In October 1970, Canada was looking pretty good, at least in the eyes of a 14-year-old boy, mainly me. An avid newspaper reader in the early stages of a long addiction to news, I was pretty confident that Canada was just the best and safest place to live. While student protestors were shot dead at Kent State, and anti-war protests roiled our noisy neighbour, Canada remained blissfully at peace. While they had a duplicitous career politician named Richard Nixon as their leader, we had the coolest leader in the world in the person of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Yep, we were pretty cool for an essentially boring country.
That all changed in October, 1970, when terrorism and political assassination shattered my image of Canada as the Peaceable Kingdom. What came to be known as the October Crisis plunged the country into its single greatest domestic uproar. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis, and younger readers (assuming such a person exists) would be forgiven if they’ve never heard of it. Canada is pretty good at celebrating its triumphs (just wait till the 50th anniversary of the Canada-Russia hockey series in 2022), but we prefer to forget about the darker moments in our history. And the October Crisis was as dark as it got.
First, some background.
Starting in 1963, a small group of Quebec separatists that grandly called themselves the Front de libération du Québec – the FLQ – decided, as was the style at the time, that the only way to advance their agenda was armed struggle. From 1963-70, more than 150 bombs went off in Quebec, most aimed at symbols of the hated Anglophone minority. In 1969, a bomb went off in the Montreal Stock Exchange, injuring 27.
While many FLQ members were captured and jailed (one got the unheard of sentence of 124 life sentences, plus 25 years – just try that in Canada today), the remainder of the FLQ decided to step up the campaign, by branching out into kidnapping. On October 5, three armed members of the so-called “Liberation cell” kidnapped British trade Commissioner James Cross from his home in Montreal. They asked for $500,000, safe passage to Cuba, and the release of the “political prisoners”. While negotiations were ongoing, on October 10 another cell kidnapped Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte.
Now things were getting serious. Prime Minister Trudeau sent in the army to protect key locations and politicians in Montreal. This sparked the most remarkable interview in Canadian TV history. A CBC reporter, Tim Ralphe, approached Trudeau as he entered the Parliament Building, and engaged in a fairly testy conversation. Watch it here, and imagine if this kind of reporter-prime minister conversation could ever happen today. It was during the interview that Trudeau, after lambasting “bleeding hearts” who were worried about having soldiers in the streets, made his famous “Just watch me” comment when Ralphe asked him how far he would go. Say what you like about Trudeau – by the end of his long run in office, I was sick to death of him – but at that moment in October 1970, he was a leader. Sadly, that steely resolve did not rub off on his son.
Four days later, on Oct. 16, Canada found out just how far Trudeau would go. For the first time in peace time, the government instituted the War Measures Act to combat “apprehended insurrection” in Quebec. Under the emergency regulations, the FLQ was outlawed and membership became a criminal act; normal civil liberties were suspended, and arrests and detentions were authorized without charge. Many politicians were opposed, but the public was heavily in favour of the drastic measures. Hundreds of arrests, all in Quebec, followed.
The FLQ did not take this well. On Oct. 17, Laporte’s body was found in the trunk of an abandoned car (which was registered to one of the kidnappers; only in Canada would a terrorist register his car). An autopsy later revealed that he had been strangled.
I’ll never forget that night. It was a Saturday night, so naturally I was at home. Watching the CBC announcer (who struck me as being as shocked as I was), I could barely believe what was happening to my country. I was shaken to my core. Political kidnappings were something for tin-pot South American dictatorships, not a peaceful democracy, especially a CANADIAN democracy. Assassination was virtually unknown in Canada; the only previous political killing was the death of Thomas D’Arcy McGee in 1868.
Being a newspaper addict, I have to this day papers from that time, including a newspaper supplement (a magazine included in the then-hefty Saturday paper) called The Canadian, which devoted its issue to the death of Laporte. The story started this way:
“As Pierre Laporte lay in state, the horror and dismay Canadians felt at the presence of terrorism in this country was giving way to a realization so strange it seemed absurd: that Canada did not have, through some continuing windfall of providence, an unquestionably safe and sane future.”
Inside that same issue, there was this page of newspaper headlines from around the world about the Laporte murder. We may have had been the second largest country in the world, but we were No. 1 in our inferiority complex. Canada rarely made the news (Pierre Trudeau in 1968 gave us a rare spotlight), so there was, as The Canadian said, “a perverse fascination (it sometimes appeared to be pride) in the notoriety.”
As it turns out, the strangulation of Laporte also signalled the death of the FLQ. After the kidnapping of Cross, there was a surge in support for the FLQ from Quebec college student-types, who found the whole thing kind of cool. But after the assassination of Laporte, support for the FLQ vanished. Kidnapping is one thing, but murder is another. The FLQ disbanded in 1971.
In early December, Cross had been rescued, unharmed, in dramatic fashion. His captors were allowed safe passage to Cuba in exchange for releasing Cross, and the dramatic motorcade, where Cross and his kidnappers were escorted to the airport by a phalanx of police, was televised live.
The crisis was over. Or at least, this crisis was over. There would be more threats to Canada’s unity to come, much more serious than the uncharacteristic spasm of violence. Canada survived two separation referenda – one by the slimmest of margins – and separatism today is dormant, but not entirely dead. And there would be another blow to the Canadian psyche just two years later – the Canada-Russia summit series. But that’s a topic for 2024.
For a good recap of the October Crisis, check out this CTV W5 episode, The Darkest Hours.