An October that changed Canada forever
“History,” goes the truism, “is written by the victors.”
Maybe so. But in the case of Canada’s “October Crisis”, that probably doesn’t apply, because there are no clear winners.
The FLQ kidnappers and murderers accomplished little, but by and large escaped the worst punishments. The federal and provincial politicians emerged with lingering issues tarnishing their reputations, and for some, a tendency toward revisionist history. Québec’s separation from Canada was neither accomplished nor extinguished. And sharp disagreements sparked among the key players in 1970 continue among those who have survived to today.
Here’s the short version of events:
On October 5, 1970, four members of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped British trade commission James Cross in Montreal. The FLQ had been a radical presence in Québec since 1963, responsible for more than 200 bombings in that period.
The kidnappers announced that they would kill Cross, unless the government released 23 prisoners who were charged with crimes attributed to the FLQ.
The initial reaction from the federal and provincial governments was relatively muted, even agreeing to some of the FLQ’s demands (their “manifesto” was read on Radio-Canada). However, on October 10, the FLQ struck again, kidnapping Québec minister of labour Pierre Laporte.
Both levels of government responded with increased urgency. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made two of his most famous statements in the next days. He told a reporter, “There’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who don't like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is ‘go ahead and bleed’ but it's more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don't like the looks of...”
And when asked by a reporter how far he would go, Trudeau responded with his iconic line: “Well, just watch me.”
And everyone did.
On October 16, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, and police arrested 405 people under those sweeping powers… most of whom were never charged, although they were kept in jail for up to 21 days.
The next day, Laporte’s body was found in the trunk of a car; the FLQ had announced the killing. It was the first political assassination in Canada in 102 years. Several FLQ members were allowed to leave Canada two months later, in a deal that gained James Cross’s release from the kidnappers.
All eventually returned to Canada, facing trial, serving some time, and re-entering Québec society and in some cases, provincial politics.
The very strong response of the federal and provincial governments to the October Crisis has been the inspiration for much debate. In hindsight, the FLQ was not the national threat it was perceived to be – there were actually about 35 members, in total. The Front ceased to exist in 1971.
And in the decades since the crisis, some of the key federal cabinet members – especially the English-speaking politicians – have appeared to distance themselves from the decision to invoke the War Measures Act.
John Turner was attorney general and acting solicitor general; in the recent Turner biography, “Elusive Destiny”, author Paul Litt points out that Turner was initially concerned about “overkill,” but adds that, as the situation unfolded, “Turner and the other skeptics went along with their alarmed colleagues. If there was anything close to the danger of insurrection they feared, the situation warranted immediate and decisive action…. For Turner, that meant the War Measures Act – nothing else would be legal… He qualified his support at the Cabinet table that afternoon, however, by saying that the government should subsequently pass less draconian substitute legislation in Parliament.”
Litt quotes a letter Turner wrote to a friend: “You can appreciate how difficult it is for me as a strong advocate of civil rights over the years to share some responsibility for this stern emergency posture. But… a threat to the very structure of society can only be met sometimes by a temporary suspension of some of the ordinary rights to which we are accustomed.”
In his autobiography, “Thumper,” Donald MacDonald, who was Canada’s Minister of Defence, points out that the cabinet’s decision to invoke the War Measures Act was unanimous. And he takes a shot at those who would re-write history, saying, “At least two Cabinet ministers have since questioned the necessity of the War Measures Act, but they offered no such view at the time.”
John English is a leading Canadian expert on the period, author of superb biographies of both Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson, as well as having served as an MP, as Chair of the Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum, and as executive director of the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
English urges us to avoid hindsight in our judgment of the period. He says, “They didn’t feel they had an alternative… they didn’t know what they were facing.”
There is no doubt there were strong advocates for extreme measures. English says, “Trudeau deferred to Jean Marchand, who had a very dire view” of the situation, convinced the FLQ was “a genuine revolutionary force.”
English emphasizes the complexity of the situation for Trudeau and his Québec cabinet colleagues, because the Prime Minister had been friends and colleagues with some of the proponents of the FLQ cause. “This,” argues English, “makes the feelings more intense…. There was a lot of emotion at that table among the French Canadians.”
English comments on the fact that, eventually, the convicted FLQ activists were re-integrated into Quebec society, some – such as Paul Rose, convicted of Laporte’s murder. Rose died in 2013, after playing a prominent role on the provincial political scene. Rose, notes English, “never apologized for anything.”
English agrees that all of this is still controversial, but looks further back in history for a precedent – all the way to the rebellion of 1837, led by William Lyon MacKenzie. “The rebels of 1837 were welcomed back,” says English. “It’s a tradition in our society.”
English believes the October Crisis changed Canada in some fundamental ways. “Yes, it did,” he says. “It was a certain end of innocence. But it also brought an end to a period of violence in Québec, and [René] Levesque then mounted a very successful political movement committed to non-violence. The violent fringe died out. It did change Canada – it led to the creation of a non-violent separatist movement.”