Looking at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the ongoing blockade fiasco, it’s difficult to avoid comparison with how his father, Pierre Trudeau, dealt with the 1970 October Crisis.
Faced with the revolutionary FLQ’s kidnappings of British trade commissioner James Cross and Quebec provincial cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, the senior Trudeau moved decisively as prime minister. There were no platitudes about dialogue. Nor was there any legitimizing of the FLQ’s violent separatist agenda.
The first kidnapping took place on Oct. 5, 1970, when Cross was lifted in Montreal. This was followed by a demand for $500,000 ransom, the release of 23 “political prisoners” (actually people who’d been imprisoned for participation in the FLQ’s prior bombing and armed robbery campaign), safe passage to either Cuba or Algeria, and the broadcast of the FLQ manifesto.
Laporte was then taken on Oct. 10. And two days later, Trudeau dispatched soldiers to Ottawa to protect politicians and federal buildings. Questioned on how far he was willing to go, he didn’t mince words: “Well, just watch me.”
Four days further on – amid bomb threats, pro-FLQ demonstrations and calls for negotiations – he invoked the War Measures Act, an antiquated piece of 1914 legislation giving the federal government emergency powers. Enough was enough and the law was going to be upheld.
The contrast with his son’s performance could hardly be more dramatic.
One may argue, of course, that the situations are different. Kidnapping isn’t the same thing as blockading railway lines, disrupting commerce and interfering with people going about their legitimate daily business.
And if you’re disposed towards cynicism, you might even suggest that the father/son divergence isn’t as stark as it appears.
By this reckoning, the squelching of the FLQ was influenced by more than a desire to uphold the law. Trudeau senior’s intense loathing for Quebec separatism was also a factor, rendering him particularly ill disposed towards any accommodation with the FLQ.
His son, on the other hand, is sympathetic to the aspirations of the blockaders. If he could put political necessity aside and have his druthers, there’d be no more pipelines. Period.
Consider a hypothetical.
Passionate anti-abortion activists implement a rail blockade to protest Canada’s lack of any law regulating abortion. Other like-minded activists quickly join in, spreading the rail interruptions to another province or two.
Does anyone believe that the federal government’s reaction would be to call for patience and dialogue? Really?
Two currently circulating ideas are especially pernicious.
One concerns police behaviour.
Trudeau, among others, has declared that politicians can’t tell the police what to do. And a police spokesman has opined that it’s up to the police to determine whether they’ll enforce a court injunction.
Note that this isn’t a matter of police discretion over the operational details of enforcement. It’s a declaration that the police – not the legislatures or the courts – decide what laws are applicable.
In a less ideologically polluted environment, such thinking would cause general outrage. It’d be seen as an endorsement of a situation where the police are unaccountable, a law unto themselves. Shocking though it may sound, the term police state comes to mind.
The other perverse idea is that supporting the blockaders equates to aligning with the oppressed Wet’suwet’en. It doesn’t.
Wet’suwet’en opposition to the pipeline comes from hereditary chiefs rather than elected native councils. To the extent that it has any intellectual coherence, siding with the hereditary chiefs is equivalent to choosing monarchy over democracy.
Leadership is a complicated thing, involving a number of characteristics and behaviours.
Character counts. Equally important are vision, competence, judgment and the ability to persuade or inspire.
Not every successful leader has all these attributes and not every situation requires the full suite. And leaders aren’t always consistent performers.
Justin Trudeau, though, has missed the mark this time. By a long stretch.
To quote journalist Terry Glavin, he “gives every impression that he thinks interminably apologizing for how wicked the rest of us have been, and continue to be, is what leadership is.” Harsh though that assessment may sound, it’s on the money.
Regardless of how this imbroglio ultimately pans out, Trudeau’s handling of it has done Canada a disservice. A country whose touchstone is peace, order and good government has been vividly reminded that the law doesn’t apply equally to all people and all causes.
That’s wrong. And it’s a shame.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.