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Reflections on the Referendum Debate and the October Crisis of 1970

The debate between Stephane Dion, federal minister of intergovernmental affairs, and Bernard Landry, deputy premier of Quebec, over whether the federal government has any right to intervene in the text of the next referendum question, is reminiscent of the Parti Quebecois' position during the October events of nearly thirty years ago.

It will be remembered that in October 1970, James R. Cross, the British commercial attache, and Pierre Laporte, the Quebec labour minister, were kidnapped by FLQ terrorists. The FLQ demanded that the 23 imprisoned FLQ members, who had been jailed as the result of 250 bombings, robberies and other crimes, including three murders, be released for Cross and Laporte.

At that moment, the Parti Quebecois took the position that Ottawa should have no part in any decision as regards the FLQ demands. They thus ignored that justice is a power shared by both the federal and the provincial governments under the Constitution and that some of the prisoners could be released by Quebec and some only by Ottawa.

The FLQ, too, had as its principal goal the separation of Quebec from Canada, a subject that the federal government has an interest in, equal to the interest of the Quebec government.

The Parti Quebecois was especially insensed that the then Premier of Ontario, John Robarts, had made a strong statement against the FLQ aims and actions. According to the Parti Quebecois, Ontario had no right to intervene in this Quebec matter, as though the integrity of the Canadian Confederation was not also an Ontario matter.

Bloc Quebecois spokesman, Daniel Turp's intervention in the debate and his party's opposition to federal interest in the referendum is particularly incongruous. (As the Irishman said, is this a private fight or may anyone join in?) Just as Turp's separatist party has a legitmate place in the federal Parliament, so has the federal government a legitimate place in the question of the separation of a province. It is time that the Chretien Government took an interest in the terms of the Quebec referendum and should have produced a plan "B" long ago. They have been very derelict for years.

A second basic position was taken by the Parti Quebecois in October 1970, which was that the 23 FLQ prisoners should be released, ignoring that such concessions would only be an invitation to more terror, bombings and kidnappings.

The Parti Quebecois was not in power, during the October events, but today they face a very important threat, akin to extortion, by the public sector employees, whom it is no secret have generally supported separatism and the Parti Quebecois in return for favours at the negotiating table.

Recently, Robert Caron, president of the Syndicat des Professionnels du Gouvernement du Quebec, in referring to a future referendum said:

"The government talks about winning conditions and it seems to me it has to consider us among its winning conditions. The government cannot afford to neglect us. We live in the society, like everyone, and when we see the government is not treating us correctly, it overflows into the debate on winning conditions. I think they (union members) will be very reluctant to get aboard a referendum, or even vote in the next elections." ***

The Parti Quebecois government thus has a test of its integrity as it faces the public sector threat. The government must "consider" the whole population and not "neglect" us, even at the expense of winning conditions and the separatist option.

October 1970 was a terrible period for Quebec, where dificult decisions had to be taken, culminating in the horrible and cruel murder of Pierre Laporte.

Yet there are two lessons to be learned from the October events. First that no legitimate, democratic government can give in to threats or extortion from a section of the population and second that Quebec is still part of a federal state and that the federal government and the other parts of Canada also have an interest in the separation of one province from the Canadian Confederation.

William Tetley
professor, McGill Law Faculty
member of the Robert Bourassa cabinet 1970-1976.

N.B. A French version of the above article was published in Le Monde Juridique (vol. 12, no. 6) in the autumn of 1999 at page. 26.