Canada's Response to the Polish Crisis


45 pages
ISBN 0-919084-41-9




Edited by Adam Bromke and others
Reviewed by John Stanley

John Stanley is a policy advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and


This short booklet dealing with the Canadian government’s reaction to the December 1981 suppression of the Solidarity trade union movement and the imposition of martial law in Poland consists of essays by four of Canada’s more distinguished experts in East European affairs. All are professors (or former professors) at Canadian universities.

The imposition of martial law in a communist country was unprecedented and took all of the Western allies by surprise. As a result, the various members of NATO differed widely in their reactions. No Western ally took a stance similar to that of Canada. With that famous shrug of his shoulders, Mr. Trudeau decided that the military coup d’etat was a “lesser evil” and implicitly compared Solidarity to the activities of Canadian trade union leaders, who opposed the Liberal policies. The Prime Minister’s short and ill-advised remark was trumpeted by TASS and the official Polish press as approval of General Jaruzelski’s actions. The damage done by Mr. Trudeau was cemented by further remarks given during a television interview. Mr. Trudeau’s statements having put Canada’s policy wildly out of tune with those of its allies (all of whom had engaged in one form of boycott or another) the chief task of Canada’s diplomats became the slow disengagement from this official reaction without embarrassing the Prime Minister but bringing Canada’s position closer to its allies’ policies.

Professor Adam Bromke sees the Trudeau statements as somewhat foolish but indicating a desire to avoid a renewal of the Cold War. Professor Harold von Riekhoff shares this concern. However, he also realises that the Prime Minister’s response left Canada isolated. Indeed, given Mr. Trudeau’s resort to emergency legislation in the October crisis, it is possible to view his reaction to the Polish events as paralleling his own patent over-reaction to the F.L.Q. In some circuitous manner, the Prime Minister felt that civil war had been avoided in Poland and thereby violence de-encased. In fact, no civil war had been possible since the Polish nation was firmly united behind Solidarity; only a few self-serving bureaucrats and party hacks stuck with the Polish United Workers’ Party. Moreover, violence has vastly increased under military rule as special police units routinely respond to anti-government demonstrators with ferocious brutality.

Professor Jacques Lévesque sees the Polish crisis as proof of “l’aggressivité de l’URSS et le caractère irreformable de son type de régime.” But he also demonstrates that the Polish army could not move without knowledge, approval, and support of the Soviet Ministry of Defence. In short, December 1981 did witness a Soviet invasion — contrary to the Prime Minister’s contention — but without Soviet troops! Moscow cleverly chose to use Polish troops to carry out Soviet aims, catching the Western governments off guard.

Professor Jan Federowicz is most decisive in his criticism of the Trudeau government’s actions, accusing the Prime Minister of trivializing Solidarity and of inverting reality. Indeed, it is difficult to believe the Prime Minister’s outlandish statement that the “military regime will be able to ... keep the communist government from excessive repression.” Did Canada’s leader really believe that the goals of the Polish military and those of the Polish communists were in any way different?

Professor Lévesque is correct in pointing out that “l’état de siege, avec toutes les mesures qu’il implique, ne fait que neutraliser Solidarité, sans le détruire.” Undoubtedly, Canada will have to devise future responses to new crises in Eastern Europe. The official Canadian response in December 1981 can hardly serve as a model for the future. Professor von Riekhoff offers an attractive option of moving from “soft” to “hard” sanctions, imposing greater pressure systematically on the Warsaw regime, to ensure meaningful progress toward the restoration of civil liberties.

While greater attention might have been paid to unofficial Canadian reactions — the opposition parties, the ethnic organisations, the press — this book is a useful description of Canadian policy (or the lack of one) in December 1981. One can only hope the authors’ advice will penetrate government circles.


“Canada's Response to the Polish Crisis,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024,