Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists

Canada, a nation with a nonviolent political tradition and democratic freedoms, confronted separatist terrorism by suspending civil liberties in its French-speaking province, Quebec.

Summary of Event

Political violence and upheavals have been very rare in Canadian history. In spite of the country’s divisive tensions, generated by regionalism and by cultural and ethnic diversity, Canada has avoided the dramatic, bloody resolutions of conflict experienced by its neighbor, the United States. As a result, many Canadians have proudly referred to their country as “the peaceable kingdom.” Canada’s tradition of liberty, democratic stability, and tranquillity in the face of regional and cultural diversity was severely tested in October, 1970. Contributing factors to the October crisis were a rebellious trend associated with this historical period and the long-standing grievances of Canada’s French-speaking community. Francophones, about 25 percent of Canada’s population and largely concentrated in Quebec province, had always waged an uphill struggle against assimilation into the dominant Anglophone culture. War Measures Act, Canadian (1914)
Canada;Quebec sovereignist movement
Quebec sovereignist movement
Civil unrest;Canada
October Crisis (1970)
[kw]Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists (Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971)
[kw]War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists, Canada Invokes (Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971)
[kw]Act Against Quebec Separatists, Canada Invokes War Measures (Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971)
[kw]Quebec Separatists, Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against (Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971)
[kw]Separatists, Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec (Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971)
War Measures Act, Canadian (1914)
Canada;Quebec sovereignist movement
Quebec sovereignist movement
Civil unrest;Canada
October Crisis (1970)
[g]North America;Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971: Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists[10950]
[g]Canada;Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971: Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists[10950]
[c]Independence movements;Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971: Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists[10950]
[c]Terrorism;Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971: Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists[10950]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971: Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists[10950]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 16, 1970-Apr. 30, 1971: Canada Invokes War Measures Act Against Quebec Separatists[10950]
Trudeau, Pierre
Bourassa, Robert

Laporte, Pierre
Cross, James
Drapeau, Jean

In spite of some gains by Quebec’s French-Canadians in the 1960’s, Anglophones, mainly based in Montreal and composing barely 20 percent of the province’s population, still exercised disproportionate political and economic power. The phrase “white niggers of America” was employed by a Francophone radical in his famous autobiographical description of the oppression and social injustice felt by himself and many of his compatriots as second-class citizens in their own land.

Some Francophone nationalists abandoned the province’s major political parties to form movements advocating much greater autonomy or independence for Quebec. In 1968, two of these groups organized the Parti Québécois Parti Québécois (PQ) under René Lévesque Lévesque, René . The PQ soon became a major vehicle for achieving separatist-nationalist goals through the legal capture of political power. Small numbers of frustrated radicals chose the more extreme course of revolutionary terrorism.

In February, 1963, the Front de Libération du Québec Front de Libération du Québec
Terrorist organizations (FLQ) was founded. Inspired by liberation struggles in developing nations, the FLQ’s long-term goals were socialist revolution and an independent Quebec. Canada’s FLQ operated mainly in Montreal and probably never had more than a few dozen militants or about ten active terrorists at any given time. Ad hoc cells appeared and appropriated the name FLQ when militants came up with ideas for operations. There was little or no communication between them. From 1963 to 1970, FLQ groups conducted about thirty-three armed robberies and ninety bomb attacks against military installations and various symbols of Anglo imperialism. These actions caused seven deaths and forty-nine injuries. By 1970, more than twenty FLQ members were imprisoned on criminal, not political, charges. The FLQ’s smallness and extremely diffuse nature made it a difficult target for police to eradicate; its constant reappearance following capture and elimination of entire cells gave the appearance of a much larger and well-organized hydra-headed conspiracy.

The period from 1968 to 1970 was one of growing unrest and violence in Montreal. An upswing in FLQ terrorism, several traumatic labor strikes, and some unruly demonstrations by political radicals had nervous Montreal city officials and provincial leaders feeling threatened and prone to exaggerate all rumors and signs of revolutionary activity.

On the morning of October 5, 1970, the FLQ moved beyond its previous tactics when it kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross from his Montreal residence. The kidnappers demanded the release of twenty-three political prisoners and their safe passage to Algeria or Cuba. The October crisis was under way.

Quebec’s government, under Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, worked closely throughout the crisis with the federal government, headed by Pierre Trudeau. Militant Quebec nationalists and separatists had not welcomed the ascendency of Trudeau, a French-Canadian native of Quebec, to the post of prime minister in 1968. This intellectual, urbane politician was a dedicated liberal-federalist who viewed Quebec separatism as a reactionary, inward-looking course. From the start, Trudeau adamantly opposed any concession to terrorist blackmail.

Feeling strong pressure from Ottawa, Quebec’s justice minister, Jérôme Choquette, basically rejected all FLQ demands on October 10. In exchange for Cross’s release, Choquette offered only parole for five prisoners who were eligible and safe passage abroad for the kidnappers. Fifteen minutes after this statement was broadcast, a new FLQ group, acting independently, snatched Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte from his suburban Montreal home.

The kidnapping of the second most important figure in Quebec’s government personalized the crisis, creating fear and panic among many of his colleagues. Bourassa momentarily wavered on the issue of a prisoner-hostage exchange but held firm. Trudeau remained uncompromising throughout. He declared that a “parallel power” would never be allowed to dictate to Canada’s elected government and denounced “weak-kneed bleeding hearts” afraid to take measures to defend freedom.

As the crisis reached a climax, there were pro-FLQ mass demonstrations in Montreal and some statements of sympathy for the FLQ’s political manifesto. Ottawa officials believed that the situation in Quebec was becoming chaotic and that some definitive assertion of federal power was crucial. Mayor Jean Drapeau and other Montreal city officials warned Ottawa about a threatening, organized revolutionary conspiracy. According to these sources, a state of “apprehended insurrection” existed in Quebec, requiring extraordinary police powers and assistance from the national government. On October 14, Premier Bourassa requested that the Canadian armed forces be sent into Quebec.

On October 15, the federal government dispatched troops to Montreal and a few other localities to protect public buildings and prominent individuals. Trudeau had already deployed the army in Ottawa. Bourassa offered the kidnappers the same limited terms as had Choquette and demanded a reply by 4:00 p.m. on October 16. As soon as this deadline passed, the federal government invoked the War Measures Act, a relic of World War I that had last been used in World War II.

The act gave the cabinet power to enact regulations allowing arrest, detention, censorship, and deportation in conditions of war, invasion, and insurrection. Under this authority, the cabinet introduced measures which banned the FLQ, retroactively making membership or evidence of association with that organization an offense. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) received extraordinary powers which overrode legal safeguards, permitting the search of premises without a warrant and arbitrary arrest on mere suspicion. The right of habeas corpus was suspended, allowing suspects to be held incommunicado without charges, legal counsel, or bail for up to twenty-one days. Two days after this act was proclaimed, Laporte’s corpse was found in a car trunk.

Civil liberties Civil liberties;Canada were suspended in Quebec until April 30, 1971. Police raids hit every part of Quebec, with more than forty-six hundred house searches involving confiscation of property, especially reading material. Around five hundred citizens were jailed. Armed with such broad, open-ended authority, police committed excesses. A federal cabinet minister’s home was searched by mistake. No distinction was made between dissent and sedition on the RCMP’s list of suspects. Many prominent persons were arrested solely on the basis of known or suspected political sympathies. More than 460 of those arrested were released, acquitted, or simply never prosecuted. Eighteen were convicted; sixteen of ordinary criminal charges (mostly for being linked somehow to Laporte’s kidnapping or murder) and only two for an offense under the emergency provisions.

The act applied throughout Canada, and some arrests occurred outside Quebec. Freedom of expression was curtailed in British Columbia’s schools. For individual Canadians, this was a tense period.


The results and wisdom of the Trudeau government’s actions are controversial subjects. Laporte’s murder silenced vocal support for the FLQ in Quebec. Canadians, including Quebecers, immediately rallied behind Trudeau, who enjoyed hero status for his firmness and decisiveness in combating terrorist outrages. When the police closed in on Cross’s five captors in early December, the kidnappers released him in exchange for a flight to Cuba. Within a few years, all but one had returned and received short prison terms. At the end of December, police found the hideout of Laporte’s abductors, who got more severe sentences. Thereafter, FLQ activity tapered off and eventually disappeared. Canada returned to its normal status as one of the world’s most tolerant and free societies.

On the negative side were the abuses of innocent persons’ civil rights, the government’s questionable political judgment in invoking unneeded and arguably excessive powers based on faulty intelligence, and its efforts to manipulate public opinion with misleading or exaggerated rumors. Police uncovered no evidence of an apprehended insurrection. Trudeau, whose early career was devoted to defending political dissidents, saw his reputation as a civil libertarian devastated.

The lives, employment, and families of innocent individuals were traumatically disrupted. No apology was ever made, and the public never held its leaders accountable. Angered by the Quebec situation, the majority applauded when their government took forceful action and turned a blind eye to the fact that no apprehended insurrection existed. In 1971, however, Quebec’s ombudsman investigated complaints and awarded compensation in 104 cases involving police brutality, damage to property or reputation, and unjust conditions of confinement.

In Quebec, the crisis dealt a short-term setback to the separatist Parti Québéçois, which lost members. The PQ, however, gained over the longer term. The elimination of separatist terrorism in Quebec politics made the PQ a more respectable alternative. Furthermore, the fact that English-Canadians so zealously cheered the use of the War Measures Act against a French-Canadian movement, unpopular and tiny though it was, drove many intellectuals into the separatist fold.

A positive side effect of the 1970 events may be the political lessons which thoughtful Canadians have pondered and debated. Among the most important issues is the scope of powers a democratic government needs to defend its society and the proper use of this authority. The controversial War Measures Act remained in the government’s arsenal. Still, the experience of 1970 likely influenced Trudeau’s decision to place restrictions on its use by future governments in the Charter of Rights associated with his 1982 constitution. Lessons learned from the October crisis are important to the preservation of Canada’s free society and are instructive to other democracies. War Measures Act, Canadian (1914)
Canada;Quebec sovereignist movement
Quebec sovereignist movement
Civil unrest;Canada
October Crisis (1970)

Further Reading

  • Auf der Maur, Nick, and Robert Chodos, eds. Quebec: A Chronicle, 1968-1972. Toronto, Ont.: James Lewis and Samuel, 1972. A collection of six articles which deal with the crisis and events preceding and following it. Auf der Maur, an Anglophone radio journalist, was one of the approximately five hundred persons detained by police in Quebec. Left-of-center perspective. Includes appendixes containing an annotated list of major individuals and organizations mentioned in the text and a useful chronology of events.
  • Berger, Thomas. “Democracy and Terror: October, 1970.” In Fragile Freedoms: Human Rights and Dissent in Canada. Toronto, Ont.: Clarke, Irwin, 1981. Berger, a distinguished Canadian academic, takes the position that invocation of the War Measures Act was not warranted by the circumstances. The author argues that the government was justified in responding firmly but could have relied on ordinary police powers and criminal law combined with a strong defense of civil liberty. Bibliography, index, and chapter endnotes.
  • Crelinsten, Ronald D. “Internal Dynamics of the FLQ During the October Crisis of 1970.” In Inside Terrorist Organizations, edited by David C. Rapoport. 2d ed. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2001. Study of the interrelations between FLQ leaders and members during the Quebec crisis, comparing the group to other terrorist organizations. Bibliographic references.
  • Fournier, Louis. F.L.Q.: The Anatomy of an Underground Movement. Translated by Edward Baxter. Toronto, Ont.: NC Press, 1984. This is the most complete study of the revolutionary terrorist organization which precipitated the October crisis. The author is a Quebec radio broadcast journalist who is sympathetic to some FLQ political goals while rejecting terrorist tactics. Includes photos, select bibliography, index, and list of names of organizations.
  • Gellner, John. Bayonets in the Streets: Urban Guerrilla at Home and Abroad. Don Mills, Ont.: Collier-Macmillan Canada, 1974. This monograph includes a useful analysis of the FLQ. Chapter 3 examines the FLQ before the crisis, and Chapter 4 deals with its role and the government’s exaggeration of the threat it posed. Critical of the government’s handling of the affair. Bibliography and index.
  • Haggart, Ron, and Aubrey E. Golden. Rumors of War. Toronto, Ont.: James Lorimer, 1979. This work by two civil libertarians contains a detailed summary of events leading to the October crisis. The focus is on civil rights issues. The authors present their critique of the government in an objective, measured manner. Contains a thoughtful introduction by former Conservative Party leader Robert Stanfield. Illustrations, bibliography, and appendixes with relevant documents.
  • Pelletier, Gerard. The October Crisis. Translated by Joyce Marshall. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1971. One of the very rare defenses of the Trudeau government’s invocation of the War Measures Act. Pelletier is a longtime political associate of Trudeau from Quebec and was secretary of state in the government during this affair. Pelletier voted to use this measure with great reluctance. Ultimate blame for the unfortunate results is placed on the FLQ. Index.
  • Smith, Denis. Bleeding Hearts, Bleeding Country: Canada and the Quebec Crisis. Edmonton, Alta.: Hurtig, 1971. A forceful and sometimes passionate condemnation of Trudeau’s handling of the kidnappers and invocation of the War Measures Act. The author is a Canadian academic. Contains a useful analysis of the FLQ’s political aims. Includes bibliography, footnotes, and index.
  • Tarnopolsky, Walter Surma. “The War Measures Act and the Canadian Bill of Rights.” In The Canadian Bill of Rights. Toronto, Ont.: Macmillan of Canada, 1978. A Canadian scholar provides a good discussion of the legal and civil rights issues raised by the October crisis. Provides useful background information on the War Measures Act and its few uses by Canadian governments since it originated during World War I. Includes chapter end notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Trudeau, Pierre Elliott. The Essential Trudeau. Edited by Ron Graham. Toronto, Ont.: M&S, 1998. A collection of essays, speeches and interviews by the former prime minister of Canada.

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