Thursday, October 7, 2010

40 years ago: FLQ and terrorism in Canada

Forty years ago this week, Canada had an up close and personal view of homegrown terrorism in what was to become known as the 'October crisis.' A shocked nation watched as the army was sent into the streets; tanks rolled and heavily armed troops were everywhere. Two men were kidnapped: Pierre LaPorte, a Quebec politician, whose strangled body was found stuffed into the trunk of a car, and James Cross, a British diplomat who lived to retell his story.

40 years later: Security and the FLQ

Michael Valpy
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
The October Crisis began at 8:15 a.m. on Oct. 5, 1970, at the home of the British trade commissioner in Montreal, James Cross.

Two members of the Libération cell of the Front de libération du Québec knocked at his door, disguised as delivery men. Admitted to the house by a maid, they pulled their guns and kidnapped him.


In October of 1970, the Front de Libération du Québec kidnapped a diplomat and a Quebec cabinet minister, leading the federal government of Pierre Trudeau to invoke the first peacetime use of the War Measures Act. The[...] front pages of The Globe and Mail from the time tell the story of a tense nation.

Oct. 13, 1970.

(The Globe and Mail) Here for a series of pictures.

By the time the crisis ended on Dec. 28, Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte had also been kidnapped and then murdered, the national government of Pierre Trudeau had invoked the first peacetime use of the War Measures Act – suspending Canadians’ civil liberties – and the army had been deployed in Ottawa and throughout Quebec.

Canadians watching their television screens saw every appearance of a country under martial law. Tanks were on the lawns of Parliament. Hundreds of union leaders, artists, scholars, students and other political activists in Quebec were rounded up by police, arrested and detained without charge. The mayor of Vancouver tried to employ the security regulations to clear the city’s beaches of hippies.

Forty years later, the legacy of the October Crisis challenges the notion of who we think we are. ..

(More from this interesting article here.)

These events were before I ever heard of Canada, but the echoes reach down through history to this day. Quebec still mumbles and grumbles about becoming a separate nation from Canada - because they are special and 'distinct.' Pierre Trudeau was prime minister during those tumultuous days, an irony considering that he was, himself, a product of Montreal.

One of the soundbites that became symbolic of the crisis was Pierre Trudeau declaring: "Just watch me" when reporters challenged him on his handling of unfolding events:

Trudeau: ‘Just watch me’

It is Oct. 13, 1970 – eight days after James Cross’s kidnapping. Soldiers are stationed on Parliament Hill as CBC reporter Tim Ralfe calls out to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau: “What is it with all these men and guns around here?” The interview lasted more than seven minutes and includes some of Mr. Trudeau’s best-known remarks.

With your army troops, you seem to be combatting [the FLQ] almost as though it is a war, and if it is a war, does anything that they say have validity?

Don't be silly. We're not combatting them as if it's war, but we're using some of the army as peace agents in order that the police be more free to do their job as policemen and not spend their time guarding your friends against some form of kidnapping.

You said earlier that you would protect them in this way, but you have said before that this kind of violence, what you're fighting here,the kind of violence of the FLQ, can lead to a police state.

Sure. That's what you're complaining about, isn't it?

Well, yes, but surely that decision is yours, not the FLQ's.

Yes, but I've asked you what your own logic is. It's to let them abduct anybody and not give any protection to anyone – call off the police, that seems to be your position.

Not call off the police. Surely the police's job is to catch people who break the law.

Yes, but not to give protection to those citizens who might be blackmailed for one reason or another?

Which must be half of the population of the country, in one way or another. I explained it badly, I think, but what you're talking about to me is choices, and my choice is to live in a society that is free and democratic, which means that you don't have people with guns running around in it.


And one of the things I have to give up for that choice is the fact that people like you may be kidnapped.

Sure, but this isn't my choice, obviously. You know, I think it is more important to get rid of those who are committing violence against the total society and those who are trying to run the government through a parallel power by establishing their authority by kidnapping and blackmail. And I think it is our duty as a government to protect government officials and important people in our society against being used as tools in this blackmail. Now, you don't agree to this, but I am sure that once again with hindsight, you would probably have found it preferable if Mr. Cross and Mr. Laporte had been protected from kidnapping, which they weren't because these steps we’re taking now weren't taken. But even with your hindsight I don't see how you can deny that.

No, I still go back to the choice that you have to make in the kind of society that you live in.

Yes, well 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, but it is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don't like the looks of …

At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?

Well, just watch me.

At reducing civil liberties? To what extent?

To what extent?

Well, if you extend this and you say, okay, you're going to do anything to protect them, does this include wire tapping, reducing other civil liberties in some way?

Yes, I think the society must take every means at its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in this country, and I think that goes to any distance. So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representative of the people, I think that power must be stopped and I think it's only, I repeat, weak-kneed bleeding hearts who are afraid to take these measures....

(Source Globe and Mail here, where you can also find audio clip)

Heard an interview with James Cross this week. Living in England now, he had harsh words for the way the CBC reported things at the time. Cross recalls watching the constant news during the days of his capture, as CBC reported that he was dead. Mrs Cross later wrote a letter to her husband which was broadcast on October 28:

Message of Mrs Cross to her Husband and the FLQ

Read on radio station CKLM on October 28, 1970.

More than one week has passed since I have had news of you. I think constantly of you, and you must know that I wish nothing but for you to be back safe and sound. The waiting is atrocious but I am confident that you are alive and well.

It was a great comfort to me to have been able to read your letter and to have know in which direction your thoughts have gone throughout this period of separation. Your letters have given me hope that we will soon be together again. I hope that the FLQ will continue to let you write to me. Susie and I think of you constantly and you must know all the love that we have for you.

I beg of you to free my husband without delay. (source)

It is apparent reading back through news coverage of the day that it was a time of mass confusion.

For a timeline of the October Crisis, go here.

The FLQ released a list of their demands:

Released to the public October 6, 1970

The representative of Great Britain in Quebec, Mr J. Cross, is in the hands of the Front de liberation du Quebec.Here are the conditions that the ruling authorities must fulfil in order to save the life of the representative of the ancient racist and colonialist British system.They must see to it that the repressive police forces do not commit the monstrous error of attempting to jeopardize the success of the operation by conducting searches, investigations, raids, arrests by any other means.

The political manifesto which the Front de liberation du Quebec will address to the ruling authorities must appear in full on the front page of all the principal newspapers in Quebec. The ruling authorities, after consulting with the latter, must make public the list of Quebec newspapers agreeing to publish our manifesto. But it should be quite clear that all Quebec regions must be covered.

Furthermore, this manifesto must be read in full and commented upon by the political prisoners before their departure during a programme, the length of which will have to be at least thirty minutes, to be televised live or pre-recorded between 8 and 11 PM on Radio-Canada and its affiliated stations in the province.

Liberation of political prisoners: Cyriaque Delisle, Edmond Guenette and François Schirm, Serge Demers, Marcel Faulkner, Gérard Laquerre, Robert Levesque, Réal Mathieu, and Claude Simard; Pierre-Paul Geoffroy, Michel Loriot, Pierre Demers, Gabriel Hudon, Robert Hudon, Marc-André Gagné, François Lanctot, Claude Morency, and André Roy; Pierre Boucher and André Ouellette (recently re-arrested by the police of Drapeau-the-Dog).

Wives and children of the political prisoners must be allowed to join them if they so desire.

Furthermore, political prisoners André Lessard, Pierre Marcil, and Réjean Tremblay, presently out on bail, must be allowed to join their patriotic comrades and leave Quebec if they so desire.
A plane must be made available to the patriotic political prisoners for their transport to either Cuba or Algeria, once an official agreement has been reached with one of these two countries.

Furthermore, they must be allowed to be accompanied by their respective lawyers and by at least two political reporters of two French Quebec dailies.

During a meeting attended by the Lapalme boys and the Postmaster-General - or a representative - the latter must promise to reinstate them. The reinstatement promise must take into account the standards and conditions already secured by the revolutionary workers of Lapalme prior to the breaking off of negotiations. This meeting must be held within forty-eight hours after the release of this communiqué and must be open to newsmen,

A voluntary tax of $500,000 in gold bullion must be put aboard the plane made available to the political prisoners. When one recalls the spendings caused by the recent visit of the Queen of England, the millions of dollars lost by the Post Office Department because of the stubborn millionaire Kierans, the cost of maintaining Quebec within Confederation, etc. ... $500,000 is peanuts!

The NAME and the PICTURE of the informer who led police to the last FLQ cell must be made public and published. The Front de liberation du Quebec is in possession of information dealing with the acts and moves of this louse ... and is only awaiting "official" confirmation to act.

Through this move, the Front de liberation du Quebec wants to draw the attention of the world to the fate of French-speaking Quebecois, a majority which is jeered at and crushed on its own territory by a faulty political system (Canadian federalism) and by an economy dominated by the interests of American high finance, the racist and imperialist "big bosses.."..

They continue on with a list of woes of Quebec's treatment at the hands of Canada. Read it all here.

James Cross was released on December 3, 1970, after negotiations with the FLQ guaranteed the kidnappers safe passage to Cuba. Reading back, it seems that exile to Cuba was not 'forever, '

TIME magazine had an article in December 1970 of the October Crisis titled Canada: The end of a bad dream. James Cross is quoted in that article:

"It's almost like being out of hell," he told reporters after his release.

During his two months at 10945 Des Récollets Avenue, Cross was forced to live in what he described as an enforced "state of suspended animation." He saw 164 French-language movies on TV and lost 22 lbs. on a diet that consisted largely of spaghetti and peanut butter. His captors, "convinced and fervent revolutionaries," confined him in a sunless room. There he was handcuffed every night and watched 24 hours a day by two guards who had a disconcerting way of fiddling around with the clips of their submachine guns. At first, hoods and hostage talked politics; but after Laporte was killed, Cross "did not feel like continuing the discussions."

Only once did Cross fear that he too might be killed. In one of the letters dictated to him by his captors, he intentionally misspelled the two words prisonners and questionned, intending the extra ns to indicate that he was in Montreal North. When the kidnapers realized what he had done, they went into a rage and screamed that he was "a dirty son-of-a-bitch."...(More here)

There is an extensive archive of radio and television coverage here. Brian Stewart, a long time CBC reporter, revisits the FLQ crisis:


Brian Stewart

The October Crisis reinterpreted

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)
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?...(More here)

As the years have passed, these questions are still debated, as is Quebec's place within Canada. There have been national referendums focussed on Quebec separatists' aim of taking Quebec out of Canada. Thus far, the referendums have failed, and Quebec is still an integral part of Canada.

They have been accorded and recognised as having a 'special status' within the confederation, and almost draconian language laws have been implemented to ensure the survival of the French language within Quebec.

It may well be true that the events of October 1970 were the work of a small number of Quebecois, but as has been well documented, all it takes is a handful of citizens to wreak havoc. Today, Quebec's premier is a staunch federalist, Jean Charest, but it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that another separatist government could be elected.

Could we see armed troops in the streets of Canada again? I believe we could, if a resurgence of the perceived grievances of October 1970 were to be stoked by a few dozen or so who insist that Quebec would be better off without Canada.

Only time will tell.

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