For many Canadians, the October Crisis marked the end of 1960s innocence and the beginning of an unsettling new chapter in relations between Quebec and the rest of the country. Two decades later, Maclean’s talked to some of the people who were directly involved in the events. Their comments-.
Jérôme Choquette: As justice minister in Quebec’s five-month-old Liberal government, Choquette co-ordinated the province’s response to the kidnappers and directed the local implementation of the War Measures Act. Having left politics in 1976, Choquette, 62, works in Montreal as a lawyer and serves as mayor of the wealthy Montreal suburb of Outremont.
“The October Crisis signalled the end of terrorism in our society. The death of Pierre Laporte created a consciousness in Quebec that violence was not the way to change things. From this point of view, it was very beneficial. The revolutionaries came out not on top, but rather very diminished in public opinion.
“The crisis the country is in now is definitely much more serious. You don’t see how this country can continue. Quebec is heading into a dead end. It is very discouraging. Nationalism is so easy to embrace, but to be a really evolved person you have to be above it. To separate Quebec would be the final irresponsibility of an irresponsible situation. Some leaders will have to rise and they will have to have a tremendous gift to be able to rally this country towards a common purpose. We are in a very, very serious crisis and only a strong central government can solve it.”
Gérard Pelletier: A former editor of the Montreal daily La Presse, Pelletier was Secretary of State in the Trudeau government during the crisis. His account of the kidnapping and murder, The October Crisis, was published in 1971. Pelletier now lives in Montreal, where he is working on a third volume of his memoirs, including a chapter devoted to the October events, and on a political thriller.
“The October Crisis is the subject of the most extraordinary legends. And the sum of stupidities and myths that is still around is quite discouraging. At first, I said, ‘My God, I’ll tell them that these accounts are totally false,’ but no one wants to hear that. People love the legends. For instance, there are people in both anglophone and francophone Canada who be-
lieve that the government, of which I was a member, organized the whole thing, just to defeat separatism. So I do not find it the kind of event—even 20 years afterwards—that you can really reflect upon in a reasonable and intelligent way.
“I am told that the government overreacted, that there was absolutely nothing wrong and that nothing would have happened without the
War Measures Act. That may be true. But you do not remember how people were not their normal selves, and that you could expect almost anything.”
Pierre Vallières: A former member of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) and author of the 1968 book White Niggers of America, which compared the status of Quebecers to that of blacks in the United States, Vallières now publishes a small bimonthly magazine, Vie Ouvrier (Workers’ Life,), in Montreal. He continues to work with politically radical organizations.
“The October Crisis had important implica-
tions. It allowed us to certify that the central authorities would use all their powers to block Quebec’s hopes for sovereignty. It brought down our illusions that sovereignty could be negotiated with English Canada, and the failure of Meech Lake has shown the same thing. Nothing has changed. No method of dealing with English Canada worked, something which Quebec finally realizes today.
“The October Crisis marked the end of the violence from the Quebec side. But the political filé has not progressed at all since then. If there had been progress, then English Canada would have taken the terms offered under Meech Lake, when Quebec was already on its knees. But Quebecers do not want their aspirations to continue unresolved.”
Nick Auf der Maur: In
1970, Auf der Maur was a political activist and journalist who helped organize radical protests and demonstrations, ineluding a sit-in at a Montreal restaurant with menus printed only in En-
glish. Since 1974, he has
been a Montreal city councillor and writer.
“The abhorrence most
Quebecers felt for the
murder of Pierre Laporte effectively killed violence as a viable option for political change. But it did not end the agitation. Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act, as successful as it was in restoring order in Quebec, only helped to perpetuate the mythology of Ottawa bashing Quebec.
“Personally, I feel no grievance at all for what happened. I was in jail for a week. The
worst thing about it was not knowing what was going on outside. It was an incredible period to live through, full of bungling and paranoia. I look back on it now as a theatre of the absurd.”
Jean Keable: A Montreal lawyer in 1970, Keable was the chairman from 1977 to 1981 of a commission created by the Parti Québécois to examine events in the wake of the October Crisis. The commission reported in 1981 that the events of late 1970 inspired a string of excesses over the next several years by federal and provincial police anti-subversion squads. Keable now practises law in Quebec City.
“The great lesson of October,
1970, was that violence did not pay.
Public opinion did not respond to the violent option, whereas in 1990, we find much more support for the violence of the Mohawks. In 1970, the Quebec leaders such as Lévesque clearly denounced the use of violence, and the small amount of sympathy for the FLQ disappeared when Laporte was killed. Today there are no voices in the native leadership denouncing the violent tactics. The death of Cpl.
[Marcel] Lemay [at the barricades in Oka last July] did not have the same impact on public opinion as the death of Pierre Laporte. In the Mohawk crisis, international opinion had sympathy for the natives. The governments therefore had to react differently. Ottawa did not want dead Mohawks to emerge as martyrs. In 1970, Trudeau did not need to fear creating martyrs. He could say: The storm will end here.’ If the Rose brothers had been gunned down on the South Shore, the public would not have been scandalized.”
Jack Granatstein: A 31-year-old university history teacher in 1970, Granatstein denounced the imposition of the War Measures Act at a Toronto rally of university students in support of the act. The students ’ reaction was so hostile that it terrified him, he recalls. Over the past 20 years, Granatstein, now the author of several books on Canadian politics and still a professor of history at Toronto’s York University, has changed his own mind.
“At the time the War Measures Act was imposed, Laporte was not dead. So I thought it was a gross overreaction to events. I thought it was Trudeau trying to crush legitimate separatists. And I thought it was going to do great harm to civil liberties generally and the War Measures Act would be used by other politicians outside of Quebec to clean up their own problems. There were certainly people arrested in English Canada under the terms of the War Measures Act.
“Now I’m 20 years older and 20 years wiser. I’ve come to accept that there was in fact what Jérôme Choquette called a ‘pre-revolutionary situation’ in Quebec. It wasn’t so much the FLQ—they were thugs—it was the universities, it was the unions, the media, it was the
breakdown of will on the part of the Bourassa government. It was a whole combination of things that was building into a very dangerous situation. And I think Trudeau, looking at it from Ottawa and understanding Quebec certainly better than I did, decided that the simple truth was that there had to be a massive intervention in order to kick start the democratic engine into life again.
“It provided a calming force. Between the two things—putting the troops on the street, followed the next day by the murder of Laporte—it sort of jolted Quebec back to reality.”
Michel St-Louis: As a young radio reporter covering the October Crisis, St-Louis happened to be the only journalist with police when they found murdered Labor Minister Pierre Laporte’s body in the trunk of a green 1968 Chevrolet. Now 43, St-Louis reports on provincial politics from Quebec’s national assembly.
“I didn’t think it would go as far as assassinating someone. Quebecers sympathized with the FLQ until they killed a man. On the emotional level, everything went topsy-turvy once Laporte’s body was found. People said, ‘Whoa, this has gone too far: kidnapping, forcible confinement, murder.’ It really hurt the FLQ. And in my books, the federal government used the crisis to put the brakes on the nationalist movement in Quebec by trying to tie the Parti Québécois to the FLQ.
“I t’s common knowledge in Quebec that during the 1970s the great majority of French-speaking journalists were very nationalistic, and nationalism at that time was expressed by supporting the Parti Québécois and the sovereignty-association movement. Now, things are different. All
the parties in Quebec are nationalistic.”
Lome Nystrom: As a 24-year-old MP first elected in 1968, Nystrom was one of 16 members of the Commons—all members of the ndp—who voted against the War Measures Act in 1970. He is now the only one of the 16 still serving as an MP. Nystrom represents the Saskatchewan riding of Yorkton/Melville.
“I voted the way I did because I was not at all convinced there was an insurrection taking place. I particularly thought it was wrong to have legislation affecting the entire country. It was overkill—using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito. But I tell you, the pressure was unbelievably intense. If you were against the act, you were made to feel un-Canadian. For months after I voted against it, I was tremendously unpopular in my riding. I would have been wiped out if there had been an election any time then. I think the polls showed that we dropped to nine per cent as a direct result of that vote. But I was proud then of what we did and I am even prouder now.
“And even though the polls showed that Pierre Trudeau had record support after he took that action, I am convinced it hurt him in the long run. He lost the support of all those civil libertarians who had previously regarded him as one of their own, and I do not think he ever got it back.
“Today, I find our stand even more important. Consider this past summer, with the army and the police in Quebec against the natives. When the War Measures Act was declared, there was an open debate about it. When the army was called in this summer, there was not even a recall of the House to discuss the situation. So how far have we progressed in our respect for civil liberties?” □
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