48th Anniversary of Proclamation of the War Measures Act

Fernand Deschamps —

October 16 marks the 48th anniversary of the proclamation of the War Measures Act by the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1970. Trudeau declared an « apprehended insurrection » in response to kidnappings and mailbox bombings in Quebec. The Act gave police forces the power to make arrests without warrants and detain people indefinitely without charges or trial.

Even before the proclamation, between October 7-10, the police had already carried out over 1,000 raids. As a result of the Canadian government having invoked provisions of the National Defence Act, on October 12 the army was deployed on the streets of Ottawa and three days later, on the streets of Montreal. On October 13, 1970 outside Parliament, a reporter asked Trudeau how far he would go in suspending democratic rights. The Prime Minister replied, « Just watch me. »

Upon invoking the War Measures Act, in the wee hours of the morning on October 16, soldiers began to appear on the streets of Quebec in full combat gear. The police carried out a further 3,068 raids and searches and another 465 arrests were made without warrants. The majority of those arrested were released without charge after 21 days, however some were detained longer.

All those events were passed over in silence. However, we are told that this is all part of the past, that it serves no purpose to « stir things up again. » Why then does the Canadian army continue to carry out exercises like it did during the month of September right in the heart of the city of Montreal?[1]

The War Measures Act was adopted by the Canadian Parliament in 1914, at a time when Canada was part of the British Empire, at a time when Great Britain, France, Czarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire sought to redivide Europe and the colonies linked to these colonial powers.

These war measures were again invoked in 1917 when Great Britain, in concert with France, attempted to break the impasse on the battlefields of Europe, in particular after troops in Czarist Russia, France’s ally, massively deserted the eastern front.

The Canadian government used these measures to impose conscription, which Quebeckers opposed by organizing in Quebec City in March of 1918. Big demonstrations of close to 10,000 people broke out to oppose the kidnappings of youth by the federal police, to enroll them by force.[2]

On April 1, 1918 the Canadian state sent thousands of soldiers to Quebec to repress the protests against conscription. Soldiers opened fire and killed five people.

On July 21, 1988, the War Measures Act was replaced by the Emergencies Act. In the section of the law entitled « Application and Construction, » what is meant by « national emergency, » is a « public welfare emergency » « that results or may result in a danger to life or property, social disruption or a breakdown in the flow of essential goods, services or resources, so serious as to be a national emergency. » Within such a situation, « When the Governor in Council believes, on reasonable grounds, that a public welfare emergency exists and necessitates the taking of special temporary measures » « take special temporary measures that may not be appropriate in normal times. »[3]

It is important to recall that before the Emergencies Act was adopted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 had already put into place the provisions in the War Measures Act and currently in the Emergencies Act, again in the name of the defence of rights and freedoms. The Charter is based on the premise that rights are subject to « reasonable » limits and that it contains a notwithstanding clause that permits the withdrawal of all the rights contained therein, except for the right to vote. The Charter, adopted in 1982, has become the main means for the suspension of rights, notably by provincial governments.


1. See « War Preparations in Montreal, » Chantier politique, September 9, 2018.

2. See « Anti-Conscription Protests, » Chantier politique, March 28, 2018.

3. The long title of the Emergencies Act is: An Act to authorize the taking of special temporary measures to ensure safety and security during national emergencies and to amend other Acts.