Just Watch Me

Commentary, Government, Brian Giesbrecht

That was the famous boast by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau during what was called the “October Crisis” of 1970. Politician Pierre LaPorte had been taken hostage by the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ). Earlier, British Diplomat James Cross had been kidnapped – the whereabouts of both were unknown. Quebec, and indeed all of Canada, was in crisis. Anarchy stared us in the face. Exactly like the protestors who are shutting down Canada today in the cause of their Indigenous and climate beliefs- the FLQ believed absolutely that anything they did to achieve their goal, which was Quebec independence, justified their actions. They were prepared to do whatever it took to get their way. They were distinctly uninterested in “dialogue”.

Pierre Trudeau appreciated the gravity of the situation. He did not hesitate to take action. When challenged by a reporter over the fact that people’s civil rights would be affected in the process, Trudeau replied that a leader simply could not allow a complete breakdown of the rule of law to occur. Here is what he said:

“Yes, I think society must take every means at its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in this country, and I think that goes to any distance. So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representative of the people I think that the power must be stopped and I think it’s only, I think, weak-kneed bleeding hearts who are afraid to take these measures.”

And with those words, the senior Trudeau proclaimed the War Measures Act in force and sent in the army. Four days after the army went in, Laporte was found dead in the trunk of a car. He had been murdered by the FLQ. Fortunately he was the only person who died during the crisis. Although Trudeau was strongly criticized for taking this strong and decisive action, no one knows how many more Laportes there would have been if the FLQ had not been forcibly stopped and jailed. No one knows what anarchy would have ensued if he had failed to do his duty as the nation’s leader.

The FLQ has come and gone. But there is no shortage of causes – some more worthy than others – in Canada today. It happens that two of the most emotionally-charged causes currently trending are Indigenous issues and environmental concerns. Both of these issues are obviously worthy ones, but each cause has their own more extreme versions, along with their most extreme devotees. The more extreme Indigenous rights proponents and the more extreme climate emergency proclamators seized the opportunity for a union of convenience. When the RCMP began to lawfully enforce an injunction prohibiting Wet’suwet’en supporters from continuing to block Coastal GasLink pipeline workers it turned into Canada’s perfect storm.

The federal government did nothing as the country was paralyzed by protestors, who blocked roads and railway lines. So, while Pierre Trudeau recognized a clear duty in 1970 to restore law and order, his son recognizes no such duty. Instead, his son encourages “dialogue” while he plans his next trip abroad to pursue some quixotic adventure – it appears he has chosen to fiddle while Rome burns.

No one has been taken hostage, yet, by the radical protestors but it obviously seems on the agenda. Protestors recently occupied John and Ellie Horgan’s yard, the same John Horgan who is the premier of BC. The activists refused to leave when requested to do so and declared they were there to place the Premier of BC under citizen’s arrest, led by the internationally decentralized group Extinction Rebellion. The group’s stated mission is “We are promoting mass “above the ground” civil disobedience – in full public view. This means economic disruption to shake the current political system and civil disruption to raise awareness.” Obviously “dialogue” was not part of this mission. Moving from rhetoric to action is not much of a step, invading the Premier’s family home refusing to let him or his family to leave – taking them hostage. This group is as committed to their cause as the FLQ was to theirs.

The protestors have skirted violence when they prevented politicians from entering the legislature. Even the Deputy Prime Minister was forcibly prevented from entering a public building. If protestors are so emboldened by a lack of resolve by the country’s leaders – leaders who have been entrusted with preserving the public peace – it is not a stretch to imagine that they would be prepared to do anything to achieve their ends.

In fact, there have already been clashes that could easily have resulted in violence – or even loss of life. A group of fed-up Albertans took the law into their own hands and cleared away pallets and other garbage that protestors had set up to block rail lines in Edmonton. 

The pallet-clearing Albertans received overwhelming public support. The police were not there, but fortunately the protestors chose to leave. What if they had chosen to stay and fight? Both injury and death are foreseeable in such an emotionally charged atmosphere.

An identical situation occurred on Wet’suwet’en traditional land. A group of frustrated citizens showed up at a blockade and began calmly removing the pallets, old tires, and other garbage blocking the road. The protestors actually claimed that the rubbish was “sacred”, and must be placed back on the road so that they could continue to block traffic!

An RCMP officer was present, and what happened next is truly astounding. Instead of helping the citizens and following the court injunction that forbid the protestors from doing exactly what they were doing, the police officer insisted that the frustrated citizens put the junk back on the road, then proceeded to handcuff and arrest the most vocal citizen. All the while activists smirked and went back to their illegal roadblock.

There will likely be many more such confrontations. It is probably only a matter of time before violence – or even death – occurs. The longer the federal government and its leadership dithers, the more likely it is that bad things will happen. 

The rule of law has completely broken down. Judges are issuing hollow injunctions that are not being enforced and the police are refusing to act. 

Although it is true that it is – wrong for politicians – to interfere in the day-to-day operations of the police, this situation is entirely different. These are not ordinary times. Law and order has broken down. Thousands of jobs are being lost and thousands of people have been laid off. Vehicles are not getting through, preventing Canadians from going to work even from getting to hospitals. Fuel needed to heat homes, and supplies that are essential to people to survive a cold winter are being blocked. It is only a matter of time before more people take the law into their own hands.

This is a true crisis. Our country needs leadership. Our government leaders weakly mumble “dialogue, dialogue” and hope that they are just having a nightmare hoping that this will all just go away. They aren’t – this is real. Are these the kind of “weak-kneed bleeding hearts” that Pierre Trudeau described during the October Crisis? 

One of the many ironies in the current impasse is that the same leader who refuses to act, as his father did in 1970, contributed to today’s mess in the first place. The Prime Minister campaigned on the same Indigenous rights and “climate emergency” claims that are being shouted out by the protestors, even more ironic is that BC’s Premier campaigned for the same thing.

In fact, one of the most egregious promises made by both the Prime Minister and that Premier was to make the United Nations Declaration on the Rights Of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) the law of the land. BC actually went ahead and did exactly that – enacting UNDRIP. And UNDRIP was indeed the chant of the protestors blocking the doors of the BC Legislature – the same protestors that later refused to leave the Premier’s property.

The current demands of some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs include the claim that they are legally entitled to determine whatever Crown land or privately held land are part of their traditional territory. 

While the protestors don’t care that Via Rail had to lay off 1,000 workers because of their protests, or that CN Rail had to lay off 450, with another 6,000 on the chopping block, nor do they care about how much harm they are doing to farmers, or other people. The suffering of many Canadian families means nothing to them. The question to be answered is what is the government prepared to do about it?

October 13, 1970 – the October Crisis – was an ugly day. But it was a necessary day. When the senior Trudeau uttered the famous words “just watch me” and proceeded to end what had been Canada’s greatest crisis since 1870. Once again we are in crisis, anarchy is staring us in the face, will the son take a lesson from his father?


Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.