The October Crisis was a watershed moment in the history of Canada. Half a century ago, the country watched as troops went into the streets and the Quebec sovereignty movement was thrust into the spotlight for Canadians across the nation.
Today, I am looking at the leadup to the crisis, the crisis itself and what happened after.
While the crisis in October of 1970 tends to be the main focus, the origins of the crisis itself goes back seven years to 1963 when the FLQ, also known as the Front de liberation du Quebec, was formed as Quebec was going through major political, cultural and social changes.
Quebec was going through major changes in the 1950s and 1960s. Education became secularized and the state funding of schools rose from $200 million in 1960 to $1 billion in 1970. Hydro-Quebec became state owned and the largest employer in the province, and the state, rather than the church, became the main instrument for the aspirations of residents of Quebec. Universal health care and a provincial pension plan were introduced and capital was put into growing francophone businesses. There was a growing political movement for change, but some were looking at more radical means of change.
It was a time around the world when anti-colonial sentiments were high, and communist governments were coming into power, including in Cuba. The FLQ, inspired by the many political movements worldwide, wanted a Quebec that had liberated itself from what they saw as Anglophone domination and capitalism and they saw the path to that through armed struggle. With that in mind, the FLQ chose to attack the symbols of what they saw as English colonialism with the hope that Quebecers would follow their example.
Often lost in the shuffle when talking about the October Crisis is that over 200 bombings took place, with dozens of robberies. In fact, the first meeting of the founding members of the FLQ in February 1963 was celebrated by throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window of CKGM, an English radio station in Montreal. Between March and April 1963, six bombings would take place in Montreal.
More often than not, the prime target were mailboxes in Westmount, a rich Anglophone area of Montreal, as well as the head office of the CIBC, a federal government book store, the residence of Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, the Montreal Eaton’s store and several Canadian Armed Forces facilities. The worst bombing happened on Feb. 13, 1969, when a bomb was detonated in the Montreal Stock Exchange, leaving 27 people injured. Through all of the bombings, six people would die.
These acts were not without consequences. By the time the new decade of the 1970s was dawning, 20 FLQ members were in prison and four were sentenced to between six to 12 years after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the death of a watchman at a Canadian Armed Forces recruitment centre in April 1963. Pierre-Paul Geoffroy alone was responsible for 31 bombings, including the Montreal Stock Exchange, and would receive 124 life sentences plus 25 years. At the time, it was the longest prison sentence ever handed down in the British Commonwealth.
Also by this point, the FLQ had split into two cells based out of Montreal. The South Shore gang would become the Chenier cell, led by Paul Rose. The Liberation cell was led by Jacques Lanctot and that is the cell that would escalate things into the October Crisis initially.
On Oct. 5, two members of the Liberation Cell went to the home of British diplomat James Cross disguised as delivery men bringing a package for him. The maid let them in and they quickly pulled out a rifle and revolver and kidnapped Cross.
Demands were sent to the authorities and for the release of Cross, the Liberation Cell wanted 23 imprisoned FLQ members released, the broadcast and publication of the FLQ manifesto, $500,000 and safe passage to either Algeria or Cuba. The kidnappers stated the Quebec government was given 24 hours to comply. While the government rejected the demands, they stated they were willing to negotiate. One of the largest manhunts in Canadian history would be initiated at this point.
Over the next several days, 30 individuals were arrested in a series of dawn raids. On Oct. 8, French newspapers published the FLQ manifesto, which was also read on Radio-Canada. Rene Levesque, the leader of the Parti Quebecois, published an article that implored the FLQ not to use violence or hurt Cross, or anyone else. The Liberation Cell then provided proof that Cross was alive and they extended their deadline to Oct. 10 at 6 p.m. local time. Just before that deadline was reached, Jerome Choquette, the justice minister for the province, announced that the Liberation Cell would be granted safe passage out of Canada in exchange for the release of Cross but no other demands would be met.
The deadline would pass and two members of the Chenier Cell would arrive at the home of Pierre Laporte, cabinet minister and deputy premier, where he was playing football in the front yard with his nephew. Laporte was quickly kidnapped, escalating the crisis even more. Soon after the kidnapping was discovered, elected officials in Quebec began flooding the police with requests for protection.
On Oct. 11, CBC broadcasts a letter from captivity from Laporte that was sent to Quebec premier Robert Bourassa. That same day, the Chenier cell issued a demand, stating they would kill Laporte unless all seven FLQ demands were met by 10 p.m. that night. Just before 10 p.m., Premier Bourassa went on the radio and announced he would not meet the demands but that he was open to negotiations. The Chenier cell postponed Laporte’s execution.
On Oct. 12, General Gilles Turcot, a veteran of the Second World War, sends troops from the Royal 22nd Regiment to guard federal property in the province, which had been requested by the federal government. Robert Lemieux, a Montreal lawyer, is chosen by the FLQ to negotiate the release of Cross and Laporte that same day.
On Oct. 13, CBC reporter Tim Ralphe questions Trudeau about the heavy military presence in the city of Ottawa. The exchange has gone down in Canadian lore and I remember learning about it in Social Studies. Trudeau would respond with the “Well, just watch me” comment.
Robert Demers, who was an official with the Quebec Liberal Party, began to negotiate with Robert Lemieux.
On Oct. 15, Quebec asks for the assistance of the Armed Forces to help the local police. Within an hour, 1,000 soldiers are deployed around Montreal. A rally would be held in support of the FLQ in the city that afternoon with 3,000 students calling on the government to meet the demands of the FLQ. The rally was organized by Lemieux. Labour Leader Michel Chartrand states “We are going to win because there are more boys ready to shoot members of Parliament than there are policemen.” This begins to worry the rest of Canada who are seeing Quebec as a possible focal point of an insurrection. In the evening, possibly because of the growing tensions and the rally, the government announces that it will release five FLQ prisoners on parole and guarantee both FLQ cells safe passage out of Canada in exchange for the return of the hostages.
On Oct. 16, something would happen that had never happened in Canadian history, before or since. The War Measures Act would be implemented due to what was called the state of apprehended insurrection in Quebec. The Act, which gives the government sweeping powers, had never been used in peacetime before, only during the First and Second World Wars. Under the abilities given by the act, which suspends habeas corpus, the FLQ is outlawed immediately, normal civil liberties are suspended, membership in the FLQ becomes a criminal offence and arrests and detentions without charge are authorized. Anyone arrested under the Act was denied due process and could be held for seven days without any charges and some could be held for 21 days. Prime Minister Trudeau will go on television to announce the implementation of the Act.
The decision is widely criticized in the House of Commons with Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and NDP leader Tommy Douglas all speaking out against it. Douglas would say using the act was similar to using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut. In other areas of Canada, there were moves to limit what people could say or do.
In Toronto, a school board considered a motion that would ban teachers from speaking about the FLQ in their classrooms, while in Vancouver, the Vancouver Liberation Front that was sympathetic to the FLQ had seven members arrested for distributing the FLQ Manifesto. Also in British Columbia, Premier W.A.C. Bennett and his cabinet approved a regulation that banned any teachers in the province, including post-secondary professors, from expressing sympathy for the FLQ. The Nov. 2, 1970 order stated “No person teaching or instructing our youth in educational institutions receiving government support shall continue in the employment of the educational institution if they advocate the polices of the FLQ.” Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell would use the entire situation to announce that he would use emergency powers to push hippies and draft dodgers out of the city, although he never pursued this. Around Canada, university newspapers also faced censorship and police scrutiny for publishing commentary on the FLQ. The Ontarion, a university newspaper in Guelph, published a special section on the FLQ manifesto, with the War Measures Act included. Students who ran the newspaper took it to the printer on Oct. 16 but instead of printing, the manager of the printing press contacted the police. In the evening, two plain-clothed officers came and took the master copies of the newspaper. An investigation was then conducted on the newspaper to see if they violated the sedition section of the Criminal Code. On Oct. 19, the students attempted to publish another edition that explained their side of the story but the printer told them he would not print that issue either. On Oct. 21, the master copies were given to the RCMP, who would then consult with the Department of Justice. Nothing happened from that point but the confiscated issues and master copies were never returned.
On Oct. 17, it is announced that Pierre Laporte has been executed. He had been strangled and then stuffed into the trunk of a car that was abandoned at the Saint Hubert Airport near Montreal.
It is almost impossible to overstate the impact the assassination had. In Canadian history, only three sitting politicians have been killed. The first was Thomas D’Arcy McGee in 1868, the second was George Brown in 1880 and Laporte was the third, almost a century later.
Within two days of the implementation of the War Measures Act, 250 people will have been arrested.
On Oct. 18, warrants are issued for Marc Carbonneau and Paul Rose in connection with the murder. Additional warrants are issued for other members of the Chenier cell and by Oct. 20, 1,628 raids have been conducted by police under the War Measures Act.
On Oct. 26, Barbara Cross, wife of James Cross, is broadcasted on CKLM stating:
“To those holding my husband. I wish to express my confidence that, as he is a victim of circumstances, he will be well treated. I entreat them to free him without delay.”
On Nov. 2, a $150,000 reward is offered by Quebec and the Canadian government for information leading the arrest of the kidnappers. Four days later, police raid an apartment and arrest Bernard Lortie. The other members of the Chenier cell had hid behind a false wall in the closet at the apartment and would leave the building the next day.
By Nov. 13, 46 people had been detained under the authority of the War Measures Act and a week later a letter from Cross, dated for Nov. 15, is sent that confirms he is still alive. After the arrest of Jacques Cossette-Trudel and his wife Louise, the release of Cross is negotiated the following day in exchange for the safe passage of all members of the Liberation Cell, including Jacques, Louise and their infant daughter, to Cuba. Cross would emerge from a Montreal North apartment where he had been kept for 59 days, having lost 22 pounds but in good health. He would state that he had not been harmed and was treated well by his captors.
On Dec. 28, Paul and Jacques Rose, along with Francis Simard were arrested on a farm near Montreal. Along with Bernard Lortie, they were charged with the kidnapping and murder of Laporte. Paul Rose was sentenced to life in prison, as was Simard, while Lortie received 20 years. Jacques Rose received eight years for being an accessory after the fact.
As for the members of the Liberation Cell, they all eventually returned to Canada from Cuba. Trudel and his wife Louise were sentenced to two years in prison in 1979. Nigel Barry Hamer was sentenced to one year, while Marc Carbonneau received 20 months. Yves Langlois was the last member to come back to Canada, and was sentenced to two years in prison.
In December 1970, a poll was held to see the opinion of Canadians in regards to the War Measures Act. It found 89 per cent of English Canadians were in support of the act, while 86 per cent of French speaking Canadians supported it. The War Measures Act implementation would come to an end at the beginning of January and over the course of its use, 497 people were arrested, with 435 released and 62 being charged, with 32 being held without bail. In spring of 1971, the provincial government announced it would pay up to $30,000 in compensation to 100 people who were unjustly detained. Over 3,000 searches were also conducted under the Act.
Among the army units deployed, the Royal 22nd Regiment, known as the Van Doos, were deployed to protect buildings in Montreal under Operation Essay. Overall, the Canadian Army saw no action during the Crisis but one soldier was killed when he tripped over his loaded gun while on guard duty and accidently shot himself. Even without any action from the Army, many Canadians were disturbed by the sight of tanks on the lawns of Parliament.
The War Measures Act would be repealed in 1988 and would be replaced by the Emergencies Act, which is more limited and it requires Cabinet orders and regulations to be reviewed and anything done under the new Act had to be subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Bill of Rights.
As for the FLQ, their support would take a serious hit due to the October Crisis. Over the next 13 months, nearly two dozen FLQ operatives were arrested and by the 1980s, the organization was gone.
There would be a shift from the violent means to obtain sovereignty and a push towards political action for independence. In 1976, the Parti Quebecois would come to power in the province, taking 70 of 110 seats and staying in power until 1985, then coming back to power in 1994 until 2003 and again from 2012 to 2014. The Bloc Quebecois would rise in prominence as well, forming in 1991 and eventually becoming the second or third largest party in the House of Commons from 1993 to 2011.
Following the Crisis, the federal government would transform the Canadian Forces into more of an internal security force for the country that was no longer capable of fighting a major conventional war as it once had.
Half a century later, in 2020, there are calls for an apology from Ottawa for the use of the War Measures Act. When asked about an apology, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre Trudeau who implemented the Act said:
“There is no question that the events of October 1970 had a difficult impact on many Quebecers but I think we need to remember first and foremost that this particular anniversary is going to be very difficult for the families of Pierre Laporte.”
As for Cross, he is still alive as of this writing, having reached the age of 99 on Sept. 29. He has said he has never forgotten his ordeal and he has never forgiven his captors.
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