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What would he have done?
On the anniversary of Pierre Trudeau's death, ANDREW COHEN recalls how he handled demands from Washington - and encounters with terrorism
By ANDREW COHEN, Special to the Globe and Mail

Friday, September 28, 2001

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  • Shortly after Pierre Elliott Trudeau married Margaret Sinclair in 1971, he made clear to her his deep antipathy for terrorism in cold, personal terms.

    He told his young wife that were she or their child taken for ransom by abductors, there would be no deal, no amnesty.

    "Do you understand that?" he asked sternly, she recalled in her memoir.

    "No, I don't," she said. "I can't. You mean you would let them kill me, rather than agree to terms?"

    "Yes," he said. "Yes. I would."

    She had no reason to doubt him. A year earlier, in the October Crisis, Mr. Trudeau faced what was called "an apprehended insurrection." Refusing to placate the renegades of the Front de libération du Québec, a violent separatist cabal, first he sent the army into the streets of Quebec. Then he invoked sweeping legal powers suspending civil liberties. He never apologized for either.

    A year after Mr. Trudeau's death, as Jean Chrétien weighs Canada's role at home and abroad in response to the attacks in the United States, he might recall that autumn of anxiety. In Mr. Trudeau's encounter with terrorism a generation ago, he will find courage, resolve and leadership, and perhaps some contradictions, too.

    From the moment Mr. Trudeau learned of the kidnapping of James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner, in Montreal on Oct. 5, 1970, his response was unequivocal: There would be no negotiation. When External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp approved the reading of the FLQ's crude manifesto on French-language television, he called him "weak." It wasn't that the terrorists had called Mr. Trudeau "a queer," it was that they'd been given access to the airwaves.

    Mr. Trudeau rejected a "negotiated" settlement with the kidnappers, whose foremost demand was the release of 23 "political prisoners" in jail for their crimes, not their beliefs. That many leading Quebeckers were inclined to negotiate appalled him.

    He knew the context. Seven people had died in 200 bombings over the last seven years. As a third-grader in May, 1963, my classmates and I were playing outside Roslyn School in Westmount when we heard a bomb explode in a mailbox two blocks away. We were sent home in fear.

    Now, in adopting new tactics, the FLQ was raising the stakes. Mr. Trudeau knew if terror succeeded now it would only invite more later. He saw the crisis as a coup d'etat, a challenge no democracy could abide.

    In that light, Mr. Trudeau would have understood implicitly the threat facing the United States. He would have applauded the vigour of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who cast the attack in starkly moral terms as an attack on all free peoples.

    If the terror in Montreal in 1970 was quantitatively different than that in New York in 2001, the ends were the same. As Mr. Trudeau didn't hesitate then to bring the full force of the state to bear upon the terrorists, he would understand the imperative to use it now, to address a greater crime, on a larger canvas.

    In a country entering the revolutionary age, the unequivocal response of a democrat standing against a tide of terrorism - how large the threat, he did not know - was to use the tools at hand. So Mr. Trudeau outlawed the organization, sent in soldiers and rounded up suspects.

    For that, Mr. Trudeau was attacked. Hundreds were arrested and detained to contain an insurrection that we now know was never as great as Mr. Trudeau and others imagined. The War Measures Act was excessive, the critics said, like using "a sledgehammer to crack a peanut" as former NDP leader Tommy Douglas put it.

    Yet Mr. Trudeau, supported by civil libertarians such as Frank Scott and popular opinion, saw the larger picture. By then Pierre Laporte, the provincial labour minister, was kidnapped. And the Prime Minister feared more kidnappings would follow. A group of prominent Quebeckers were musing about forming a provisional government. Demonstrations were planned in support of the FLQ, and after the killings at Kent State in Ohio the previous spring, there was worry about bloodshed and riots.

    Mr. Trudeau feared that things were slipping out of control, and with the support of the mayor of Montreal and the Premier of Quebec, he invoked the War Measures Act. In language that could be used today, Mr. Trudeau called the kidnappers "violent and fanatical men [who] are attempting to destroy the unity and freedom of the country."

    He believed that even as he worried about the corruption of unchecked power. But he also knew well the need for the state to protect itself, and he scorned the bleeding hearts offended by helmets and guns, as he put it. It was more important to him to defend the rights of the majority. Calling the powers "distasteful," he refused the first request to use them. When he learned of the murder of Pierre Laporte, his former classmate, he wept. Had his refusal to negotiate killed Mr. Laporte? "It gave him a new bitterness," Margaret Trudeau wrote, "a hard sadness I [had] not seen before."

    But his will was unshaken. He cast his adversaries much as Mr. Bush has cast his: An organization "with no mandate but terror, no policies but violence, and no solutions but murder," Mr. Trudeau declared.

    In the end, the terrorists got nothing but a ticket to Cuba. Parti Québécois leader Rene Lévesque sneered that "Trudeau's stupidity will not have prevented more kidnappings" but he was dead wrong. Mr.Trudeau's steadfastness crushed terrorism in Canada even as it gained purchase in Europe in the 1970s. As Senator Eugene Forsey put it, "He saved us from Baader-Meinhof gangs and Red Brigades."

    If Mr. Trudeau were advising Mr. Chrétien today, he would surely urge him to support the harsh rhetoric in the war on terrorism. In his contempt, he would stand foursquare with the hawkish Mr. Bush.

    Whether he would align Canada with the United States in a great moral crusade, however, is less certain. Mr. Trudeau cherished Canada's independence, as he did his own. He angered the Americans with his ambivalence toward NATO, his reluctance to increase military spending and his wavering on cruise missile testing (though he ultimately moved closer to the U.S. position on each issue).

    Presumably, he would have pushed for a third way, paying deference to the nationalist impulse, using diplomatic and economic measures to bring terrorism to heal, and perhaps, looking to a multilateralism under auspices of the United Nations.

    Initially, he might have resisted joining a great expeditionary force in the Near East (if that is what the Americans are contemplating). He would have balked at harmonizing immigration and refugee policies or creating a Fortress America, measures that his successor, Brian Mulroney, would have more readily embraced.

    If this suggests the intellectual and the pragmatist would appear to be in conflict here, that was the man himself. Yet he would have recognized what was at stake. The magnitude of the crime would have seized him. If, having exhausted other avenues, armed intervention a world away was the only alternative, he would have agreed to it and joined it with uncompromising ruthlessness.

    For Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the strongman of October, one could never yield to the mob. "Once you do that," he told Margaret, "you're lost."

    Andrew Cohen is an associate professor at the School of Journalism and the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He is co-editor, with J. L. Granatstein, of Trudeau's Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

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