Founded in 1971, the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation promotes education and research in social democracy. Tommy Douglas was the Foundation's first President and he remained in that role until his passing. We have recently released a third DVD in the Series "Speeches of Tommy Douglas" which includes the audio of these debates and also includes sub-titles (english to french, french to english), archival film footage, newspaper clippings, etc to accompany the audio. If you wish to support this project or the other projects the DCF supports please take a moment to make an online donation. All donations will receive a Canadian Charitable tax receipt.
War Measures Act Debate
House of Commons
October 16, 1970
October 16, 2010 marks the fortieth anniversary of Tommy Douglas’s famous speech in the House of Commons opposing the invocation of the War Measures Act.
October of 1970 was a time of fear, anger, and uncertainty in Canada. The dramatic actions of the Front du Liberation de Quebec (FLQ) were interpreted by key decision-makers in the Quebec and federal governments as an apprehended insurrection. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, at the request of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, invoked the War Measures Act which suspended habeas corpus, giving the police wide powers of search, arrest and seizure and which further allowed the government to pass legislation without consent of parliament.
The police acted quickly, arresting hundreds of people who, it was later proven, had absolutely no links to the FLQ, and who were subsequently released without charges.
In the midst of the fear and frenzy, Tommy Douglas stood in the House of Commons as a voice of calm and reason. He condemned the FLQ and its actions as acts of terrorism and murder. Yet he criticized the government for its response, likening the War Measures Act to “using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut” and calling it “over-kill on a gargantuan scale”.
It was an unpopular position for any politician to take in those angry days, but Douglas saw Trudeau’s actions as a threat to the very fabric of Canadian democracy. To suspend legal rights and civil liberties, even for a short time, was to admit that democracies are weak and unable to handle threats to civic order. Tommy had more faith in democracy than that.
Tommy’s speech remains a defining moment for the social democratic movement and for all Canadians. It stands as a beacon of principle and leadership in dark hours – when principle and leadership are needed more than ever.