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.

Trudeau during his famous ‘just watch me’ interview with Tim Ralphe.

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.”

The ‘civilized world’ reacts.

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.

The release of James Cross

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.

2 thoughts on “The (almost forgotten) October Crisis

  1. Enjoyed that PET interview. Never saw the whole thing before, because I was in Blighty studying for my Masters under the Athlone Fellowship.

    The Athlone Fellowship was a two year all expenses paid scholarship like a mini-Rhodes for about 50 just-graduating-as-bachelors Canadian engineering students. James Cross, Britisher High Commissioner for Trade in Canada and effectively at ambassadorial status, ran the program and conducted the interviews all across the country, dragging in various profs and admin people at each university to assist him in grilling prospects. He did it for years. The premise was simple – the Brits wanted to promote their engineering prowess to Canadians, and hopefully, long term, generate export sales, because they felt the Americans got everything here and UK product was rarely considered. Quite the little plum of a scholarship which several of my profs at Tech had been through in previous years. Three of us made it from Nova Scotia Technical College, now unfortunately part of Dalhousie University, and departed on a charter flight from Montreal in September 1969. All the students from across the country gathered there for the champagne flight to London, all 57 including wives, with an extended length DC8 to roam about in! Flight AC27. Who said airline food was bad? Hic. We even had a hootenany!

    So a day or so later, we met the previous year’s 50 odd engineers at the preparatory get-together at the UK Board of Trade. At any given time there were about a hundred Canadian engineers over in England at various universities, getting three times the wages British students got – university was free there then if you actually got in, and about 5 quid a week to live on. We got 15, more than enough in those days to live quite well. Plus we got to visit Churchill’s bunker, meet the upper class and Lord Mayor of London, and went to so many sherry parties I forget them all.

    Anyway, skipping those details, and moving on to May 1971, all the Fellows got summoned to London and the Board of Trade, where we met James Cross once again. He was ONE UNHAPPY CAMPER. Following a few months for he and his wife to recover in Blighty, he had we Athlone Fellows to himself at the meeting. He gave us the story as he experienced it. He excoriated the Canadian government for allowing him to be kidnapped, and effectively labelled us as backwoods hicks. Didn’t say the latter in those exact words, but the body language and tone was clear enough. Trudeau had not impressed him, his captors allowed him to listen to the radio to learn how we Canadians ran around like chickens with our heads cut off, that was the gist of his talk. He gave not one sh*t about the death of some minor Canadian plenipotentiary, LaPorte, except as it applied to he himself and his fears of being offed. The Athlone Fellowship was cancelled on the spot. Only those in Blighty still on the scholarship would be allowed to finish the two years (which included the year’s intake after me). After that, no more young Canadians engineers would grace Britain’s streets and universities at Her Majesty’s expense. We got no more special tours, and everything became distinctly cool, merely businesslike. No sherry at Cross’s meeting — tea and biscuits. Many of the students were not impressed at Cross’s brusqueness, but then we hadn’t been tied to a chair in some rotgut apartment for weeks wondering if the FLQ dopes were going to kill us, after Laporte got his. Cross was HIGHLY insulted all right.

    Yeah, bet you didn’t know about this sideline story. Tell it today to people and they think you invented a fairy tale. So yes, I see Trudeau’s steeliness, which today would be suitable for telling kenney and stinkboy harper a few pertinent home truths. Rattled the good old stolid Canadian middle class with his “just watch me” as many students’ parents came over that summer for vacations and bemoaned the deployment of Hellyer’s “army”, figuring the country was done for, just like that CBC reporter. Cross thought them amateurishly ineffective, so there’s the opposite perspective. Still, if we’d had the usual pussy as PM, maybe the FLQ would have prevailed. Who knows?

    The Mounties used the fuss as an excuse to raid houses clear across the country, including a later friend’s in PEI. As a landed immigrant, ex-US Marine grunt who’d seen too much in Lebanon and Viet Nam, and was demobbed in ’65, who’d then married a PEI surfer girl in California, I tell no lie, our RCMP had their eyes on him and confiscated his hunting weapons on the farm on which he lived. I guess he should have sported a shorter haircut, but he was the best live line (high voltage transmission line repairer under live conditions) in the country, and made his living by working all across Canada and the US as a hands-on consultant, while planting spuds and keeping livestock in PEI in the off times. A rather unlikely revolutionary, none too happy at the RCMP’s attitude and treatment of him. He had zero to do with the FLQ whatsover, so what gave?

    Somewhere on the web, there’s Cross’s memoir of the debacle. I read it years ago, wondering how he made it appear so matter-of-fact. In person, as I said, he was one UNHAPPY camper, which, I presume, was also the British government’s view as well.

    Never got tired of Pierre myself, but that’s me. His son Twinkletoes the selfie-snapper, well all I can say is, he’s better than any Con. Cannot stand that breed of backward-facing dopes and socially uninformed wackos. Keep that keeney wandering about Alberta and let him ruin that, not Canada, puleeze.

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