One of my most vivid memories of October, 1970, is suddenly coming face to face with a machine gun-toting soldier in combat fatigues and helmet on the platform of a Metro station in downtown Montreal. He motioned me toward the nearby wall, where he frisked me and looked in my book bag. Then he moved on.
The War Measures Act had just been put into effect by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. It was only the third time in Canadian history that the Act – which essentially declared martial law – had been invoked, and the first time ever in peacetime. I was nineteen at the time, a student at what was then Loyola College (before it became part of Concordia) and a junior editor of the Loyola News. It was late in the evening; I was on my way home after studying in the library. Why I was stopped I didn’t know, and still don’t, although I’ve since learned that thousands of such searches took place. Anyway, what I distinctly recall is looking straight into the soldier’s eyes, only a foot or two away, and feeling not so much (or not only) fear, but astonishment at the realization that, my God, this guy with a machine gun is just a kid, about my own age. Maybe almost as scared as I was.
Everyone was on edge in those days, a little like now in the time of the pandemic, but different, too. More clenched, more frightened. The Québec nationalist movement had been growing for years. Most of the activism was peaceful, but since 1963 there had also been violent clashes with the authorities and acts of terrorism, including dozens of bombings, armed robberies, and several murders by the militant Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). In October, events took a horrific turn: The FLQ kidnapped James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner in Montreal. Days later, a different FLQ cell kidnapped, then strangled to death Québec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte and left his body in the trunk of a car. By that time, the War Measures Act had been invoked, police raids were taking place, hundreds of activists were being detained, troop carriers were rumbling through downtown Montreal, and soldiers were setting up sentry posts at major intersections. It was unnerving, scary, surreal – kidnappings, murder, the city occupied by the army, police everywhere, many citizens on emotional if not literal lockdown.
In the upstairs rooms of a house near Loyola in N.D.G, where the Loyola News had offices, we fumed and ranted at the censorship imposed by the War Measures Act. It was now illegal to publish anything against the Act or in sympathy with the FLQ. We were enraged, as only young, idealistic people can be enraged, and thoroughly shocked that in Canada, in the second half of the 20th century when civil rights, anti-war, and labour movements were burgeoning in the US, France, the U.K., eastern Europe, and elsewhere, we could not write and publish what we thought.
The justification for invoking the War Measures Act and suspending civil rights and liberties throughout Canada was to combat what was called “a state of apprehended insurrection.” It later turned out that the FLQ mainly consisted of a few dozen loosely organized militants, though there were thousands of sympathizers until the murder of Pierre Laporte led many to turn away. Until that point in my life as a young adult, I had considered government occasionally good, more often inept, too often corrupt, and overall a bumbling necessity. Now for the first time, I glimpsed what people in many parts of the world knew in their bones: how easily, how quickly, it can become dangerous, an active threat to freedom in daily life.
Almost as disheartening to me was the response across the country. Canadians overwhelmingly supported the War Measures Act, even, though not quite so fully, in Québec. They didn’t seem much bothered by the loss of civil rights. Habeas corpus was suspended, which meant that people could be detained and held without being charged. They were also not allowed access to an attorney. Nearly 500 people were picked up in raids at all hours of the day and night. Most were later released without charges.
I had bitter arguments with my father over the War Measures Act. He supported it, supported all things Trudeau. I railed against what I saw as knee-jerk acceptance of authority. No doubt I was insufferably high on my righteous horse at times, but even now I believe I was not wrong. The men in the two cells of the FLQ had committed horrible crimes, but the reaction of the government was frightening in its own way, and the acceptance by most Canadians was chilling.
Not everyone applauded the War Measures Act. Tommy Douglas, the leader of the NDP, said the government was “using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.” Many people, while decrying the violence of the FLQ, protested the actions of the government once it was possible to do so without being hauled off the street into detention. The opposition was strongest in Québec but also took place across the country, with protests, rallies, and petitions by students, labour organizations, civil rights associations, the media, and other groups.
Weeks later, when the War Measures Act had been replaced by the somewhat less restrictive Public Order Temporary Measures Act, I wrote a column denouncing censorship and the loss of civil liberties that had occurred under the War Measures Act. I was nervous about its publication.
I was taking a course in existential philosophy at the time, taught by a professor who was a Holocaust survivor. He had lost most of his family and friends in Poland before and during World War II. He was a brilliant man, but clearly damaged. He rarely looked his students in the eye, spoke in a low, heavily accented voice, almost a mumble, with little inflection. He was in some ways a forbidding character, but I loved his course for its intensity. I rarely spoke in class, and he had never really acknowledged me.
The day after my column against the imposition of martial law appeared, I saw him coming toward me on a campus footpath. To my surprise and some consternation, he put out his hand to stop me as we came abreast. Though he barely looked at me, he said, “I read your article. You did a good thing to write it.” He walked on. I was elated. It was high praise from someone who understood deep down.
I grew up in Montreal, but I have lived in Vermont for many years and am a dual citizen of Canada and the US. Less than two weeks ago, a plot by right-wing extremists to kidnap the governor of Michigan and overthrow the government was uncovered, and the extremists were arrested. I couldn’t help but think of the October Crisis. Michigan had armed extremists from the right, Québec from the left. The common denominators were extremism, kidnappings, and plots for violent overthrow of elected governments.
One important difference, though: In Michigan it was not necessary to suspend civil rights. Regular law enforcement took care of it. At the same time, I note that an authoritarian tyrant is in the White House, and he refused to denounce the right-wing extremists. In fact, he castigated the governor, the intended victim. He has also sent troops to put down mostly peaceful protests in some parts of the country and threatened to send more. Beyond that, the country is in political turmoil, and the wellbeing of ordinary US citizens is being whittled away almost every week. Authoritarianism does not require martial law to do its damage.
Trudeau was no Trump. I admired him in many ways, but my first, almost instinctive recoil from the War Measures Act still feels like the right response. The Act was probably unnecessary and a dangerous abuse of civil rights. Legal and socio-political scholars, such as Thomas Berger and Dominique Clément, have said so. More than that, if you had the misfortune to experience its effects up close, as I and many Québecois did, it was downright scary.
Would Canada and Canadians react the same way today? Maybe not. I hope not. Perhaps panic would not override reason and fairness this time. From my vantage point in the US (though Vermont often feels more like Canada than the US), Canada seems so sane, so intelligent, and Canadian society seems so geared toward people taking care of each other. Of course, there are plenty of injustices to be righted in Canada, too, but Canadians seem capable of addressing them – and without armed intrusion.
The lesson I learned back in 1970, and still am learning now in a very different environment, is never to take peace, due process, or personal freedom for granted. They are all beautiful, and they are at once powerful and fragile. They need nurturing. I think that was the message of my professor, too, the Holocaust survivor who had suffered unspeakable loss at the hands of brutal authoritarianism.
I also wonder about the young soldier I came eye to eye with fifty years ago on the Metro. I’m guessing he was mainly doing a job, maybe one of the few available to him at the time. I‘m also guessing he has put down his rifle. I would love to meet him again, find out what he was thinking back then, and what he’s thinking now.
Dave Cavanagh is a poet whose fifth collection, The Somnambulist and the Good Life, came out this year from Salmon Poetry of Ireland. Earlier books were also published by Salmon Poetry and by Fomite Press. His poems have also appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and the U.K. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and been supported by grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Vermont Arts Council. Born and raised in Montreal, Dave lives in Burlington, Vermont, and is a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S.