded with a statement opposing the War Measures Act and a demonstration protesting the WMA on Parliament Hill October 17th, despite the fact that protests and demonstration had been declared illegal and troops lined the streets in Ottawa and Montreal. With Montreal under martial law, arbitrary arrests, detentions, interrogations and searches were underway in working class and Francophone neighbourhoods, the Communist Party of Quebec also mobilized its members and supporters to protest in Ottawa, condemning the WMA and the imposition of martial law in Quebec and Canada.

Across the country, Communists were distributing leaflets and speaking out – in trade unions and mass organizations, in letters to the editor and resolutions – against the War Measures Act and the draconian powers and sweeping repression that the government had given itself to suspend the civil, democratic and labour rights of all citizens, and to impose martial law in Quebec.

The Communist Party argued that the FLQ and its tiny group of adherents were a consequence of the government’s consistent refusal to address Quebec’s national, social and economic inequality, and to refuse to recognize Quebec as a nation within Canada, with the right to national self-determination up to and including the right to secession.

The Communist Party proposed a new, equal and voluntary partnership of nations in Canada as the only democratic solution to the national question, with national rights including the right to secession embedded in a new Constitution. Each nation would have sovereignty and the right to stay or leave a new equal and voluntary confederation of nations within Canada. This would include Indigenous Peoples, Quebec and English-speaking Canada. The new confederation would have equal representation in a House of Nationalities where legislation would also have to pass, as in the House of Commons, to become law. The House of Nationalities would replace the outdated and appointed Senate.

With each nation having the right to secede from the new confederal republic – a right comparable to the right of individuals to divorce – the unity of the confederation is always a work in progress, a live issue that requires the work of all partners to succeed. But this is real equality, and the democratic solution that the Communist Party of Canada continues to advocate today.

The October Crisis was triggered by the terrorist acts of a small sect, but it was caused by the unequal union created at the point of a gun, with the defeat of the French colonial powers in 1763 and the genocidal policies of successive colonial powers and Canadian governments against Indigenous Peoples over the past 500 years. Fifty years later, this country still faces a crisis of confederation that will continue to bubble and boil over until it is justly and democratically resolved.

The use of force by the Trudeau government in 1970 led directly to the 1980 and 1995 Quebec referenda on independence, when the people of Quebec correctly understood that the dominant federal government would never recognize nor allow Quebec the right to national self-determination. Instead of uniting the country, the federal government and all parties in Parliament helped to further divide it with the unanimous adoption of the Clarity Act, a massive demonstration of Anglo-Canadian chauvinism which continues to the present.

Indigenous Peoples continue their long struggles for recognition of their rights as nations and peoples, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), in the face of armed responses by the Canadian state to the Haudenosaunee people at Kanehsatà:ke (Oka), to the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation at Ipperwash, to the Ts’peten Defenders at Gustafsen Lake, to the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Today in Nova Scotia, Mi’kmaq fishing rights and fish-boats are being attacked by armed racists, while Department of Fisheries and Oceans police are nowhere to be seen.

At the same time, the federal government continues to appeal the three orders of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that it must fund the health, education and social services for Indigenous children and youth at the same rate as it funds these services for the rest of the population. Further, the government has yet to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or those of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Boil water advisories continue to be the norm on many reserves, while Indigenous lives continue to be cut short by racist violence, suicide, high rates of addiction and incarceration, and mass unemployment.

Further, racism, misogyny and xenophobia are once again growing in Canada, fed by reaction and authoritarian movements in Canada and abroad. Hate speech and the criminal actions of hate groups are rarely prosecuted, while police and military organizations are often incubators and funders for such far-right groups.

Five decades after the October Crisis, the WMA has been replaced with the Emergencies Act, and the RCMP Security Service by CSIS and the CSE, giving governments the same, and even greater powers to impose martial law than they had in 1970. The new security state laws include Bill C-59, the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows mass surveillance and exchange of information by police and the security state, provides police and security state with new disruption powers, and enables secret trials and decisions without due process, among other new powers.

As the Communist Party pointed out at various times throughout its 100-year history – when it was declared illegal and its leaders were imprisoned and interned under the WMA, and when other democratic organizations including trade unions, farm organizations, women’s organizations, Black and Indigenous organizations, and immigrants and minorities were threatened and victimized by the political police in Canada – these security state agencies and powers are a threat to democracy and to the civil and equality rights granted to all under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

So long as these agencies and their powers exist, democratic rights and democracy itself is threatened in Canada. History has proved us right.

The fight for democracy today is as urgent as it has ever been. A quick look south of the border shows how quickly authoritarian governments can use these powers to take control and jettison civil and democratic rights.

It has happened here in Canada. It could happen again, if corporate power trumps the public interest, and labour, civil and democratic rights.