QUEBEC HAS FLOURISHED SINCE THOSE BATTLE SCARRED DAYS OF 20 YEARS AGO
THE FLQ CRISIS QUEBEC AND CANADA 20 YEARS LATER
QUEBEC HAS FLOURISHED SINCE THOSE BATTLE SCARRED DAYS OF 20 YEARS AGO
Two decades—and a generation of experience—separate the two events. But there are at least surface similarities between the October Crisis of 1970, that tumultuous moment in Canada's
history, and the long, hot Indian summer that has just convulsed the country. Quebec was the cradle of both. And both were marked by the presence of armed troops in combat gear on city streets, by widespread civil police confusion, government indecision and media manipulation. Both resulted in the death of a single individual. And in both cases, the same man stood in the eye of the storm: Robert Bourassa, then, as now, the premier of Quebec.
Uneasy: But the similarities end there. Despite the temptation to draw further parallels, as Quebec City lawyer Jean Keable, who headed a provincial inquiry into the police crackdown that followed the 1970 crisis, noted, “The two events happened, not just 20 years apart, but in entirely different contexts.” Quebec was a society just emerging from decades of educational backwardness, uncertain of its growing strength and still uneasy with its own increasingly strident nationalism. When its premier, then a gangling 37-year-old who had been in office only five months, asked for the federal government’s help—and Ottawa responded with the War Measures Act—it was in order to contain the extremes of nationalist violence.
Twenty years later, the views of the former extremists are no longer on the fringe of political opinion in Quebec. Indeed, a confident nationalism now colors political movements of all kinds in the province. Many of the reforms sought by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) terrorists of 1970 have since been entered into Quebec law. Perhaps more significantly, although few Quebecers have a clear view of what greater political autonomy would entail, a majority, according to polls, anticipate a future in which their ties with English Canada will be much looser than they are now—and perhaps even severed outright. This summer, when Bourassa again urged the army into action* it was against Indian radicals who, far
from advocating a more assertive Quebec, described themselves as its victims.
That many nationalist Quebecers now applaud the use of measures they once deplored is an indication of how much has changed since the sunny morning on Oct. 5, 1970, when a small band of FLQ radicals kidnapped Britain’s trade commissioner in Montreal, James Cross. That abduction set in motion a train of events that remain etched into the country’s collective consciousness: the kidnapping and subsequent assassination of Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte, martial law and the War Measures Act’s suspension of civil rights, which allowed police to imprison 465 people—most of them innocent of any criminal acts.
Corrupt: The October Crisis followed a decade that was marked by protest movements in both Europe and North America. The radicals who precipitated the events of that fateful month drew on the example of armed liberation organizations that had been active in dozens of countries around the globe, from Cuba to Southeast Asia. “The October Crisis has become a convenient benchmark for people analysing Quebec history, but it should not be looked at in isolation,” said Montreal City Councillor Nick Auf der Maur, one of those jailed but never charged during the affair. He added, “It was, in fact, a dramatic culmination of everything that transpired in the 1960s.”
In Quebec, those were years of Quiet Revo-
lution. It was a decade in which the province’s francophone majority shook off the corrupt remnants of premier Maurice Duplessis’s authoritarian Union Nationale regime. It was also an era in which Quebec broke the smothering grip of the Roman Catholic Church on public education. And it was a time when the francophone majority overcame the tenacious control that the province’s English-speaking minority had maintained over most of Quebec’s commerce and industry.
As the 1960s began, the grievances of the Frenchspeaking majority were readily apparent. With the exception of a tiny elite, francophones occupied the lowest rungs of society’s ladder.
More than half of Quebec’s francophones had not completed grade school. A mere two per cent of universityage youths attended postsecondary institutions. “In that epoch, being a francophone was more than likely to
mean that you were undereducated, underpaid and overexploited,” said Pierre Fortin, director of the University of Quebec’s Montreal Economic Research Centre.
Liberal Premier Jean Lesage set the changes in motion in 1960, by instituting wideranging reforms in the province's political, social and economic structures. Among other things, the province took over responsibility for French-language education from the Catholic church. But, for many in that impatient decade, the pace was too slow.
In 1963, Quebec radicals steeped in the leftist ideology of such contemporary revolutionary heroes as Che Guevara and Mao Tsetung launched a campaign of violence. Bombs
exploded in mailboxes and rioters hurled Molotov cocktails against military establishments. By the decade's end, the emotions stirred by the FLQ’S campaign had divided families and shaken Quebec society to its foundations. Leftleaning indépendantistes quietly supported the group’s goals—if not always its tactics. Most Quebecers, uneasy with their place in Canada, but uneasier still with the prospect of sovereignty, watched events unfold with trepidation.
The drama entered a new—and far more dangerous—phase on Oct. 5, 1970. Two armed men kidnapped Cross, as he was shaving, in the grey-stone mansion he occupied
near the top of Mount Royal. Then, on Oct. 10, another FLQ cell abducted Laporte in front of his Longueuil house. Two days later, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Montreal intellectual who had become an MP in 1965 determined to prove that Quebec could defend its own interests within Confederation, ordered the army to protect public buildings and senior government officials in Ottawa and Quebec. The following day, he rebuffed critics of the deployment, declaring: “There are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is ‘Go on and bleed.’ ” Asked how far he was prepared
to go, Trudeau replied, “Just watch me."
Then, on Oct. 16, in response to Bourassa’s request, Trudeau proclaimed the War Measures Act—giving police and the army sweeping, potentially draconian power. Just after midnight on Oct. 18, police found Laporte’s body in the trunk of a car. The labor minister had been strangled—with the chain of a religious medal that he constantly wore. With the murder, the police intensified the search for Cross. But it was not until December that they finally located the Montreal house in which the FLQ was holding him. Cross was released and, in return, Ottawa allowed FLQ members Jac-
MOST QUEBECERS NOW FAVOR SOME FORM OF POLITICAL SOVEREIGNTY
ques Lanctôt, Marc Carbonneau and Yves Langlois, along with some family members, to fly to asylum in Cuba. A month later, police finally made arrests in the Laporte case. FLQ members Paul Rose and Francis Simard were sentenced to life in prison for murder.
Murder: From Cross’s kidnapping to the arrest of Laporte’s killers, the October Crisis lasted 84 days. But, for Quebec’s political leaders, it had far-reaching ramifications. Bourassa, for one, is still dogged by the image of weakness that he acquired during the crisis. For less radical supporters of independence, the FLQ’s actions set back their cause. After the kidnappings and murder, many Quebecers clearly retreated from earlier separatist positions. René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois, which had won 24 per cent of the vote in the April, 1970, provincial election, was overwhelmed by Bourassa’s Liberals in an election three years later and did not form a government until 1976. And in the referendum of 1980,60 per cent of voters in the province turned down the PQ’s proposal for Quebec sovereignty in a loosely defined association with Canada. “The events of October really frightened me—as they did many others,” said L. Jacques Ménard, vicechairman of the investment brokers Bums Fry Ltd. and, in 1970, a 24-year-old, recent University of Western Ontario MBA graduate.
But now, Ménard, for one, says that he has no apprehension about political independence for Quebec. Like many of his fellow Quebec businessmen in the wake of the June 23 failure of the Meech Lake accord—which would have accommodated Quebec as a distinct society within the Canadian federation—Ménard says that the separatists of 1970 were at least partly right: Quebec’s existing relationship with the rest of Canada was and is unacceptable.
Debate: Thousands of younger Quebecers have been raised under laws that give francophones sweeping advantages in a cultural climate more preoccupied with the acquisitive ethics of business than with the leftist rhetoric of revolution. “The mood is quite different today from what it was when I was a student,” observed Pierre Deniger, president of the Quebec Natural Gas Board, who was president of the students’ association at the law faculty of the University of Montreal in 1970. “Students have other concerns. They’re essentially apolitical, maybe even a little selfish.”
All generations, however, have fed the growing nationalist consensus among Quebecers. In recent public opinion polls, more than 60 per cent of respondents, representing a cross section of Quebec society, said that they favor some form of independence for the province.
That support has dramatically altered the balance of Quebec politics. The PQ, which lost power to Bourassa’s reborn Liberals in 1985, has found new strength under Jacques Pari-
zeau, its leader since 1988. With sovereignty once again at the centre of the party’s platform, Parizeau increased the PQ’s representation in the 125-member national assembly to 29 from 23 in the 1989 provincial election—and attracted fully 40 per cent of the popular vote. By April, the PQ was leading the Liberals in public opinion polls—with 44 per cent of public support, compared with 42 for the Liberals.
Quebec nationalists have also established a foothold in Parliament. There, disaffected Quebec MPs from both the Conservatives and the Liberals have coalesced around former Tory cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard in the Bloc Québécois—dedicated to achieving Quebec sovereignty (page 22).
Even Bourassa’s Liberals have been forced, reluctantly, to assume more openly sovereigntist positions. Throughout the long and agonizing course of the Meech Lake debate, the Quebec premier repeatedly warned that if the accord failed, his province would be forced to investigate alternative constitutional arrangements with Canada. In September, Bourassa appointed a 36-member, blue-ribbon commission to explore future constitutional options for the province. The commission is scheduled to hold the first of a series of public forums across the province early next month.
Vague: The attraction of some form of sovereignty is one of the few constants between the Quebec of 1970 and the Quebec of 1990. For the radicals of 20 years ago, Quebec independence was an affair of the heart—with the realities of so momentous a step left largely unexplored. The implications are still unclear. “All of the signs indicate that, while most Quebecers favor some form of sovereignty, few have any clear idea what that entails,” said Roland Parenteau, who served as the first director of Lesage’s economic planning board.
Bourassa says that his new commission will frame what are still vague aspirations in the specific language of detailed constitutional proposals. But that will be a monumentally difficult task. Some Quebecers favor outright independence. Said Quebec political science professor Claude Morin, a former member of Lévesque’s cabinet: “There really is no alternative but sovereignty.” And Morin added, “Sovereignty can only mean acquiring the totality of political powers.” Other Quebecers say that they want to maintain a shared currency with Canada— perhaps even a shared parliament.
There is, however, a clear sense of common purpose—and a confidence that clearly distinguishes present-day Quebec from the uncertain, battle-scarred province of 1970. “We have survived all the shocks,” said André Sormany, a Montreal public relations executive and former PQ political aide. “The October Crisis, the election of the PQ, the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association, each was supposed to bring catastrophe—-but that simply did not happen.” Two decades after the October Crisis, Quebec’s future is still unclear. But far from fearing that uncertainty, modem Quebec appears to welcome it.
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