Historicist: Measures of War

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Historicist: Measures of War

Every week, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau utters three famous words while questioned by CBC reporter Tim Ralfe three days before the enactment of the War Measures Act in October 1970. CBC Archives.

Watch him we did…
The revelation that the Ontario government quietly invoked the Public Works Protection Act earlier this week to provide law enforcement with freer rein to question and arrest anyone venturing toward the protected zones around the G20 summit and protests has led some civilians to reflect on past instances where civil liberties were temporarily suspended in the name of public security. One of the most powerful weapons in the federal government’s arsenal was the War Measures Act, which was invoked three times (two of which were for World Wars) between 1914 and 1970. Though its final usage mostly affected Quebec in the wake of the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) in October 1970, Toronto was not immune from arrests, debates, and protests during the October Crisis.


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Headline, the Globe and Mail, October 17, 1970.

After the federal government invoked the act without parliamentary debate on October 16, Toronto’s evening newspapers swung into multiple-edition mode. Each successive copy of that night’s Star and Telegram featured the day’s debates in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park, along with the evolving responses of local law enforcement officials. Early editorials backed parts of the act that were absolutely necessary to maintain calm and curb the FLQ and wished for a speedy revocation. While all of the papers expressed reservations about rights suspension, the Star was the most critical in its views, as it believed that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau should have gone to the House of Commons first and provided a full explanation as to why his tactics suddenly changed from strict negotiations over the release of the hostages to bringing in the act. The general reservations among local media were summed up at the end of the Globe and Mail‘s editorial the following day: “It will be up to the government now to prove that it invoked the War Measures Act in order to eliminate a gang of terrorists and not to destroy its political enemies.”
At Queen’s Park, Ontario Premier John Robarts was quickly provided with round-the-clock guard in the wake of statements from a group of prominent Quebeckers that urged him to keep his nose out of Quebec’s affairs after he commented that the FLQ was a national concern. Robarts indicated that he had been consulted before the act was imposed and, while conceding its powers could be harmful if misused, felt full confidence in the federal government. On the opposition benches, the Liberals raised no fuss, while NDP leader Stephen Lewis felt the act was unnecessary unless Trudeau could prove that an armed insurrection was imminent and asked for daily reports on any arrests that were made in the province. Ontario Attorney General Arthur Wishart refused any comment until it was clear what, if any, responsibilities local police forces and the OPP had to enforce the emergency measures.

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Protesters demonstrating against the War Measures Act at Nathan Phillips Square on October 17, 1970. The Telegram, October 19, 1970.

Civil liberties activists quickly mobilized against the act, the provisions of which allowed police to search homes without a warrant and hold suspects for up to ninety days. A group of lawyers under the banner of the Law Union organized a rally at noon on October 17 to protest the act. Around six hundred protesters showed up to listen to speakers like Clayton Ruby decry the federal government for overreacting and turning Canada into “an automatic police state.” More anti-act rallies and debates were in the offing…until bulletins that night reported the murder of Laporte.
The news proved an irritant to the several hundred viewers of a World War II drama on CBLT who flooded the station with angry calls. Showing little awareness of the situation at hand, some of those callers expressed their displeasure with the interruption of the movie by threatening to bomb the station. As far as we can tell, nobody was arrested for being an idiot—in this case.
Far more appropriate was the response of football fans the next day at CNE Stadium, where the sold-out crowd observed a moment of silence. Before the Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes took the field, announcer Ken Foss told the spectators that “without going into any formal details, we would ask you to sing our national anthem louder than you’ve ever sung it before.” The crowd respected his request then watched the Argos go on to a 16–13 victory.
Two reporters from Montreal covering the game were among the handful of people arrested by the RCMP for questioning due to suspicion of FLQ connections. Taken into custody that night was American army deserter and social worker Christopher Ewing, whose past as an army demolition expert and time spent in Montreal before moving to Toronto raised eyebrows. Ewing’s lawyers were prepared to mount a constitutional challenge, but he was released after eighteen hours.

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Cartoon by John Yardley-Jones, the Telegram, October 19, 1970.

Local leaders voiced their outrage and disbelief at Laporte’s fate as flags flew at half-mast across the city. Stephen Lewis was grasping for words to express his shock. “You’re not dealing with revolutionaries in a classical sense—you’re dealing with psychopaths…Pierre Laporte is dead and how now does one speak of it?” Toronto Mayor William Dennison hoped that Canadians would “react with determination to show the FLQ, the murderers, the anti-social groups and those who associate with them, that no country can tolerate them.” In the eyes of typical Trudeau opponents, like the editorial writers of the Telegram, the Prime Minister suddenly became a leader who understood when firm, decisive action was required.
At York University, students sent telegrams to Trudeau and Quebec premier Robert Bourassa:

We as Canadian university students wish to show our faith in a united Canada. We have confidence in the ability of the federal and Quebec governments in this crisis and wish to express our very grave concern with the action that the government was forced to take.

A rally on October 19 to show support for the government drew two thousand York students outside the Ross building. Most of the speakers delivered praise, but some, including historian J. L. Granatstein, offered cautionary notes:

In my memory I was the only one to oppose the government’s actions forthrightly. I cannot remember my exact words, but I suggested that the imposition of the War Measures Act was a direct attack on the civil liberties of all Canadians, that it was using a mallet to kill a flea, and that, under its terms, not only the (FLQ) terrorists but activists, hippies, Vietnam draft dodgers, and troublemakers could be arrested anywhere in Canada…I have never before or since been afraid of a crowd, never feared being torn limb from limb, but that day I was frightened. The shouts from the students that interrupted my speech were frequent and hostile; the visceral hatred of the FLQ kidnappers and murderers, and, as I interpreted it, of all Quebecois, was palpable. I was very pleased to get off that platform and into my office before I was attacked and beaten.

Years later, Granatstein’s views toward the War Measures Act were closer with those who jeered him that day.
While there wasn’t a mass rally at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, several of its students went to Nathan Phillips Square the same day to shout down anti–War Measures Act demonstrators from Rochdale College. Clad in school jackets, the Ryerson contingent waved flags and pictures of Trudeau while calling out points made by the Rochdalians in back-and-forth volleys that, when reading the account in the Globe and Mail, sound like an argument between primary school pupils (including cries for the Rochdalians to take a bath, names like “white honky” tossed around, comparisons to abortions, and debates as to time protesters spent in Quebec).

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Two scenes from Nathan Phillips Square. Left: pro-government supporters drowning out protesters from Rochdale College on October 19, 1970. Photo by Ray McFadden. Right: The memorial service for Pierre Laporte the following day. Photo by Bruce Reed. Both pictures from the Telegram, October 20, 1970.

The scene at Nathan Phillips Square was more solemn on October 20 when two thousand people paid their respects at a service for Laporte. Among the attendees was Betty Brown of Willowdale, who told the Telegram that “I’m an old lady and I just came to pay my respects. It somehow seems more appropriate than going alone to my church.” In churches around the city, services ranged from sermons to a ten-hour peace vigil at Adath Israel Synagogue in Downsview. Trustees from local school boards proposed naming a school in honour of Laporte, which came to pass when Pierre Laporte Middle School opened on Wilson Avenue three years later. York Mills Collegiate Institute created a memorial scholarship to allow up to four students go on exchange with a Quebec high school.
Over the month that the War Measures Act remained in effect, most incidents related to it in Toronto were either debates or problems with the printing and distribution of publications that included FLQ manifestos, as the Varsity discovered in early November. When the paper’s printer refused to touch one offending article, the editors replaced it with a photo of gagged man with “censored” written across the tape, captioned “guess what folks.” On a visit to Oakwood Collegiate around that time, federal Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield was confronted by a student who felt Stanfield’s initial questioning of the act hadn’t helped the country. Stanfield admitted he was a “little disturbed” by the depths of the lack of regard for civil rights suspended by the act. The editorial staff of the Don Mills Mirror were similarly troubled after constituents at a mid-November community meeting held by MP Robert Stanbury (Liberal, York-Scarborough) wished to have the act in effect permanently to lock up anyone they didn’t like, such as draft dodgers:

They have apparently not considered Stanbury’s argument: that having stopped one idea at the border, where do you draw the line? They haven’t recognized that in trying to avert one threat to Canada, they themselves may be becoming an even greater threat. If they destroy freedom of speech and ideas, there won’t be much left to distinguish Canada as one of the best of the world’s democracies.

Additional material from Trudeau’s Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, edited by Andrew Cohen and J.L. Granatstein (Toronto: Random House, 1998) and the following newspapers: the October 28, 1970 and November 18, 1970 editions of the Don Mills Mirror; the October 17, 1970, October 20, 1970, November 10, 1970 and November 11, 1970 editions of the Globe and Mail; the October 16, 1970, October 17, 1970, October 19, 1970, October 20, 1970 and October 21, 1970 editions of the Toronto Star; and the October 16, 1970, October 19, 1970, and October 20, 1970 editions of the Telegram.

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