Twenty-five years later, the October Crisis still arouses deep emotions
Quebec’s end of innocence
Twenty-five years later, the October Crisis still arouses deep emotions
A quarter of a century has gone by, but in my mind I can still hear that television set crackling into urgent interruption in the St. Denis Street bar: Quebec labor minister Pierre Laporte, announced an excited male voice, had been executed by the Front de libération du Québec, his body stuffed into the trunk of a car on Montreal’s South Shore. A solitary drinker, staring at the screen, muttered “Hostie de FLQ” (Damn FLQ).
Then, the bar became utterly silent. A pall of gloom descended on the room, and on much of Canada in the hours and days ahead as what became known as the October Crisis gripped the country. Seven years of FLQ bombs and Marxist bombast had come down to brutal murder and drenched us in a kind of nervous dread. Years later, in his memoirs, the retired Quebec premier, René Lévesque, described what it felt like. “Coming back home that night, skirting the dark little park near where the consulates stood, I saw threatening shadows everywhere,” wrote Lévesque, who shared the FLQ’s dedication to a sovereign Quebec but abhorred its violence and its half-baked ideology.
Many of us saw those threatening shadows that night. It was not a cheerful time. The British trade commissioner, James Cross, had been abducted from his Montreal home on Oct. 5, 1970, by four gunmen who told him: “We are the FLQ.” Five days later, another armed cell snatched the 49-year-old Laporte from the street in front of his home. The Quebec government had called on the aid of the Canadian army, and troops were in the streets. At 4 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 16, the federal cabinet, at the request of the Montreal and Quebec authorities, had proclaimed the War Measures Act, outlawing the FLQ and suspending basic civil liberties to combat an “apprehended insurrection.” But Saturday night in downtown Montreal on Oct. 17,1970, was its usual lively self. My wife, Lise, and I and another couple had gone to the Théâtre St. Denis to see Deux Femmes en Or, in which neglected housewives take on the humanitarian task of servicing the servicemen who come to their doors in a Montreal suburb. The film was saucy and funny and we were in a light mood afterward as we walked down the street to Le Vieux Munich. The beer was good but the crowds, the nicotine and pot fumes and the oompah music didn’t make for comfortable conversation. We walked back up the street into the plain, quiet bar at the Hôtel Viger, and that’s where we heard the first television report on Laporte’s murder.
The chill came down like a curtain.
There was nothing left to talk about. We drove home silently. I stayed up most of the night watching CBC television, which was broadcasting live from Parliament Hill in Ottawa. I watched a cold-
James Stewart, 66, is a veteran Quebec journalist. He was senior political reporter for The Montreal Star during the October Crisis and is the author of The FLQ: Seven Years of Terrorism, published in December, 1970.
eyed Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau denounce the “cowardly assassination by a band of murderers.” Like Lévesque, I saw threatening shadows everywhere. Not personally threatening, of course, as it was for hundreds of Quebecers on the FLQ’s scattergun hit list of federalists, Anglos, capitalists, exploiters in government, business and the u church. Nor was the FLQ itself the real worry. Its radical members could bomb and kill people (who couldn’t?), but the FLQ did not have the moral or physical strength to challenge elected authorities or to win mass support for violent revolution and an alien, imported ideology. Only the blind or the deluded could swallow the FLQ’s grotesque caricature of Quebecers as the oppressed and downtrodden of the earth.
So what exactly was the threat? For me, then and now, the pervasive, disturbing menace was the sense of barbarism let loose, the presence of a baleful disease in the innards of society. The FLQ had chosen to attack without rules, and had thus given its much more
powerful elected opponents a justification for counterattacking with their most exceptional rules, those reserved for war and national disaster. A society without rules, or governed by irregular rules, is vulnerable to every sort of abuse. And that was part of the threatening gloom that descended on Quebec the night Pierre Laporte was killed. The FLQ, fortunately, never even came close to achieving its revolutionary fantasies. Terrorist bombs and banditry killed six people in the 1960s, but the promised workers’ uprising never happened, the threats to destroy all colonial (federal) institutions proved empty, the FLQ’s “suicide-commandos” never got around to eliminating all collaborators with the occupier and wiping out all the Westmounts in Quebec. All this blasting and bluster was not universally condemned, as it should have been. As the FLQ paraded every old grievance and exploited the old but still virulent syndrome of the Quebecer-as-blameless-victim, it became fashionable to endorse the FLQ’s secessionist ends while deploring its means—as though the two could be separated.
That complacency exacted a heavy price. It lent a certain legitimacy to the FLQ, though most of that vanished in a flash with the kidnappings and murder. At that moment, it became not only possible, but desirable, to crush the FLQ by fair means or foul, and that’s what happened. Democratic authorities thrust aside democratic principles to excise the malignant organ in society, jailing 465 people under the War Measures Act with-
out warrant or charge. I do “ not put the sins of government on the same debased level as the sins of the FLQ. The government abused power, the FLQ abused humanity. But the errors of government tend to be remembered and the errors of a gang of misguided terrorists forgotten, fading into obsolescence along with their ideological mentors—Marx, Mao, Marcuse, Fanon and Che. Cross was released on Dec. 4,1970, after 59 days of captivity, in exchange for free passage to Cuba for his kidnappers whom police had tracked to a house in north-end Montreal. Three days after Christmas, Laporte’s killers were routed out of a bunker in a South Shore farm house. They all served time for the murder, from seven to 12 years, but all were released by 1982 to continue their lives in freedom.
Nowadays, when the October Crisis is remembered at all, the promulgation of the War Measures Act and the suspension of civil liberties are often seen, especially in nationalist circles, as a greater evil than the FLQ. Commentators refer to the “military occupation of Quebec” in 1970, as though the Canadian army had marched in against the will of Quebecers, instead of in aid of Canadian citizens.
In nationalist mythology, it became another “humiliation” of Quebec, feeding separatism and ethnocentrism and helping to bring the Parti Québécois to power in 1976. Gradually, many Quebecers forgot they had been victims of the FLQ, and fell into their more comfortable posture as victims of Ottawa, of federalism, of the system. Quebec nationalists, not the terrorists, were responsible for this revisionist history. The terrorists achieved nothing on their own, except perhaps to prove the self-evident truth that violence is not a shortcut to anything. But for a brief time, they aggravated Quebec’s ever-alert sense of grievance, knocked the province off its civil course and provoked governments to excess. All it took was an aggrieved, complacent citizenry, and a few rabid agitators with twisted minds and vengeance in their hearts. □
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