Pierre Trudeau's Invocation of the War Measures Act and the Impact on the Quebec Sovereignty Movement

Term Paper, 2009

15 Pages, Grade: A




The Events

The Collapse of the Front de Libération du Quebec

The Rise of the Parti Québécois Led By René Lévesque:


Annotated Bibliography


The question to be investigated in this essay is “How did Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau’s decision to impose the War Measures Act affect the Quebec sovereignty movement?” The invocation of the War Measures Act had a lasting impact on the Quebec sovereignty movement as it caused the immediate decline of the movement’s violent wing and prompted the subsequent gain in support towards political and peaceful means of seeking sovereignty for Quebec.

This investigation will be focussed on the extent to which the Quebec sovereignty movement was affected by the invocation of the War Measures Act. The purpose is to trace the impact of the War Measures Act on the Quebec sovereignty movement in the years following the October Crisis. Key sources that were included were William Tetley’s account of the October Crisis and John Saywell’s documentation on the rise of the Parti Québécois. The investigation will start by providing a brief account of the events that took place during the October Crisis in leading to Trudeau’s decision to enact the War Measures Act. Next, it will analyze how Trudeau’s swift decision to enact the War Measures Act resulted in flagging support for the violent wing of the Quebec sovereignty movement. Finally, it will investigate the rise of the Parti Québécois from the October Crisis due to the steps taken by René Lévesque to promote the beliefs of his separatist political party.

It can be concluded that the invocation of the War Measures Act played a direct role in the collapse of the FLQ after the October Crisis and increased popular support for political means of pursuing independence through the Parti Québécois.


Relations between the English and French within Canada have long been strained due to certain historical, cultural and linguistic differences. Dating back to the British conquest of Quebec in 1759 and subsequent British rule from 1760 to 1867, there remains among Quebecers today a sense of bitterness at what transpired during those years. The French have historically resided in Quebec with Quebec’s Francophones accounting for nearly 90% of Canada’s French-speaking population despite Quebec’s population being only a quarter of Canada’s total population. As a predominantly French speaking province within Canada, a mostly English speaking country, nationalistic views stressing the need to cultivate a cultural identity have always been omnipresent in Quebec. Quebecers have often had a fear of assimilation due to perhaps years of being oppressed by their English counterparts denying their voices to be heard. These feelings of neglect gradually led to a revival of Quebec nationalism during the 1960’s which gave birth to a number of sovereignty movements such as the Front de Libération du Quebec (FLQ). The FLQ gained substantial steam for the next decade and instigated the events of the October Crisis in 1970 with severe repercussions. This investigation will provide an analysis of “How did Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau’s decision to impose the War Measures Act affect Quebec’s sovereignty movement?”

It is an issue worthy of studies as Trudeau’s decision was made, amongst controversy, to counter the crimes committed by the FLQ. A number of historians, notably William Tetley, believed that his decision had far reaching implications on the future of the sovereignty movement[1].

The invocation of the War Measures Act resulted in the immediate decline of the movement’s violent wing and prompted the subsequent gain in support of political and peaceful means of seeking sovereignty for Quebec. Flagging public support ultimately led to the collapse of the FLQ which was followed by the rise of the Parti Quebecois due to the role of René Lévesque during the October Crisis.

The Events

Quebec’s sovereignty movement began as a fledgling separatist, revolutionary organization whose primary aim was to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada and to create a workers’ state in the process. This revolutionary organization later became the Front de Libération du Quebec (FLQ) which was formed in February 1963 in the midst of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. The Quiet Revolution was a period in Quebec in which a series of drastic government reforms were established resulting in the development of a more modernized lifestyle. Led by the Liberals under Jean Lesage, Quebec further underwent a socio-economic transformation that had begun in the 1940s. Reforms that were implemented included increasing secularization of education and social services, state control over hydroelectricity and the establishment of the Quebec pension plan[2]. These reforms mostly focused on the transfer of fiscal powers from the federal government to the provincial government. Not only did Lesage’s government decline federal initiatives in provincial matters, but they started their own provincial programs as well. Relations were often strained between the Quebec government and the federal government.

These reforms were made as a result of the neglect that French Canadians had experienced over the years. Businesses were mostly conducted in English with French Canadians unlikely to achieve a similar position as their English counterparts despite having the same set of credentials. To resolve this puzzling trend, Lesage’s government established French as the operational language in Quebec[3]. Also, French Canadians were under represented in the federal government, and when problems arose in Quebec, it was often blamed on the federal government. Many Quebecers were resentful towards this unfair treatment and it led to the growing belief that the best solution to their problems would be for Quebec to separate from Canada. Amongst this group of Quebecers was a group of radicals who became the forerunners of the FLQ. For the remaining years of the decade, the FLQ became known for using propaganda and clandestine terrorist activities to achieve their aims. In fact, from 1963 to 1970, the FLQ were involved in a large host of terrorist activities that included upwards of 200 bombings throughout Quebec[4]. Most notable of these attacks were the bombings at the provincial Department of Labour and the Montreal Stock Exchange amongst others. In October 1970, the FLQ shifted to a more confrontational approach in seeking their aims. Such an approach was first utilized with the kidnapping of British Trade Commissioner James Cross on October 5th, 1970. With this kidnapping, the FLQ had hoped to negotiate the safe return of James Cross for a number of demands most notably the release of 23 FLQ “political prisoners” and the publication of their Manifesto amongst others. When Quebec’s government complied with the demand to publish the FLQ Manifesto but refused to exchange the political prisoners for James Cross, the FLQ responded with an additional kidnapping of Quebec provincial cabinet minister Pierre Laporte just five days later.

The kidnappings by the FLQ set off a series of events that became known as the October Crisis. These kidnappings appeared to renew nationalistic sentiments in Quebec as FLQ sympathizers became increasingly disruptive following the abductions. Demonstrations were sporadic at first but swiftly intensified following the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte. On the morning of October 15, 1970, students at UQAM adopted resolutions supportive of the FLQ and occupied two university buildings. Citing the intensity of the demonstrations and a fear that the FLQ is indeed reflecting the views of more than a few isolated individuals, the Quebec government led by Premier Robert Bourassa informed the federal government that military assistance was needed to support the Quebec provincial police[5]. This was permitted under the National Defence Act under the terms of “Aid to Civil Authorities” and the Canadian Armed Forces was brought into Quebec to assist the overstretched local police forces[6]. By evening, 3000 people consisting mostly of students and youth had gathered at Paul Sauvé Arena in Montreal to demonstrate their boisterous support for the FLQ. In creating this climate of unrest, it proved to be ill advised as it triggered an unexpected and seemingly harsh response from Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. At the request of the Quebec provincial government, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared a state of “apprehended insurrection” and enacted the War Measures Act in attempting to resolve the concerns posed by the FLQ. The War Measures Act gave emergency powers to the federal cabinet and allowed them to govern by decree when it declared the existence of “war”, “insurrection” or “apprehended insurrection”. Having only been previously invoked twice in Canadian history, both of which were during the First and Second World War respectively, Trudeau’s decision was met by support and skepticism alike. Some felt wary of the decision as they felt that it was an unwarranted attack towards civil liberties. However, the majority of Canada’s French speaking population did not support the terrorist tactics that the FLQ employed in seeking independence for Quebec. In fact, according to a Gallup Poll published on December 12th, 1970, 86% of French speaking Canadians approved the federal government’s decision to adopt the War Measures Act regulations[7].


[1] William Tetley. The October Crisis, 1970 : an insider's view . Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007, 147.

[2] Ramsay Cook. Canada, Québec and the uses of Nationalism. Second ed. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1986, 128.

[3] Cook, 133.

[4] John F. Conway. Debts to Pay: the future of federalism in Quebec. Third ed. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers, 2004, 63.

[5] Robert Bothwell. Canada and Quebec: One Country, Two Histories. Revised ed. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998, 130.

[6] Tetley, 82.

[7] Tetley, 103.

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Pierre Trudeau's Invocation of the War Measures Act and the Impact on the Quebec Sovereignty Movement
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Canada, Quebec Sovereignty Movement, War Measures Act, Pierre Trudeau, Quebec
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Patrice D'Aramitz (Author), 2009, Pierre Trudeau's Invocation of the War Measures Act and the Impact on the Quebec Sovereignty Movement, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/287206


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