“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. (Martin) These famous words from the historian and moralist, Lord Acton are literal in their meaning. No man can keep himself from abusing complete power. Although the government is often trusted with more power than the average man is; it is nonetheless a collective of people just like those who make up the rest of the population. Especially in a democratic society, a particular group should not be able to have absolute control over the rest, even if that particular group was the government. The government is not justified in suspending the civil rights of the general public during the October Crisis, there were other alternatives which could’ve been used instead of this complete disregard for the Charter of Rights. This essay will look at what went wrong with the use of the War Measures Act and several alternatives, which could’ve been used instead.
On 16 October 1970 at 4:00, the regulations under the War Measures Act were enacted. (Tetley 94) This allowed the government to assume sweeping emergency powers, the police had more authority in arrest and detention. (Wikipedia) They were able to conduct searches without warrants and detain people without charges for up to 11 days. (Tetley 94) Even the Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Elliot Trudeau said, “ The government recognizes that the authority contained in the act is much broader than is required in the current situation.” (Tetley 94) But if the government thought that the act was too much, why did they use it? And what is stopping them from resorting to this again?
Although in failing to act, the result could’ve possibly been the escalating of violence, there were four major flaws in the use of enactment of the War Measures Act. First, the government should’ve been more careful in the choice of those arrested. Second, they should’ve had been able to speak to their families and lawyers immediately. Third, those without apparent charges should’ve been released quickly. And lastly, those arrested weren’t informed of the reason for their arrest until the emergency debate regarding the October Crisis on 11 November 1970. (Tetley 94) In analyzing the above, it is clear that there were no clear signs that indicated that the setting was in a democratic society. Once democracy is compromised in even the slightest way, there is the danger of the system going on a slippery slope towards a dictatorship.
It was unsettling that the government and police were completely taken unaware by the crisis and the form that it took. The reason that the government had taken such an uncalled for step was due to the bad planning, and their inability to signal the public without alerting the FLQ. The government should’ve planned more carefully rather than take such a radical step in order to preserve the democratic system. Since in doing so, they went against the very idea that they were trying to protect.
There were many alternatives, which could’ve been used instead of the War Measures Act, such as Martial Law, Riot Act or the Criminal Code. (Tetley 95) Martial Law is defined by Herbert Marx as the following, “ the action of the military, when mounting to deal with a state of war, they impose restrictions and regulations upon the citizens of their own country”. (Tetley 95) Clearly, this would’ve been more than enough to deal with the issue at hand. Which would in turn make the enactment of the War Measures Act, which stripped the citizens of all of their civil rights, unnecessary. In this case, the military would’ve been able to calm the turmoil in Quebec just as effectively as the War Measures Act had done, maybe even more than.
The Riot Act was another possible alternative to the War Measures Act, this measure comes from an old English law of the 1714, “ An Act for preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies”. (Tetley 96) This law could’ve stopped the violent rallies if it were used effectively. Only a judge, a mayor or a sheriff or the deputy of the latter two authority figures is able to read the Riot Act. (Tetley 97) The Act can only take effect if they were sure that a riot was in progress. This, would’ve been a step up from the complete suspension of the civil rights of the general public. Although this might’ve required more police forces to attend the assemblies and gatherings, it sure would’ve been easier to accept for the general public, and definitely more agreeable.
In December 1970, a well-known Winnipeg criminal lawyer, Nate Nurgitz, stated that the Criminal Act could’ve been used instead of the War Measures Act. (Tetley 99) He pointed out that the codes adequately covered all the powers found in the War Measures Act. In particular, section 64 covers unlawful assemblies and section 434 covers arrest without warrants. (Tetley 99) And since the Criminal Code is more often used than the War Measures Act, the policemen could’ve informed the people arrested of the reason for their arrest and their rights. This would’ve made it not as much of a violation of the democratic system.
The War Measures Act was a drastic measure, which was in part gratuitous. Although it had effectively stopped the violence from escalating, other alternatives could’ve been used instead of this radical move. Although the time was perilous, is it not a legitimate excuse for the complete violation democracy. It was neither just nor fair for the hundreds of innocents arrested without any apparent reason. Aristocracy is not the way to go, if a particular group has complete domination over the rest, how far away is this society from descending into a state of totalitarianism? The state must find a mechanism that they could use to effectively counter the threat of terrorist attacks, without compromising the very basis of what they are fighting for. Since they would be doing exactly what the perpetrators want them to do if they forget the reason that they were fighting for. This act of unprecedented repression must never be repeated again. Canada is a free country, and it is in the interest of the people for it to remain that way.
Martin, Gary. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely .” Phrases, sayings and idioms at The Phrase Finder. 2007. www.phrases.org.uk . 28 Jan 2008 .
Tetley, William. October Crisis 1970. 1st. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press, 2007.
Wikipedia, “War Measures Act.” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. 15 January 2008. Wikipedia.org. 28 Jan 2008 .