News & Events

January 09, 2014

Environics Institute Introduces New Canadian Historical Public Opinion Vignette Series – First Article: the FLQ Crisis

The Environics Institute is introducing a new series of research vignettes which analyze public opinion data from important historical events to find relevant lessons for Canadian society today. Originating in literature, vignettes can best be described as snapshots: they provide a trenchant impression of a subject, focusing on one moment. These vignettes focus on events in Canadian history, relating public attitudes to current social issues, thereby contextualizing ongoing debates. This series draws from historical data, including Environics’ Focus Canada research, thereby highlighting the enduring importance of social and public opinion research.

Below, the first vignette examines Canadian reaction to the 1970 October Crisis, comparing it to ongoing social debates and identifying how this crisis has shaped Canada today .

Canada after the FLQ Crisis – Security, Civil Liberties, and the RCMP

By Kristen Pue 

P.E. Trudeau: “It's more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don't like the looks of a soldier—“

CBC reporter Tim Ralfe: “At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?”

P.E. Trudeau: “Well, just watch me.”

History does not determine the future, but it can help us to understand the contours of our present. It asks: how did things get to be this way? In this sense, the value of history is in its theory of change. How do events shape us and our institutions? Although change is often incremental, it is the change produced from dramatic events – from critical junctures in history – that can be the most meaningful. Most agree that the 1970 October Crisis (also known as the “FLQ crisis”) was a defining moment in Canadian history. How has this event defined us?

The October Crisis was triggered by two kidnappings committed by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), a separatist organization. It precipitated public debate on at least two issues: the legitimacy of the War Measures Act and the role of the RCMP in surveillance activities.

Legitimacy of the War Measures Act

Famously, during the FLQ crisis Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, which restricted certain civil liberties including the right to be released from unlawful detention; it is the only instance in which the War Measures Act was used during peacetime.

Canadians were initially supportive of invoking the War Measures Act, but began to question its legitimacy over time. Although as many as 92% approved of Trudeau’s decision at the time, by 1981 just over half of Canadians felt that invoking the War Measures Act was entirely or somewhat justified.[1] Furthermore, when asked about specifics of the War Measures Act – whether it was justified to allow police to search homes or arrest people without a warrant – less than half of Canadians agreed.[2]

The War Measures Act was repealed in 1988 and replaced with the Emergencies Act. The Emergencies Act contains two important changes: emergencies declared by Cabinet are subject to Parliamentary review and all temporary laws are still subject to the Charter (the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which constrains the power of government, is one part of our Constitution; it came into effect in 1982). The result of these changes has been to limit the power that the executive branch has to curtail civil liberties in times of crises. These reforms constitute one way that the FLQ Crisis has changed Canada.

How would Canadians react to a similar crisis today? Although it is impossible to answer this question directly, the 9/11 terrorist attacks offer a reasonable analogue. Following the attacks in 2001, the Anti-Terrorism Act was quickly passed, a law that has been compared to the War Measures Act. The Anti-Terrorism Act controversially established investigative hearing measures, which empower judges to compel individuals to testify as to their knowledge of persons or events under threat of detention, and the recognizance-with-conditions power, which allows a police officer to preemptively compel an individual to appear before a judge for the imposition of conditions on his or her release or detention.


In the aftermath of 9/11, six in ten Canadians expressed support for the Anti-Terrorism Act, saying that it provides the government with the appropriate level of power to counter terrorist activities and does not infringe too much on civil liberties.[3]  Support for the Anti-Terrorism Act has remained steady since 2001 through 2006 at least (the question hasn’t been asked since).

Comparing the initial public response to the two crises, support for the Anti-Terrorism Act was lower than for invoking the War Measures Act. However, support for the War Measures Act dissipated over time, while support for the Anti-Terrorism Act actually increased slightly. What accounts for this difference?

The intensity of the event was greater for the FLQ Crisis, which took place within Canadian borders and involved Canadian terrorists. Although the events of 9/11 certainly reverberated across the globe, the attacks occurred south of the border and did not enflame existing social cleavages in the same way that the October Crisis did through its connection to Quebec separatism. Second and related to this, the government response to the FLQ Crisis was more visible and dramatic than was the response to 9/11. As such, although fear may have driven many Canadians to initially support the invocation of the War Measures Act, they were also confronted more directly with the legislation’s effects, prompting a widespread social debate as the threat receded.

It is also likely the case that, in the Canadian public view, the terrorist threat has not yet dissipated. Attacks continue globally and recently, in April 2013, the RCMP foiled an al Qaeda plot to attack a VIA Rail train in the Toronto area, exposing our continued vulnerability. Notably, the Anti-Terrorism Act was only five years old in 2006. The investigative hearing and recognizance-with-conditions powers expired in 2007, so Canadians have not been asked about these controversial provisions since 2006 (although the controversial provisions were reinstated in 2013 when the Government passed the Combating Terrorism Act following the Boston Marathon Bombings and the failed VIA Rail plot).

The RCMP Security Service under Scrutiny

The FLQ crisis prompted a second public debate on the role of police in surveillance activities. In response to the heightened threat of separatist violence, police misconduct occurred throughout the 1970s, culminating in a series of scandals involving the RCMP Security Service, which was responsible for managing terrorist threats. Most famously, in the “Barn-Burning Scandal of 1972” the RCMP Security Service burned down a barn in Quebec that they suspected was going to be used for a meeting between separatists and American Black Panthers. In a 1973 incident dubbed “Operation Ham,” the RCMP Security Service broke into an office and stole a computerized Parti Québécois members’ list. In “Operation Bricole,” the RCMP Security Service stole records from Agence de Presse Libre du Québec.

As reporters began to uncover evidence of these incidents in the late 1970s, RCMP scandals cascaded into the news. In 1976, investigative journalist John Sawatsky revealed that the RCMP had conducted over 400 illegal break-ins. As this was happening, two separate government inquiries were launched: the Keable Inquiry and the MacDonald Inquiry. In 1977, as these inquiries probed RCMP misdeeds, Solicitor-General Francis Fox admitted that several of the scandals had occurred.

Our Focus Canada survey data from 1978[4] shows that this issue was one of the most closely followed (37%) at the time, indicating that investigations into police misconduct constituted a prominent topic in our zeitgeist. In magnitude, one might consider the ongoing Senate scandal a modern day comparator. In light of the scandals’ prominence, it is unsurprising that in 1978 a majority of Canadians thought it was likely or very likely that the RCMP had acted illegally.[5]

However, legitimacy is a separate question. In 1978, Canadian public opinion was almost evenly divided between those that felt it was rarely or never justified for the RCMP to break the law (45%) and those who responded that breaking the law was occasionally or frequently justified (44%). Canadians became less permissive of extralegal RCMP action by 1981.

Public trust is critically important for police in executing their duty as guardians of the law and public safety. In the aftermath of the FLQ crisis, the RCMP Security Service was embroiled in a series of scandals that threatened to undermine public trust, but if there was any damage to public confidence, it did not have a long term effect, based on surveys measuring public confidence in RCMP in the decades that followed these events.

Canadian confidence in the RCMP has remained remarkably stable throughout time; notably, it was the same in 1989 as in 2010, when the question was most recently asked. As the chart below illustrates,[6] confidence in the police is consistently higher than for other justice institutions, perhaps suggesting that that Canadians are able to dissociate controversies implicating RCMP officers from the institution as a whole.

It may also be the case that the reforms instituted in the wake of the scandals successfully preserved confidence in the RCMP. The RCMP Security Service (the section of the RCMP that was at the time responsible for combating terrorism) had come under penetrating public scrutiny after the FLQ Crisis, but in 1984 it was disbanded and a new internal security service was established as a separate institution: the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The effect of this was to separate the intelligence gathering organization from the organization that arrests people, to reduce the police’s power and restore public confidence in the RCMP. 

What lessons can we draw from these historical events?

The October Crisis tells us that a martial law measure which Canadians supported in the midst of a crisis came under question a decade later, when the situation had settled.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks produced a similar crisis, although the intensity of the crisis and government responses were different. Two broad social changes are also reflected in the different Canadian public responses to the FLQ Crisis and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. First, there has been more focus on civil liberties in the Charter era. Second, deference to all institutions, including governments has been steadily declining for decades. Canadians today are much more likely than forty years ago to openly question government decisions. The different social contexts in which these events took place may partially reflect social changes as the result of the FLQ Crisis -- our collective memory of the event and the narrative that is told about it.

This historical event also demonstrates that, while RCMP misconduct through this period generated public concern, subsequent inquiries and reform insulated the police, preserving a level of public trust that has remained remarkably stable for decades to follow.

Finally, the October Crisis and the scandals that followed contributed to two important reforms that protect our civil liberties. First, the War Measures Act was repealed and replaced by legislation that safeguards civil liberties. Second, events catalyzed by the FLQ Crisis resulted in a new structure for our internal security services and the creation of CSIS, which was meant to protect our rights by separating the institution that is empowered to conduct surveillance and gather information from the institution that can arrest people. Through the reforms that it catalyzed and the lessons that we have drawn, the October Crisis has shaped Canadian society.

[1] Focus Canada Survey: 1981-4, Q.103.

[2] Focus Canada Survey. 1978–2,Q.9; 1981–1,Q.49.

[3] Focus Canada Surveys: 2001-4, Q.75; 2004-4, Q.36; 2006-3, Q.65.

[4] Focus Canada. 1978-2, Q.5.

[5] Focus Canada: 1978-1, Q.6.

[6] Focus Canada: 1989-1. Q.53.


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