Political Violence

Political violence refers to the use of physical force to achieve or prevent political or economic change. In this specific sense, Canada (as compared to the US) has been a "peaceable kingdom." There has been no bloody revolution or massive civil war and very little of the "lawless West.

Violence, Political

Political violence refers to the use of physical force to achieve or prevent political or economic change. In this specific sense, Canada (as compared to the US) has been a "peaceable kingdom." There has been no bloody revolution or massive civil war and very little of the "lawless West." The incidence of individual crimes of violence has also been very much lower. Nevertheless, Canadian history records a great deal of violence, especially collective violence, eg, that used in war, in the maintenance of "order" (see AID TO (OR OF) THE CIVIL POWER) and as a tool of political method. War and a concern with military defence in the name of "survival" or "protection of national interests" have been instrumental in Canadian history since the founding of New France.

Violence characterized the turbulent relations between the settlers and the IROQUOIS, and the response to American attacks and border harrassments in the 1770s, 1812-14, and during the 1830s (see HUNTERS' LODGES) and the 1860s (see FENIANS). Canada was also involved in the SOUTH AFRICAN WAR, WORLD WAR I and WORLD WAR II, the KOREAN WAR (1950-53) and the United Nations PEACEKEEPING activities of the 20th century. Canada's membership in NATO and in NORAD symbolizes its recognition that military strength (however secured) is the chief expression of power in international affairs, although the Canadian government has occasionally rejected requests by her senior allies to contribute military support to what it considered imperial wars.

Sir John A. MACDONALD refused to authorize a Canadian contingent to support a British expedition to the Sudan in 1885; similarly, pressure from the US for at least token support for the intervention in Vietnam was resisted in the 1960s. In both cases and in others like them it might be argued that Canada was hypocritical; in the first by accepting the insurance of Pax Britannica and Pax Americana without paying premiums, and in the second by profiting from the Defence Production Sharing Agreement in the US.

Debates on defence, from the militia bills of the 1860s through the Laurier-Borden struggle over naval contributions to imperial and national defence (see NAVAL AID BILL) to 20th-century CONSCRIPTION crises and the issues resulting from membership in a nuclear-based alliance system, have significantly affected the political process in Canada and the evolution of Canada's Constitution and domestic cultural relations. For example, Mackenzie KING's role in bringing about the BALFOUR REPORT and the STATUTE OF WESTMINSTER, as well as his reliance on Ernest LAPOINTE in all matters concerning Québec, resulted directly from his perception of the impact of military commitments upon domestic politics and upon Canada's international status.

The tortuous and little-examined history of collective violence within Canada reveals a nation that paradoxically combines a national attachment to the notion that only legally constituted government is legitimate (and that it may legitimately use force to maintain order) with an apparent belief that a healthy society must expect political and economic competition to generate violence. The 19th and early 20th centuries were pockmarked with incidents of physical intimidation at the polling booth, and with violence among competing lumber and railway interests and between strikers and militiamen.

Political discourse has occasionally been tinged with violence, eg, Joseph HOWE of Nova Scotia once suggested irately that someone would shortly "hire a blackfellow to horsewhip a lieutenant-governor," and some Canadians tend to honour historical leaders of violent political dissent such as W.L. MACKENZIE, L-J. PAPINEAU and Louis RIEL. Religious and cultural antipathies have often sparked violent confrontations; in 1871 a large militia force was required to ensure the removal of the body of rationalist Joseph Guibord from a Protestant to a Catholic cemetery in Montréal. Anti-Asian riots erupted in Vancouver in the early 20th century, and anti-Semitic melées in Toronto and Montréal occurred in the mid-1930s. In Canada attitudes toward political and cultural violence and those toward individual violence are linked by the perception that social order is an absolute prerequisite of both individual and political liberty.

In principal constitutional statements it is declared that "good government" is inseparable from "peace and order," comparatively strict controls on the possession of handguns are maintained, and a broad reserve of executive authority is endorsed to prevent or suppress the use of violence as a political method. Retention of the 1914 WAR MEASURES ACT for use in time of "real or apprehended" insurrection allows suspension of habeas corpus by order-in-council. Attempts to replace the Act with more restricted emergency powers legislation have failed - although in early 1985 the new Conservative government in Ottawa indicated a willingness to implement the recommendation of the McDonald Commission for legislation which would provide emergency powers short of those in the War Measures Act. Replacement legislation was introduced in late 1987. In 1988, a more detailed and limited law, the Emergencies Act, was passed into effect.

The reaction of Canadians to political trials and collective violence seems to be characterized by a stringent suppression of violence when it occurs or is threatened and lenience toward the instigators once the crisis has been weathered. During the REBELLIONS OF 1837 in UPPER CANADA only 2 rebels were executed; in LOWER CANADA 12 were hanged, and these only after a second attempt on their part in 1838 and because of fears of American intervention. The AMNESTY ACT pardoned the rebels in 1849.

Confidence in the evolving constitutional system has bred tolerance of basic constitutional dissent, allowing political actions which might otherwise be violently suppressed. In 1939 J.S. WOODSWORTH could support his vote in the Commons against the declaration of war with the statement that if any of his sons were "willing to take his stand on this matter, if necessary, face a concentration camp or a firing squad, I shall be more proud of that boy than if he enlisted for war."

Pronouncements of Canadian courts reveal much about Canadian attitudes towards violence. Chief Justice John Beverley ROBINSON of Upper Canada, who had fought under Brock at Detroit and Niagara, explained to Samuel LOUNT and Peter MATTHEWS why, having pleaded guilty, they must be hanged for their part in the 1837 rebellion: "You were not the tenants of rigorous and exacting landlords; you were not burthened with taxes for the State, further than the payment perhaps of a few shillings in the year, to support the common expenses of the district in which you lived; ... regularity and industry would always have ensured you a competency You lived in a country where every man who obeys the laws is secure in the protection of life, liberty and property In a country in which you [Lount] have been admitted to the honourable privilege of making laws to bind your fellow subjects, it was due from you to set an example of faithful obedience of public authority." (It was also Robinson's view, however, that "some example should be made in the way of capital punishment.")

Stressing the interrelationships of order, liberty and obedience of law, Robinson made clear that violence might be justified only if the avenues of constitutional redress of grievance were demonstrably closed. They appeared to be closed in 1869-70 when Riel's use of force secured provincial status for Manitoba (see RED RIVER REBELLION). Yet when Riel's successful "provisional government" executed the Orangeman Thomas SCOTT this raised an insuperable obstacle to the clemency which would probably have characterized the response to the second Métis rebellion in 1885 (see NORTH-WEST REBELLION). Nevertheless the Regina jury recommended Riel to "the mercy of the Crown," apparently attaching weight (as did opponents of the federal government then and later) to Riel's plea that "I have acted reasonably and in self-defence, while the Government, my accuser, being irresponsible and consequently insane, cannot but have acted wrong." Sir John A. Macdonald's decision not to commute Riel's death sentence suggests that prejudice and racism increases the potential for violence. This was certainly the case when fierce anticonscription rioting swept Québec City in the spring of 1918.

The conviction that the state can employ force to suppress the use of violence as a political tool has been exploited by class-biased governments in Canada to impede the protest or organization of workers. In 1935 in Regina police were ordered to break up a large group of unemployed men headed for Ottawa to demand job-creating action by the government, and rioting resulted (see ON TO OTTAWA TREK). The most dramatic instance of this kind, however, occurred earlier (1919) during the WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE. The strike leaders, representing some 30 000 workers who supported demands for union recognition and wage increases to match the sharply rising living costs, had pursued a rigorous policy of nonviolence. Shaken by the ability of the strikers to halt peacefully the city's economic life, business and professional leaders along with civic, provincial and federal authorities pronounced the strike an attempt to overthrow constituted authority and proclaimed that revolutionary violence was imminent. Violence was, in fact, instigated when police and soldiers were ordered to disperse a "silent parade" that had been organized by the strikers and WWI veterans to protest the arrest of their leaders on charges of sedition. When the strike collapsed, 8 leaders were brought to trial; one was acquitted and the others were sentenced to imprisonment for terms ranging from 6 months to 2 years. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this complicated interaction was the evident opinion of a majority of Winnipeggers that the assumptions of the authorities had been ill-founded.

Three convicted strike leaders were elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1920 while still in prison. F.J. Dixon, acquitted on a charge of seditious libel, topped the polls in Winnipeg, while J.S. Woodsworth, similarly charged, was elected MP in 1921. Collective violence by the state was condemned. In the same period the New York state legislature expelled 5 duly-elected members of the Socialist Party of America on the grounds that socialism was "absolutely inimical" to the interests of the state.

The relationship of violence to constituted authority was also at the heart of the 1970 OCTOBER CRISIS in Québec. In Winnipeg and Montréal the governments concerned declared their apprehension of insurrection; in Montréal the FRONT DE LIBÉRATION DU QUÉBEC had actually declared its belief in violence as a means of reconstituting society and it had a record of bombing, murder and kidnapping. When the federal government proclaimed the War Measures Act following the kidnapping of British Trade Commissioner James Cross, and when both the RCMP and the army were given extraordinary powers of search, arrest and detention, many people endorsed the stern measures; after the murder of Québec Labour Minister Pierre LAPORTE and the release of Cross, the emergency orders were withdrawn and any persons who could prove damages resulting from an arbitrary arrest which failed to culminate in legal charges were offered compensation. Charges that the 2 levels of government were motivated largely by perceptions of political advantage led to 2 major investigations, but the controversy over means and ends that ensued will probably not modify traditional attitudes toward violence and the role of the state.


Further Reading

  • M. Friedland, ed, Courts and Trials (1975); Desmond Morton, Canada and War (1981); P. Ward, White Canada Forever (1978).