A deadly siege in Quebec

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 21 1984

A deadly siege in Quebec

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 21 1984

A deadly siege in Quebec


Anthony Wilson-Smith

The stocky, bearded man drove the 1984 Buick Skyhawk to the entrance of Quebec City’s historic Citadel on the Plains of Abraham at 9:45 a.m. on a cold, rainy Tuesday. The few tourists on the windswept grounds did not notice him park the rented beige sedan. But as the driver in combat army fatigues turned toward the building, broadcaster André Arthur was frantically telephoning the police. Only 20 minutes ago, he told them, a man had left a tape-recorded message at radio station CJRP containing threats against the Parti Québécois government. But Arthur’s warning came too late last week. As he spoke, a 30-second burst of fire from a submachine-gun forced the startled—but unharmed—tourists to dive for cover behind a stone wall. Then the gunman calmly returned to his car, drove 200 m up the Grande-Allée and entered a side door of the national assembly building. Once inside he fired hundreds of bullets with deadly effect.

Within minutes he had killed three people, wounded 13 more and destroyed the calm of the provincial capital. Only

an accident of timing and the icy calm of René Jalbert, the assembly’s sergeant-at-arms, restricted the toll. The gunman—a supply technician at the federal government’s underground bunker at Carp, near Ottawa—arrived at the national assembly building only minutes before a parliamentary committee was due to meet. And closer

‘You are a corporal and I am a major. From now on you will only address me as major. I will address you as corporal.9

knowledge of the legislative timetable might have brought him into the assembly during the 2 p.m. sitting. As it was, Jalbert spent four hours persuading the gunman to surrender to police. The next day, Denis Lortie, a 25-yearold corporal in the Canadian Armed Forces, pleaded not guilty to three charges of first-degree murder.

The aftershock of the shoot-out and

4^2-hour siege spread quickly across the country. In Ottawa, Speaker Lloyd Francis, sergeant-at-arms Maj.-Gen. M.G. Cloutier and Robert Coates, MP, chairman of the House committee that oversees security, reviewed security on Parliament Hill, as did their counterparts in provincial legislatures. In most cases authorities found worrisome deficiencies. In Quebec City itself, the bloody attack and a combined funeral left a sense of shock, numbness and anger. The sudden terror also aroused ugly political emotions among Parti Québécois supporters and opponents alike.

The day’s events began when a man arrived at CJRP’s suburban studios with a note for popular morning man Arthur. The message asked Arthur to play a tape cassette—but not before 10 a.m. Researcher Maritchu D’Abbadie, who met Lortie in the station’s reception area and was alarmed by the hunting knife strapped to the man’s thigh, began to listen to the 45-minute tape with other staff members after the visitor had left the station.

From the traffic noises in the background they guessed that the tape recording had been made in a moving car.

But they clearly heard phrases threatening to destroy the PQ “for doing much wrong to the French-language people of Quebec and the rest of Canada.” A few minutes into the tape, when Arthur heard the words, “I will kill everyone, everyone in my path,” he immediately telephoned the police.

By then the gunman, with belts of ammunition strapped across his chest, was unlimbering his submachine-gun. He walked into the national assembly building and immediately fired off two quick bursts, wounding Jacynthe Richard and knocking her from her chair behind a reception desk. Then he ran down a hallway to the main entrance and peppered its walls with bullets. Nearby, a group of about 50 children from Saint-Louis-de-France, a local elementary school, scrambled for cover under chairs and tables. The attacker then climbed the main staircase toward the assembly chamber, known as the Salon Bleu, firing repeatedly and wounding 11 assembly employees, a tourist and a construction worker who was renovating the building.

The gunman also fired a burst through the hastily shut doors of the national assembly restaurant, where politicians, including Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau, were eating breakfast. Several witnesses heard the attacker shout in French, “Fve got a gang to kill on the second and third floor.” Finally, the gunman burst into the Salon Bleu, where a dozen government employees were setting up cameras and microphones to record a legislative committee that was scheduled to begin

hearings in 10 minutes. The heavily armed gunman killed three men immediately. They were: Georges Boyer, a 59vear-old assembly messenger and former soldier; Camille Lepage, 54, another messenger, and Roger Lefrançois, 57, a civil servant working for Quebec’s chief elections officer. With the dead and wounded lying around the room and survivors scrambling for cover, the gunman then walked up to the elevated Speaker’s chair, placed two revolvers and a bag of ammunition beside him and shot out the face of an antique clock at the other end of the hall.

As bullets slammed into the walls of the chamber, 63-year-old sergeant-atarms Jalbert, charged with security for the building, entered the assembly. Later Jalbert, a former army major with more than 25 years’ military experience, including service in Korea with Quebec’s famed Royal 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos, recalled the scene: “I saw this young man dressed in uniform sitting on the seat of the president [Speaker]. He fired another shot, several shots at that time, and then I started to talk to him to calm him. At that time, he was very nervous. He was perspiring, his face was very pale, and his submachine-gun was going back and forth—charged of course.”

That was the beginning of a tensionfilled encounter between the two soldiers. Jalbert declared, “I knew that if I could establish the common bond with him, everything would be all right.” But first, realizing that there were still people in the room, Jalbert convinced the gunman to accompany him to his base-

ment office two floors below to “have a coffee and discuss things.” When the two men arrived there, Jalbert introduced Lucienne Lebel, his secretary, to the intruder. The assailant kissed Lebel on the cheek and then allowed her to leave. But 10 minutes after Lebel had left, Jalbert snapped at his visitor: “You are a corporal and I am a major. From now on, you are going to talk to me and you will only address me as major. I will address you as corporal.” The stratagem worked, and the man began calling Jalbert “Sir” and “Major.” Said Jalbert: “From then on, there was a much better exchange of conversation.” Later, Jalbert’s wife, Nanette, telephoned him as he was trying to persuade the man to surrender to military police. The man demanded to know who was calling and, when Jalbert told him, he smiled and said, “Say hello to her from me.”

While the two men talked inside, hundreds of Quebec City and provincial police evacuated the assembly and kept onlookers—including about 120 boys and girls from Ottawa’s J.H. Putnam Intermediate School—away from the building. At one point, Jalbert looked up to see his companion pointing a pistol at him. It was, he said, the “only time I felt real fear.” But the man lowered the gun when Jalbert told him it was making him nervous. Finally, when the deputy commander of nearby Canadian Forces Base at Valcartier agreed to accompany two military policemen to the assembly, the siege ended at 2:25 p.m. Authorities escorted Jalbert and the gunman out of the building, and Quebec Provincial Po-

lice quickly bundled the suspect into a waiting cruiser. Jalbert left the building calmly smoking a Matinée cigarette, then joined his wife and friends at home and had “several scotches.” When he returned to work the next day the members of the assembly gave him a standing ovation.

As for Denis Lortie, the Armed Forces corporal who faces three murder charges, his personal history and eightyear military record provided no hint of

past trouble. Lortie, who lived in a three-bedroom military housing unit near Ottawa International Airport with his wife, Lise, their two-year-old son and five-month-old daughter, commuted daily to Carp, 20 km away. There he was a supply technician at the socalled Diefenbunker, a massive underground complex built in 1959 to house about 500 government officials in the event of nuclear war. He was on leave when he allegedly rented the four-door Buick and drove to Quebec City.

The bearded corporal, who comes from a family of eight children, was born in the Quebec City suburb of PontRouge in 1959. He joined the army in 1976 and was based in St-Jean, Que., Borden, Ont., and at Quebec’s Bagotville Air Base. Before he moved from Halifax to Carp in June last year, Lortie served for three years aboard HMCS Skeena, a destroyer with a French-speaking crew. A spokesman at CF base Halifax said that his commanding officers remembered Lortie as “keen, hard-working, just a super guy.” And his neighbors in Halifax and Ottawa recalled only one significant trait about Lortie: he was a quiet man who kept largely to himself.

Even soldiers who worked with him in Carp cannot recall him expressing strong political opinions.

But the sudden savagery of the shootings raised questions about the mental stability of the suspect in the incident— and his apparently easy access to automatic weapons whose use had to be authorized. As for Lortie, he had never had any psychological testing during his service career and had no previous record of mental illness. Under heavy

criticism in the House of Commons last week, federal Defence Minister JeanJacques Blais admitted only that the weapons used in the incident had come from the Canadian Forces station in Carp. And even though the key parts of weapons (such as the breechblock) are stored separately, a supply technician could have had easy access to weapons stores and could have smuggled out the parts piece by piece.

Moreover, defence department officials admit that the last stores inventory—including a weapons check—in Carp took place in March.

Meanwhile, in Quebec the strain on the social fabric of the province in the aftermath of the massacre was clearly evident. In a radio poll conducted shortly after the incident, CFCF, an English-language radio station in Montreal, asked listeners if they “expressed sympathy” with the gunman’s

desire to “destroy the PQ.” Seventysix per cent of 1,268 callers said yes. In the wake of severe criticism by francophones and anglophones alike, CFCF general manager Art Sutherland apologized for the poll the following day, calling the question “inappropriate and deplorable.” Sutherland said that he had taken Chrys Goyens off the air for a week. Still, many Quebecers felt the damage had already been done. An angry Premier René Lévesque, for one, denounced “social saboteurs” and “agents provocateurs” in the media who, he said, were fanning the flames of violence in the province.

The carnage in the assembly has rekindled a debate over the building’s security. The assembly itself has been the setting for at least two incidents in recent years—notably a 1981 confrontation when a heavily armed man and woman occupied the office of the assembly’s Speaker for more than two hours before surrendering to police. In 1982 Pierre Duchesne, director of parliamentary services, described the building’s security as “unsatisfactory,” but despite this warning the provincial government reduced the number of unarmed guards in the building from 70 to 55 last month.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Quebec’s assembly now has armed plainclothes policemen inside as a temporary measure. Still, the assembly is relatively well protected compared to similar buildings across the country. In Newfoundland, four commissioners— retired veterans—and an unarmed member of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary guard the House of Assembly, while in Alberta everyone must enter the legislature by the front doors, where a commissionaire and an Edmonton policeman are on duty during business hours. In Ottawa, about 200 parliamentary guards are responsible for five buildings and 17 exits. Outside, the RCMP patrols the grounds 24 hours a day.

Ontario is one province considering installing metal detectors in its legislature. But most politicians across the country share Jalbert’s unease about onerous security around Quebec’s national assembly. The hero of the day of violence declared: “The national assembly is owned by all Quebecers. It is their home and they should be allowed to come in as they wish.” Not even the memory of a savage machine-gun attack is likely to alter that belief.

With John Hay in Ottawa and correspondents’reports.