Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

The lasting legacy of the 1970 FLQ manifesto

Fifty years ago this October, the Front de liberation du Quebec, the FLQ, escalated their separatist campaign by kidnapping British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte, sparking what came to be known as the October Crisis. In return for Cross, the FLQ had seven demands, one of which was the broadcast of its manifesto — and CBC/Radio-Canada complied. Geoff Turner examines the impact and legacy of the manifesto, and how it still has relevance today.

Researcher Jean-Philippe Warren says the manifesto had a lasting impact on ordinary Quebecers

Two Carleton University students hold signs on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 16, 1970 to show support for the Front de Liberation du Quebec. (Canadian Press)

*Originally published on October 13, 2020.

By October of 1970, the Front de libération du Québec didn't have a lot to show for its seven year campaign of terror. But at the height of the October Crisis, the FLQ did succeed in one lasting achievement: its manifesto was broadcast across the country on the public broadcaster's airwaves. 

The words in that document had more lasting power than the hundreds of bombs that had been the FLQ calling card since 1963, says Jean-Philippe Warren, research chair for the study of Quebec at Concordia University in Montreal. 

"The manifesto was part of that new coming of age of the Quebec nation where people were saying, 'Well, you know, we can express ourselves the way we want to express ourselves, the way we usually express ourselves. This is who we are and we should not be ashamed of who we are,'" he said. 

From bombing to political kidnappings

The FLQ was pushing a radical vision of Quebec: one that was independent from anglophone Canada and which rejected the capitalist order.

But seven years of robberies and bombings had landed dozens of its members in jail without bringing them any closer to their stated goals. So in October 1970, they switched tactics from bombing to political kidnappings. They first abducted British Trade Commissioner James Cross and then Quebec Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte.

In exchange for the release of Cross, the abductors issued a list of demands. They were looking for the release of jailed FLQ members, bars of gold and safe passage to either Algeria or Cuba, along with a laundry list of other requests.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau faces reporters in Ottawa on Dec. 3, 1970, months after the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross, telling them that Cross's final release is in the "final stages." (Canadian Press)

One by one, government officials rejected the demands, but they did cede on one point. The kidnappers had created a manifesto that laid out the FLQ's beliefs and vision for the transformation of Quebec. They wanted the document to be published and broadcast for the world to hear. 

At first officials balked, fearing it would be giving terrorists a platform. But eventually they relented, and on Oct. 8, the manifesto was read on Radio-Canada by announcer Gaetan Montreuil.

Manifesto read on-air in Montreal on Radio-Canada during the October Crisis. (Note: Footage in French only.) 11:26

The text was steeped in quasi-Marxist ideology of class struggle. But it was delivered in a plain, direct language aimed at ordinary working class Quebecers. The FLQ wanted their audience to recognize themselves as the victims in a struggle for liberation. While the manifesto was delivered in French, it was peppered with English terms.

"The Front de libération du Québec wants total independence for Quebecers, united in a free society and purged for good of the clique of voracious sharks, the patronizing 'big bosses' and their henchmen who have made Quebec their private hunting ground for 'cheap labour' and unscrupulous exploitation," Montreuil read in French.

Concordia University's Warren says that use of English was strategic. 

"Part of it is that these expressions are the ones that Quebecers usually use in ordinary life, in their day to day lives in the 60s. So they were not talking about les patrons, they were talking about the 'big boss' to emphasize the fact that people who controlled the finance, people who control the economy were Anglophone," Warren said, adding that the effect of this can't be underestimated.

Engaging with ordinary folk on big societal issues, he said, and doing it in their own language was still a pretty revolutionary idea in Quebec in 1970. 

Coming of age for Quebec

"[It] was a time when Quebecers were seeking to see themselves differently," Warren said. "Prior to the 1960s, Quebecers were under the impression that they were never good enough. They were not speaking French properly. They were uneducated." 

Quebec playwright Robert Lepage included passages from the manifesto in his autobiographical play 887. He says the document is a significant piece of Quebec cultural history that still has power today.

Quebec playwright, actor, film director and stage director Robert Lepage says the FLQ manifesto is a significant piece of the province's cultural history. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"There was a kind of a poetry reading a couple of years ago where it was read by an actor who just acted it out the way it was written, and it's an amazing, amazing script. When you take the time to get into character and you do it, whether you like the ideas or not, it's an amazing piece of writing," said Lepage.

He says the manifesto tapped directly into the hearts of ordinary people and that that was really the FLQ's great victory. He says no one really remembers the details of the manifesto, but they remember how they felt hearing those words.

"The FLQ later said...we at least achieved something in that we managed to have a small patriot in every household that evening," Lepage said. "It was a patriot that walked into the houses and then into the apartments of Quebec people, who spoke for them."

This episode was produced by Geoff Turner and Jessica Linzey, with help from Matthew Lazin-Ryder. Geoff Turner is the host of Recall: How to Start a Revolutiona new CBC podcast that tells the story of the FLQ through people who lived it: the bomb disposal expert, the survivors of terror, their families, and the FLQ members themselves.

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