On October 5, 1970, British trade commissioner James Cross was kidnapped in his Westmount home by members of the terrorist group Front de liberation du Quebec.
The FLQ Manifesto called for non-democratic separation to be brought about by acts of terror. From 1963 to 1967, the FLQ planted 35 bombs; from 1968 to 1970 they planted over 50 bombs. By the fall of 1970 the terrorist acts of the FLQ cells had claimed 6 lives. The kidnappers’ demands included the release of a number of convicted or detained FLQ members and the broadcasting of the FLQ Manifesto.
The Manifesto was read on Radio-Canada. Then, on October 10th, the Quebec minister of justice guaranteed safe passage to anywhere in the world for the kidnappers in exchange for the safe release of Cross. That same day Pierre Laporte, a famed Quebec reporter, author of The True Face of Duplessis, and the minister of immigration and labour in the Quebec government, was kidnapped by a different FLQ cell on the lawn of his suburban home. Laporte’s kidnapping triggered a phone call from Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa asking Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to prepare the Canadian Armed Forces for action in Quebec and to declare War Measures. Two days later, October 12, Trudeau summoned armed troops to guard potential targets in Ottawa and Montreal such as cabinet ministers, John Diefenbaker, who was on the FLQ hit list, and federal buildings. On the following day, October 13, Peter Reilly of CJOH and I were at the west door of the Centre Block of the House of Commons.
Reilly was asking Trudeau some basic questions in a laconic, unemotional style about the army and tanks being in Ottawa. Suddenly we were joined by CBC reporter Tim Ralfe who asked Trudeau a very emotional question about his decision to invoke the War Measures Act. Pierre Trudeau interview An angry Trudeau replied: “There’s 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.” “How far are you going to go?” Ralfe insisted.”Just watch me!” said Trudeau. And Canadians across the country watched as, at 3 o’clock in the morning, Friday, October 16, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.
The Press Gallery was packed. Trudeau was careful, cold, analytic – and brilliant. The invocation of the War Measures Act meant the suspension of traditional Canadian civil liberties. Anyone belonging to the FLQ, or to any cultural or political association suspected of being linked to the FLQ, could be rounded up in the dead of night without a search warrant and incarcerated without the right of habeas corpus.
Under the sweeping authority of the act, 465 Canadians were so rounded up. A day later, on Saturday October 17th, the body of Pierre Laporte was found stuffed in the trunk of a green Chevrolet. In Ottawa, government sources said the FLQ assassinated Laporte because War Measures was enacted. The tension that night was palpable.
John Turner, the minister of justice, looked distraught. In his office, Trudeau ministers Gerard Pelletier and Jean Marchand were weeping openly at the death of an old friend and colleague. Early in December 1970, police discovered the location of the kidnappers holding James Cross. He was released after his FLQ captors were given safe passage to Cuba.
Four weeks later Paul Rose and the kidnappers of Pierre Laporte were found in the corner of a country basement. They were tried and convicted for kidnapping and murder. The October Crisis was the first time in Canadian history the state itself, both in Ottawa and in Quebec City, was held to ransom by extremists and terrorists. It was also the first time, in peace time, that Ottawa invoked War Measures. It was a drastic step to take and one laced with very dangerous side effects.
In the guilt-by-association atmosphere engendered by War Measures hysteria, the terrorism and extremism of the separatist FLQ tarnished all separatist movements in Quebec. Also, Rene Levesque’s flat refusal to countenance or tolerate FLQ terrorism ultimately enabled Quebecers to see democratic separatism as an option they could live with. In the end, the cold shoulder shown to the FLQ by both Trudeau and Levesque, despite their bitter differences, completely destroyed the FLQ. By the time the crisis had ended, Quebecers and Canadians had for the first time seen a federal government willing to take extreme measures to fight – and fight very hard indeed – for federalism in Canada. Back to Canada in the 20th Century. The FLQ (Front de Liberation Quebecois) was an terrorist organization that favoured a rapid departure of Quebec from Canada.
In the early stages, the FLQ was a relatively small organization, but the size and power of the group was later questioned after a systematic programme of bombings of government and English business establishments. The government of Quebec and Montreal later requested help from the Federal government when two prominent political figures, Pierre LaPorte, the Quebec Minister of Labour, and James Cross, The British Trade Commissioner to Canada, were kidnapped by the FLQ. Prime Minister Trudeau put into effect the War Measures Act for the first time in Canadian history during peace time. He did this without consulting parliament. However, parliament voted three days later to approve the use of the act. The civil liberties of the citizens of Canada were suspended while the act was in force.
In a few cities, officials used the WMA to clean up the streets, picking up “undesirables” and throwing them into jail. More than 450 people were jailed in Quebec for suspected connections to the FLQ. Most were later released without any charges being laid. After the War Measures Act was put into effect, no other public figures in Canada were kidnapped. Eventually Pierre Laporte was murdered by his captors and Cross was released unharmed after his kidnappers were flown to exile in Cuba.
But for many in Quebec, the question was raised : what might the federal government do if Quebec ever did decide to leave Canada… the use of the army in the streets and the loss of civil liberties left a bad taste in many people’s mouths.