The October Crisis reinterpreted

Brian Stewart on the October Crisis, 40 years later. Canada's just-watch-me moment.

Even in the midst of the October Crisis, which began 40 years ago this week, it was difficult to pin down exactly what the country faced. For many in Quebec, at least, it undoubtedly still is.

Every decade brings a new round of interpretation as memories dim and the violent upheavals of those years seem increasingly remote.

Age inevitably brings its own imbalance to public memory. The main government leaders who confronted the FLQ actions — Pierre Trudeau and Robert Bourassa, to name just two — have died off, while once young FLQ revolutionaries remain in mellowing middle age to grant interviews, part of a long campaign to rehabilitate their image.

A patrol of soldiers with semi-automatic rifles and one with a machine gun marches past Montreal City Hall on Friday, Oct. 16, 1970, as the War Measures Act was implemented. (LaPresse/Canadian Press)

I covered the crisis as a young reporter and columnist in Montreal and have come to realize that the event is almost more complex than I tend to remember. Still, the debate centres on the same core questions:

Was the security situation sparked by the kidnappings of British diplomat James Cross on Oct. 5 and Quebec minister Pierre Laporte (soon murdered by his captors) on Oct. 10 evidence of a dangerous terrorist movement with enough growing support to provoke an insurrection against the elected government in Quebec?

Did it justify the use of the army, the suspension of certain liberties and the mass preventative arrests of almost 500 people under the War Measures Act?

Or, were these measures an unseemly national panic in the face of what was, in reality, a series of small, amateurish and ill-coordinated plots by an FLQ underground comprising fewer than 50 active members at any one time?

A panic manipulated by the Trudeau government, an inexperienced Robert Bourassa in Quebec City and by Montreal's hardline and exceptionally authoritarian mayor Jean Drapeau to crush the separatist movement in Quebec?

The fact that you will still find heated debate from historians today on all these points, often re-ignited by every anniversary, attests to the enduring legacy of this controversial moment in our history.

Blood on their hands

Today, a new documentary series on Radio-Canada has former FLQ members claiming they really only acted in October 1970 to "gain headlines" to help advance the cause of peaceable separation, not a revolution.

And while once they tried to whitewash Laporte's strangulation (with the religious chain he wore around his neck) as "accidental," the latest version insists it happened because police interrupted communications between certain FLQ cells that would have spared his life.

Then British Trade Commissioner James Cross plays solitaire almost one month after his kidnapping in this photo released by his FLQ kidnappers in early November 1970. He would not be released until Dec. 3, 1970, when his captors would be allowed to leave the country for Cuba. (Canadian Press) (The Canadian Press)

You get the point — it was really all government's fault! If authorities had not taken all their talk of revolutionary action and threats to kill their hostages quite so seriously, and had not pursued kidnap cells so energetically, such bad outcomes would not have happened.

Well, as I've already noted, pinning down all aspects of this crisis remains difficult. But I don't buy for a second that the FLQ threat was little more than a separatist PR exercise gone wrong.

Peel back the years and it's clear the FLQ already had much blood on its hands even before the kidnappings. It comprised a hard core of extremists committed to using all facets of urban terrorism: bombings, bank robberies, assassinations, kidnappings, and the continuing promise of more violence to come.

Felquistes had already murdered six people before Laporte.

Having stolen vast caches of explosives from military and construction sites since 1963, they had set off 95 bombs, 50 in the year leading up to October 1970.

They had tried to blow up the home of mayor Drapeau and did bomb the Montreal Stock Exchange, injuring 27 people. These were no innocents timid with violence.

What's more, they seem to have become convinced they were moving into the proto-insurrection phase of operations during which some high-profile successes would demoralize and cow Quebec authorities, while encouraging widespread separatist insurrection against Ottawa.

All this seems far-fetched today, but the general tumult in Quebec in those days encouraged both extreme and alarmist thinking.

Just a year before, the Montreal police had gone on strike, causing hours of anarchy and looting, and requiring the deployment of soldiers on the streets.

And remember the times — the near aftermath of the 1968 street revolutions in Paris and Chicago, the riots in America's inner cities, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. All these things have to be factored in.

Breathing in fear

You have to remember, too, that as the October Crisis broke Montreal police were not entirely trusted. Universities were in upheaval and, in one arena, 3,000 students chanted "FLQ … FLQ … FLQ" in support of the movement's manifesto demanding the release of 23 of its so-called political prisoners, plus $500,000 in gold.

To the shock of prime minister Trudeau an astonishing number of his old friends in Quebec's political, media, and artistic establishment seemed anxious to negotiate with the kidnappers over these demands.

Looking back over my reports in those days from inside Drapeau's City Hall — "a grey and forbidding fortress ringed by armed troops and military convoys" — I can attest that the fear of many officials was not feigned. It was thick in the air.

Drapeau was demanding of Trudeau nothing but an all-out drive to crush the FLQ before it was too late.

In a sense his view of events mirrored that of the Felquistes themselves. "Any victory by the FLQ," I wrote at the time of Drapeau's thinking, "would inevitably weaken the already flimsy structure of law and order in Quebec; destroy public confidence in elected government; and prompt even greater violence."

The Quebec premier, it turned out, thought roughly the same, and so did Trudeau, who became convinced that Quebec's elite was wavering and panic stricken to the point of defeatism.

The War Measures Act, antiquated and ham-fisted, was his answer.

End game

Looking back now, 40 years on, we can see that October 1970 was something of a national panic, fed by the exaggerated claims of both the FLQ and overwrought government officials in Quebec and Ottawa.

Implementing the War Measures Act was a blight on Canada's human rights record but, it should also be observed, was enormously popular, as extreme measures tend to be in crises.

The implementation of the War Measures Act on Oct. 16, 1970, 11 days after the kidnapping of James Cross and the day before Pierre Laporte was found dead in the trunk of a car. ((Peter Bregg/Canadian Press))

In Quebec, the crackdown received approval ratings of over 83 per cent.

But what if the FLQ had won the day, it's fair to ask? What if they had outmanoeuvred authorities and won over the mass sympathy that Drapeau feared?

I've often wondered that, but now think the likelihood was improbable.

Even William Higgitt, the RCMP commissioner at the time, argued that traditional police work was what was needed, not "sweeping powers." And so it proved.

Cross was found, police intelligence improved quickly, FLQ sympathizers leaked in torrents and, within a year and with improving intelligence, quite modest counterterrorism units scooped up the skeletal remains of the cells.

After that, hardline separatist energy tended to flow into the rising fortunes of legitimate politics and the Parti Quebecois, an unintended consequence that endures today.

To the surprise of my generation, the relatively short span of political terrorism in Quebec (1963-70) faded out with remarkable speed.

Was that the result of the WMA? Or simply decent Quebec's disgust at the spasm of violence that had been unleashed?

Whatever, the very drama of the ending has ensured these events retain their restless and still provocative place in our national history.