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1970s October Crisis unites opposition parties for a moment

The NDP and the Bloc Quebecois are not on speaking terms these days.

Over the past year, irreconcilable differences have emerged between their caucuses. The increasingly childish acrimony between the two opposition parties is fast becoming a defining feature of the current Parliament.

Beyond their contrary approaches to minority rule, it is really their conflicting visions of cultural diversity that will likely keep the NDP and the Bloc apart for the duration of the tenures of leaders Jagmeet Singh and Yves-Franaois Blanchet.

But that will not stop Singh from leading his caucus in support of the Bloc motion calling on the federal government to apologize for the civil rights abuses committed under the cover of the War Measures Act at the time of the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec.

In so doing, Singh is not so much courting nationalist votes in Quebec as honouring the past of his party.

Back in 1970, Tommy Douglas alone of the federal leaders stood up to oppose the War Measures Act and its attending blanket suspension of civil rights in Quebec.

Even for a party like the NDP that has often over the course of its history been ahead of the societal curve, Douglas’s stance required a remarkable amount of political courage.

Against the backdrop of two kidnappings and with Quebec’s federalist class in panic, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s move enjoyed overwhelming support across much of Canada.

Fifty years on, Douglas’s stance has weathered the passage of time better than Trudeau’s decision. The latter paved the way to the jailing of hundreds of Quebec intellectuals, journalists and artists. Most were eventually released without charge. Some spent weeks in jail.

It may not have struck Trudeau at the time, but had he remained a charter member of Quebec’s progressive intelligentsia instead of entering politics, he too might have been held to account for his writing by a cohort of semi-literate goons protected by their uniforms and by a federal licence to arrest people without cause.

The imminent violent uprising that the War Measures Act was deemed to be needed to prevent turned out to have been a figment of the overheated imagination of the politicians in charge in Parliament, in the National Assembly and at Montreal City Hall.

Put less charitably, one could describe it as a Canadian version of the manufactured findings of weapons of mass destruction that served as justification for the U.S. offensive on Iraq more than a decade ago.

It is possible to be agnostic — as I am — about the necessity of an unlikely mea culpa on the War Measures Act, but to also find that 50 years later, the after-the-fact justifications for cavalierly abusing the civil liberties of millions of Quebecers have worn thin.

Even as they acknowledge the obvious, i.e., that civil liberties were trampled, some find a saving grace in the notion that after the October Crisis, the drive for Quebec sovereignty was free of violent episodes.

But that did not result from Trudeau’s move, but rather, from the determination of Parti Quebecois founder Rene Levesque to unequivocally disavow the FLQ and its methods.

On that score, the War Measures Act was always immensely less likely to poison the sovereignty well than the assassination of Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte and the kidnapping of British diplomat James Richard Cross.

A weaker sovereigntist leader might have seen his young party crushed in the bud as a result of the crisis.

Instead, the Parti Quebecois by virtue of its existence, provided the independence movement with a democratic outlet that served Canada and Quebec’s social peace well over the course of two peaceful referendum campaigns.

And that brings one to the other landmark anniversary that came and went this month.

Twenty-five year ago, the sovereignty movement came within a hair of securing majority support for its independence project.

The fact that the Bloc spent more time in Parliament this month dwelling on the October Crisis than on Quebec’s missed 1995 appointment with independence speaks volume about the loss of momentum of the party’s signature cause over the decades since then.

These days, the PQ sits in fourth place at the back of the National Assembly.

Its caucus has been reduced to a rump.

Its membership has similarly been shrinking.

Earlier this month, PQ members elected a new leader. Paul St-Pierre Plamondon is the sixth person to lead the party since it lost the 1995 referendum.

Whether he will succeed where formidable politicians like Levesque, Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard have failed is an open question. For now, few believe that he will.

With every leader since the late ’90s, the PQ’s path to provincial power and a return to the referendum barricades has become narrower.

And that leaves the Bloc to refight old battles in the House of Commons, including one that features its NDP foe in a brave leading role.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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