At my home in Toronto, the phone rang at 4:30 a.m. It was the Globe and Mail. "Get yourself to Montreal ASAP. Ottawa has proclaimed the War Measures Act."
By breakfast time I was in Montreal, quivering with anticipation. On this Friday, October 16, 1970, I was where reporters dream to be -- at the heart of the action.
Just the night before, as I'd seen on the news, 3,000 fired-up students in Montreal were harangued by Front de Libération du Québec leaders Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon. Lawyer Robert Lemieux urged the students to go on strike in support of the FLQ. He was spokesman for the underground Libération cell that had kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross. Lemieux raised his clenched fist and shouted: "Nous vaincrons!" -- the defiant threat that closed FLQ communiqués. The students responded: "FLQ! FLQ! FLQ!"
I headed to a meeting in the auditorium of UQAM -- the Université du Québec à Montréal, newest and most radical of Montreal's four universities. The students had already called a strike to last until the FLQ's demands were met. Just the day before, UQAM professors had adopted a resolution supporting the objectives and the demands made by the kidnappers of Cross and labour minister Pierre Laporte.
But, during the night, the War Measures Act had been proclaimed and three police forces -- federal, provincial and municipal -- had launched massive raids as they searched for the two hostages. The police arrested and could hold for 21 days without charge anyone they considered sympathetic to the FLQ.
Word had spread that morning and I found a quite different atmosphere from the spreading excitement in colleges and universities of the days before. Those who spoke, though angry, were mostly subdued. They knew that police were in the hall. They knew that declaring support for the FLQ now made them criminals. They gave a fictitious cover for their meeting that was "to discuss little green mice." They recognized that they would have to go underground if they continued to support the FLQ. They agreed to form a co-ordinating committee between different faculties and decided to meet again Monday. But if they did meet, it was not public. The gathering momentum of youth supporting the FLQ against the government was stopped in its tracks on the weekend.
Was Pierre Trudeau justified to suspend civil rights and send the army to "occupy Quebec"? Or was this his plot to crush the Parti Québécois and moderate left wingers, as nationalists have claimed ever since? René Lévesque wrote in a column on the day the War Measures Act was proclaimed: "This degradation of Quebec was very deliberately intended by some while it was instinctive for others." Lucien Bouchard, in his memoirs, claimed this as a turning point as he converted to secession: "René Lévesque was the only one to stand up and to embody in dignity the democratic values of Quebec."
The fact is Quebec's leading nationalists themselves, by their reckless actions during the crisis, forced Trudeau and Robert Bourassa into stringent measures to save the situation from disintegrating into chaos. Here are the facts.
It had seemed odd more than threatening on Oct. 5 when Cross was taken at gunpoint from his Westmount home. Surely the threat to execute Cross within 48 hours was only a bluff. And the demands set for his safe return were exorbitant. They included freeing 23 "political prisoners" -- FLQ members convicted or charged since 1963 for such crimes as bombings, hold-ups, wounding, man-slaughter and murder. They were to be provided with a plane to fly them to Cuba or Algeria.
The kidnappers demanded a ransom of $500,000. Ottawa agreed to what seemed the most innocuous concession: broadcasting in prime time on Radio-Canada television the FLQ's manifesto. What the people then heard was the earthy language of the streets. The prime minister was taunted as "Trudeau the queer," the Premier as "Bourassa the fruit."
More significant was the revolutionary message. The FLQ repudiated as a sham the "electoral crumbs that the Anglo-Saxon capitalists toss into the chicken-coop every four years." Bourassa was warned that he would face "100,000 revolutionary workers organized and armed."
The manifesto spat on all establishments, but especially les Anglais, as oppressors of Québécois workers: "We will always be the assiduous servants and the boot-lickers of the 'big shots' (in English), as long as there are Westmounts, Town of Mount Royals, Hampsteads, Outremonts, all those fortresses of high finance of St. James Street and Wall Street, until such time as we, the Québécois, have chased out by every means, including dynamite and guns, those big boss (in English) of the economy and politics who are ready to stoop to anything the better to screw us."
Hearing the manifesto provoked a surge of sympathy for the FLQ. Gaétan Montreuil, the imperturbable Radio-Canada announcer who read the script, said recently that it had moved him. Having grown up in the slums of Saint-Henri, he recognized himself in that portrait of the oppressed Québécois.
The impact was heightened on Oct. 10 when, within 30 minutes of justice minister Jérôme Choquette's televised rejection of the FLQ's demands, Pierre Laporte was snatched as he threw a football with his nephew outside his home. Quebecers were stunned. Suddenly the FLQ seemed powerful, organized, a serious challenge to the government.
As public opinion shifted, support for the FLQ emerged on the political scene. On Oct. 12, the PQ issued a statement calling for "the liberation of the political prisoners" in exchange for the two hostages. That same day, support for "the objectives" of the FLQ manifesto was announced by Paul Cliche, president of the left-wing municipal party, Front d'Action Politique (FRAP), then contesting the coming Oct. 25 Montreal elections against mayor Jean Drapeau. An even more enthusiastic endorsement came from Michel Chartrand, president of the Montreal Central Council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions.
The real game changer occurred on Oct. 14 when 16 prominent Quebecers held a press conference that René Lévesque opened with the words, "Québec no longer has a government." The statement they issued claimed that "The Cross-Laporte affair is above all a Quebec drama," and so "it's primarily in Quebec that the responsibility lies to find the solution and put it into force."
They were saying that Ottawa should butt out, let Quebecers handle the matter. But the FLQ had deliberately chosen to kidnap a diplomat to ensure that its confrontation would be with Ottawa, since the safety of diplomats was a federal responsibility.
The 16 even accused Ottawa of conspiring against Quebec: "We fear that in certain non-Québécois circles particularly, the terrible temptation is to deliberately aggravate the situation (politique du pire), that is, the illusion that a Quebec in chaos and thoroughly ravaged would finally be easy to control by any old means."
Trudeau, they implied, wanted Quebec on its knees while Bourassa was too weak to defend Quebec's interests unless they intervened. The greatest threat, then, came from Ottawa, not the FLQ. The dignitaries proceeded to urge both governments to accept the FLQ's prime demand. "We insist on giving our most urgent support to the negotiation of an exchange of the two hostages for the political prisoners."
Calling convicted FLQ terrorists "political prisoners" implied their incarceration for their opinions rather than their crimes. This enhanced FLQ respectability and undermined the rule of law. Two years earlier Pierre Vallières, then imprisoned and charged with murder, had written to the FLQ, urging them to carry out kidnappings so as to win his release. Once such a precedent was established it would grant FLQ terrorists immunity against imprisonment if they could kidnap and exchange at will.
This reckless policy was urged, not just by PQ leaders Lévesque, Camille Laurin and Jacques Parizeau, but by the respected federalist Claude Ryan, by the presidents of Quebec's three great union federations, by the president of the cherished credit union (the Caisse Populaire Desjardins); by the head of the farmers' union and the former president of the teachers' union, by Quebec's most prestigious social scientists, Guy Rocher, Marcel Rioux and Fernand Dumont. And they called on all Quebecers to pressure the governments to exchange criminals for hostages.
From this moment, the invocation of the War Measures Act, which mayor Jean Drapeau and premier Robert Bourassa had been urging and Trudeau resisting, became inevitable. The result would prove convincing.
The dramatic show of force shattered the trendy alliance between much of the youth and the FLQ. The terrorist movement sputtered on briefly in Quebec then disappeared, unlike in Europe and Latin America where governments exchanged prisoners for hostages.
On Monday: What really lay behind the October Crisis? The analysis of a confusing episode.
Veteran journalist and commentator William Johnson is former president of Alliance Quebec.
On the brink of chaos - 1
In the face of pressure to deal with the FLQ during the October Crisis 40 years ago, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, and crushed terrorism in Quebec
PET - Just watch me crushing "100,000 revolutionary workers organized and armed." - Dans la série Ben Laden, H1N1, Iran, etc. Des mises en scène par les oligarques qui seront bientôt les seuls à y croire...
William Johnson53 articles
William Johnson, a Quebec journalist, is a former president of Alliance Quebec
William Johnson, a Quebec journalist, is a former president of Alliance Quebec