Tommy Douglas, October crisis, 1970

NDP leader Tommy Douglas opposed the Trudeau government's use of the War Measures Act in 1970
NDP leader Tommy Douglas, circa 1970

Most Canadians supported Pierre Trudeau when he implemented the War Measures Act in October 1970, and an overwhelming majority of MPs supported him as well. But NDP leader Tommy Douglas and most of his caucus were opposed. Douglas said he was appalled by the kidnappings, but he believed that the government had enough powers to deal with the crisis without invoking the draconian War Measures Act. Douglas was vilified at the time, as can be seen from the frequent heckling during this controversial speech in the House of Commons on 16 October 1970.

“A black Friday for civil liberties in Canada”

Appalled and disgusted

These last few days have been days of anxiety for all the people of Canada, and particularly for the members of this House who sit on the treasury benches. We have all been appalled and disgusted by the abduction of two innocent men who are being held as hostages in an attempt to blackmail the government into releasing convicted criminals and to do certain other things which, in my opinion, are completely unreasonable.

Because this situation is so delicate, we in this party have carefully refrained from making any statements or from asking any provocative questions. Because we felt that the government should be given every opportunity to deal with what was an extremely difficult situation, we have gone along with the government on at least two or three matters.

No to FLQ demands

We have agreed with the government’s refusal to accede to the outrageous demands of the kidnappers. I can understand the feelings of those sensitive individuals whose first reaction was that the government should deal with the kidnappers and should be prepared to accede to their demands. I would not go so far as the prime minister as to call them weak-kneed and bleeding hearts. I think they are people with a great sensitivity and a great sense of the value of human life. But I think such people overlook two important facts.

The first fact is that compliance with the demands of the abductors would not necessarily guarantee the safe return of the two men who they have taken as hostages. The second, and even more important, is that acceding to the demands of the kidnappers would only set in motion a whole series of similar incidents, and nobody knows where the road would end . . .

Cannot support

Now we come to a point on which we cannot support the government. The government is now convinced that there is a state of civil disturbance and anticipated sabotage which requires prompt and vigorous action. The government, of course, undoubtedly has in its possession information that is not available to us. I suggest that if the government has information that civil disturbances are likely to break out on a large scale and that sabotage is anticipated in menacing proportions, then the government, of course, has the responsibility to deal with it.

I submit that, properly, the government had two options in dealing with the situation. The first was to deal with it under the powers which it now has under the laws of Canada, to utilize all the powers under the treason sections of the Criminal Code and the sections dealing with seditious intention. There are very considerable powers there. I think the government deserves some criticism because some of those sections have not been used. There have been indications of seditious intent upon which the government could have acted. There is also the offensive weapons provision, and in dealing with the matter the government could have acted under that authority. The government had the power to call in the armed forces, and did so, and there was no criticism of the government for using these extraordinary powers if they, in their opinion, on the basis of information which they and they alone had, considered the situation serious enough to warrant such action.

The second option which was open to the government was that if it came to the conclusion that the powers it now enjoys under the Criminal Code and various other statutes were not sufficient to cope with this situation, the magnitude of which the rest of us are not fully aware of, the government had the option of coming to Parliament and asking Parliament, in a democratic way, to clothe it with the authority to deal with this unusual situation.

Government over-reacted

Certainly I can say, so far as this party is concerned, we would have been prepared to facilitate very quickly such matters coming before Parliament in order that the government might be able to indicate the areas in which it had not sufficient power and the justification for requiring greater powers and greater authority. But the government has not utilized this option. Instead, the government has taken the unusual step of invoking the War Measures Act. In my opinion, the government has overreacted to what is undoubtedly a critical situation. Does civil disturbance constitute apprehended insurrection?

AN HONOURABLE MEMBER: Yes . . .

DOUGLAS: The government, I submit, is using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.

SOME HONOURABLE MEMBERS: Oh, oh!

DOUGLAS: This is overkill on a gargantuan scale. Why has the government invoked the War Measures Act? May I point out that the FLQ have been around for some six or seven years? For several years now, it is well known that they have committed and been found guilty of acts of sabotage, the placing of bombs in mailboxes, and blowing up of public buildings.

AN HONOURABLE MEMBER: Is the honourable member condoning that?

DOUGLAS: The prime minister was minister of justice for three years and has been prime minister of this country for over two years. Why have we not been asked to supply the government with the powers to deal with the growing menace which it now says is so tremendous that we must invoke the War Measures Act to deal with an apprehended insurrection? The fact is, and this is very clear, that the government has panicked and is now putting on a dramatic performance to cover up its own ineptitude.

Much noise opposite

In the process of invoking the War Measures Act, I wonder if the honourable gentlemen opposite who are making so much noise have stopped to consider that today the prime minister holds more power in his hands than any prime minister in the peacetime history of Canada?

AN HONOURABLE MEMBER: Thank God!

SOME HONOURABLE MEMBERS: Hear, hear!

SOME HONOURABLE MEMBERS: Oh, oh!

Rights suspended

DOUGLAS: Right now there is no constitution in this country, no Bill of Rights, no provincial constitutions. This government now has the power by Order in Council to do anything it wants—to intern any citizen, to deport any citizen, to arrest any person, or to declare any organization subversive or illegal. These are tremendous powers to put into the hands of the men who sit on the treasury benches.

If my friends will look at the regulations they will find that if the police in their judgment decide that some person is a member of a subversive organization—not just of the FLQ but of any organization that the police decide is subversive—

SOME HONOURABLE MEMBERS: Oh, Oh!

DOUGLAS: —or that he contributes to such a party—

AN HONOURABLE MEMBER: Why is the honourable member scared?

DOUGLAS: —or that he communicates any of the ideas or doctrines of such a party—

AN HONOURABLE MEMBER: What has changed you, Tommy?

DOUGLAS: —that person may be arrested and detained for ninety days. At the end of ninety days, he has the power to appeal to a superior court judge to set a date for his trial and that may be postponed for some time. He may be denied bail. A person in Canada may be held for ninety days or more without any opportunity to prove his innocence, to prove that he does not belong to a subversive organization or to prove that the organization to which he belongs is not subversive in spite of what may be in the minds of those who ordered the arrest. The regulations give the power to seize property and hold it for ninety days. It is a resurrection of the padlock law. These are very serious powers. If the government requires those kinds of powers, surely in a democracy they should have asked the democratically elected representatives of the people to give them these powers . . .

Black Friday for civil liberties

I say that the government’s action today is an action of panic. In the hysteria which people feel, the government may, as the prime minister has said, get many letters and calls approving what is being done. But I predict that within six months, when the Canadian people have had time to reflect on what has happened today—the removal of all the protection and liberties presently on the statute books of Canada, a country placed under the War Measures Act, regulations introduced allowing persons to be detained for ninety days without a chance to prove their innocence—when that day comes, the Canadian people will look on this as a black Friday for civil liberties in Canada.
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Sources

House of Commons, Hansard, 28th Parliament, Third Session, Volume 1, October 16, 1970, pp: 196-201.

More Information:

CBC Archives: Tommy Douglas opposes use of War Measures Act.

Canadian Dimension: 50 years on, apologies due for imposition of War Measures Act.

Photo credit:

Weyburn Review, 1970.

2 thoughts on “Tommy Douglas, October crisis, 1970

Add yours

  1. It is interesting that Mr.Stanfield, leader of the opposition at the time the War Measures Act was passed later told Tommy that he wished he had had the courage to support Tommy’s stand.. And when you see what powers the government had it was obvious that Trudeau did panic. Either that or, shrewd politician that he was, he saw an opportunity to get Canadian people to support his action. But mostly, I believe that Trudeau wanted to show that he could be tough when dealing with the huge problems with the FLQ at the time.

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