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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

The days when Reds were under every bed
Wednesday, October 11, 2000

Watching a clutch of RCMP pallbearers marching within spitting distance of Fidel Castro, the ironies started accumulating before the man was in his grave. After all, throughout his first term in office, RCMP brass (among others) regarded Pierre Trudeau as a pawn of international communism, if not an out-and-out Red.

Building on an anti-Bolshevik tradition going back to 1918, when the Northwest Mounted Police invaded Siberia under General Elmsley, and having for some time taken instruction by U.S. security forces, by 1968 the Mounties had located the enemy -- lurking in the political-science departments, taverns and coffee houses of the nation. As an academic and polemicist associated with Quebec labour groups and the NDP, Pierre Trudeau was surely a prime suspect; the man spent time in Red China for God's sake, in an era when communism, like the Ebola virus, was something you caught through injudicious tourism.

As icing on what was regarded as a suspiciously pink cake, in more ways than one ("Now we have two queens," remarked a frontier wag at the time), note the warm rapport between Trudeau and Castro. The RCMP can't have been unaware that the two men studied under the same Jesuit teacher, who just happened to leave Montreal directly for Havana. Coincidence? I think not!

Today, with communism reduced to teddy-bear status, it's difficult to appreciate how rabid the Cold War could get, even in Canada. When an actor friend of mine was busted for grass in 1969, the Mounties had on his file a suggestion that he had received money from Cuba for playing Che Guevara in a Toronto theatre -- and it was a known fact that international communists were using marijuana to erode the morale of Western youth. Asked to explicate his politics, my friend advocated a separate Canadian foreign policy from that of the United States, to which his Ottawa-based interrogator replied, dead serious: "Who do you think is going to protect us when the Chinese pour into B.C.?"

The Red Scare ran deep in Quebec -- witness the Padlock Act of 1937, which gave the attorney general authority to evict the occupants of any building he believed was being used to propagate communism. In this context, remember that the FLQ represented not just a separatist movement but a socialist movement as well: In addition to blowing up mail boxes, they were heavily involved in striking unions. The RCMP's antiterrorist skullduggery (mail interception, break-ins, exploding barns, etc.) had at least as much to do with the movement's ideological stance as with its support for sovereignty. (U.S. security types chronically confused nationalists and communists -- hence, the war in Vietnam; naturally, their northern acolytes followed suit.)

In this context, let's look at the October Crisis, seen by many as evidence of the Prime Minster's authoritarian streak, backed by the famous "Just watch me" clip (his off-the-cuff response to some pip-squeak reporter, waxing pretentious).

On Oct. 5, 1970, members of the FLQ kidnapped British diplomat James Cross. The Mounties had thoroughly infiltrated the organization years earlier, yet the situation was not deemed sufficiently urgent to prevent Premier Robert Bourassa from flying to New York to woo American investors. However, with the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte (and two days before his murder), things took on a feverish quality.

Suddenly Bourassa, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau and the director of the Montreal police were all writing letters to Ottawa recommending emergency powers. Jean Marchand, Trudeau's cabinet minister, claimed there were 3,000 heavily armed terrorists in Quebec, with hundreds of pounds of dynamite stashed away, who planned to establish a provisional government. (Never shy about maximizing a political advantage, Drapeau chimed in with something to the effect that his opponents in the municipal elections were a front for the FLQ.)

One has to wonder: What new intelligence (if that's the word) initiated the transition from what was calmly perceived as a desperate gesture on the part of a marginal group, to outright hysteria? Where could it have come from if not the RCMP?

I was in Vancouver at the time, where the only whiff we got of the War Measures Act was a threat on the part of our mayor to impose compulsory haircuts on hippies; still, it does point to a certain capriciousness about how the measures were interpreted. My friend with theatrical ties to Che Guevara remembers an OPP cruiser at the bottom of his driveway outside Brussels, Ont. (that hive of political unrest), questioning anyone who came in or out. Obviously, neither of the above intrusions can be blamed on Trudeau; rather, they seem symptomatic of a tier of flaky Canadian officials in a state of panic, acting out their badly informed predilections.

Back in Quebec, the search for Laporte's murderers took on a slapstick quality. When police raided their hideout, members of the Chenier cell evaded capture by hiding in the closet. Meanwhile, in Montreal, 497 intellectuals, socialists and activists were thrown in jail. Trudeau would undoubtedly have been arrested himself, were he not prime minister at the time.

A few years later, RCMP officer Jack Ramsay told the Keable inquiry that the force firmly believed in an FLQ-Cuba connection. Odd, how that small island keeps entering into it -- especially given that the kidnappers fled there under the terms of Cross's release.

For 30 years, Quebeckers have maintained that the War Measures Act was a manipulation on the part of Trudeau to crush the independence movement. Yet I wonder who was manipulating whom. Is it possible that Trudeau, regarded by the RCMP as a pawn of the communists, was manipulated as a pawn of the RCMP? As for the RCMP, was the October Crisis really about separatism at all?

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