Almost 40 years after the October Crisis of 1970, a pair of Radio-Canada documentaries has revealed new details about events surrounding the kidnappings of former British trade commissioner James Cross and ex-Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte.
The ultimate aim of the Quebec terrorist group behind the abductions — the Front de Libération du Québec, or FLQ — was to hijack the country's airwaves, former members told CBC's French-language service in exclusive interviews.
"We made it clear to Cross that we would never kill him," said Jacques Lanctôt, who was only 24 at the time and leader of the FLQ faction known as the Liberation cell, which snatched Cross from his Westmount home on Oct. 5.
"We were just using him to get what we wanted."
Goal was to spread word about independence
Robert Comeau was a Université du Québec professor by day and an FLQ member by night.
''The goal of the FLQ was not revolution,'' he says. ''It was to spread the word about independence.''
Pierre Harel, who eventually became a rock star and filmmaker, was one of the men behind the group's bold plan.
''The title of the project was Showtime,'' he recalled. ''And the project was to capture the governor general of Canada and bring him here and have the doors of Radio-Canada opened because of that. He was [to be] a hostage.''
Instead, the kidnappers targetted Cross. They were elated when, within days, Radio-Canada agreed to one of their conditions and read the group's political manifesto on the air.
Full of fiery rhetoric that condemned the social conditions of the time, the manifesto was delivered in a neutral tone by a stony-faced Radio-Canada announcer on Oct. 8.
Lanctôt now says that it was almost enough to end the hostage-taking there and then.
''For us, it was a major victory, and I have to admit that in the hours following it, we considered releasing James Cross," Lanctôt said. "We had achieved 90 per cent of what we set out to do.''
Crisis accelerates after manifesto broadcast
The crisis deepened when another FLQ cell, led by Paul Rose, kidnapped Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte on Oct. 10. Suddenly, even if Lanctôt had wanted to release a hostage, he had to co-ordinate with Rose's group, known as the Chénier cell.
''We couldn't see how we could decide to not kill Cross [and] how they could decide to kill Laporte. It just didn't make any sense," Lanctôt said.
He insists that he tried desperately to reach Rose, using the only means available at a time when the internet, cellphones and even pagers did not exist.
Meanwhile, the federal government pulled out the big guns, with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoking the War Measures Act on Oct. 16 to try to stop the FLQ. With civil liberties suspended, police arrested hundreds of suspected FLQ members and sympathizers.
Laporte's strangled body was found in the trunk of a car on Oct. 17.
The FLQ cells had used the media successfully in the past — sending news releases to rival outlets, which would race to broadcast them.
But this time, Lanctôt says, the FLQ was trying to ''wave a white flag'' and effectively surrender and, yet, couldn't get any attention.
''My theory is that they broke our communication network,'' he says, referring to the police and Armed Forces.
"So, beyond the people who killed Laporte, there are those who manipulated things, who created the conditions that led to his death.''
The Radio-Canada documentaries also reconcile some of the conflicting versions of how Laporte died, concluding that his death was more accidental than deliberate.
The documentaries air on Tout le monde en parlait Thursday night at 8 p.m. and Friday night at 9 p.m. on the Radio-Canada network. The program explores critical points in Quebec history.
In this week's edition, there are also interviews with Marc Lalonde, who was an advisor to then prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the head of the Montreal police department's anti-terrorism squad and many of the people who were key actors in the October Crisis.