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New Light from England on the October Crisis, 1970?

The Gazette, Montreal, Published in Letters to the Editor, January 10, 2001


I read with very great interest the article in the Gazette of January 6, 2001 and the references to the documents and letters between the Canadian and British governments as to the October Crisis in Quebec in 1970. Of course on November 26, 1970, when Sir Alec Douglas-Home, British Foreign Secretary, spoke to Mitchell Sharpe, Canadian foreign affairs minister, in London, Douglas-Home was concerned that Cross, who had been kidnapped on October 5, 1970, still had not been released. No doubt there was second-guessing, as there was in Canada, and the pleas of Mrs. Cross were undoubtedly received with great sympathy, while one official apparently suggested an offer to the kidnappers of "immunity or amnesty to draw them into negotiations." But the position of the Quebec and Federal Governments to allow the kidnappers to leave Canada, upon the safe release of Cross, but without amnesty, was the right one and was accepted by the kidnappers on December 3, 1970.

As to the question of whether or not there was "apprehended insurrection" , when certain measures of the War Measures Act were put into force on Friday, October 16, one must realize that the War Measures Act of the time could be invoked on only on one of three conditions: "war" or "insurrection" or "apprehended insurrection". On October 15, Mayor Drapeau and Lucien Saulnier and the Chief of Police of Montreal made the request in writing, which the Federal Government, itself had requested. Only on October 16, did Bourassa make his request on behalf of the Quebec Government and only after a day and night session of the National Assembly, where we had adopted Medicare and sent the striking specialist doctors back to work.

Was there apprehended insurrection? It should be noted that during the week before the imposition of the War Measures Act, the specialist doctors struck, and medical services and the hospitals were in a critical state. And on Wednesday October 14, Claude Ryan, René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau, Camille Laurin and 12 other Parti Québécois supporters and sympathizers, added to the uproar by holding a press conference (instead of privately approaching the Government) and called for the release of the 23 convicted FLQ prisoners responsible for over 200 crimes, including bombings, robberies and five murders.

Students had also been incited by their leaders and others, including Pierre Vallières, Charles Gagnon, Robert Lemieux and Michel Chartrand and had closed most of the University of Montreal, all of the University of Quebec at Montreal, many CEGEPS and even schools throughout Quebec, while 5000 persons had filled Paul Sauvé Arena, shouting the mantra "FLQ, FLQ, FLQ." Some of the electronic and written press, it can be said as well, were not acting very responsibly.

The War Measures Act was necessary in my view in the circumstances and was approved in a Gallup Poll of December 12, 1970, by 89% of English Canadians, (5% disapproval and 6% undecided. For French Canadians it was 86%, 9% and 5%.) The documents just released by the British Government are intriguing, but even more interesting would be British Cabinet minutes of the period. The Federal and Quebec Cabinet minutes have been available for more than a year and show how reasoned the discussion was over the release of FLQ prisoners and the imposition of the War Measures Act.

Finally, it is interesting that Quebec Justice Minister Jérôme Choquette could note on November 13 in the debate in the National Assembly on the Crisis that Douglas-Home, as reported in London newspaper, had approved the actions of the Canadian and Quebec Governments in the handling of the Crisis.

William Tetley QC

William Tetley is a professor at McGill Law Faculty and was the Minister of Financial Institutions in the Bourassa Government at the time of the October Crisis.