When Terror Came to Canada

The response to the FLQ crisis remains controversial five decades later

Early on the morning of October 16, 1970, a Quebec couple much celebrated in arts and political circles awoke to find Montreal police clomping through their house and fast approaching their third-storey bedroom.

When poet Gérald Godin leapt from bed and demanded to see their search warrant, the answer was short:

“We don’t need a search warrant anymore, sir,” an officer replied. “A special law has been voted, and we can search where we want without a warrant. Listen to the radio. You’ll see.”

Their surprise could be forgiven, however, as the news that prime minister Pierre Trudeau had imposed the War Measures Act, for the first time in peacetime, came at 4 a.m. when those scheduled for pre-dawn arrest were still sleeping, along with most of the country. Civil liberties long taken for granted were vanishing, as they do, in the dead of  night.

Almost the next words spoken to Godin and his singer-actress partner, Pauline Julien—“Come on, get your clothes on. You’re coming with us.”—also had the ring of state security roundups around the world.

The War Measures Act aimed at suspected terrorists and possible supporters gave police not only power of search and arrest without warrant, but, even more controversially, of detention and interrogation without access to lawyers for a minimum of seven days, and up to three weeks essentially incommunicado if charges were pending. To those of us old enough to remember the times, it comes as a jolt to recall what a flair our police had for mass arrest. “Who’d have thought it?” some of us reporters mused as we scrambled vainly to keep up with the racing prisoner wagons.

That first surge of 1,200 provincial and Montreal city police dragged 238 suspects into custody within the first eight hours of the act’s proclamation. Nearly 500 were swept into detention and 4,600 searches were conducted for weapons and subversive materials in the weeks before authorities finally conceded an armed insurrection in Quebec was, in fact, unlikely. The dragnet, along with the dispatch of 10,000 combat-equipped troops to help guard Montreal, Quebec City, and Ottawa, remains one of the most controversial moments in modern Canadian ­history.

Famously asked by a television reporter how far he would take such draconian action, Trudeau snapped, “Just watch me.” And, according to polls, nearly ninety percent of the Canadian population, including Quebec, did watch the unfolding drama in fascinated approval.

Thousands of Quebec radicals and separatist activists felt justified in wondering if the next knock on their door would mean arrest. Some arresting teams were stern, others in chatty good spirits as if still testing out their new role as mass incarcerators. When a friend of mine, fellow journalist Nick Auf der Maur, was taken in, the two officers agreed to rendezvous with him and his chosen witness at his favourite smoky bistro in the heart of Montreal’s  entertainment area. He was allowed a final coffee and cognac as he regaled them with amusing stories before they finally led him off to the crowded police holding cells. Once locked away, they permitted his girlfriend to drop off a Montreal Canadiens hockey sweater for him to wear proudly in detention. (Like most of those interrogated and detained, he was released without charges after a week.)

The times seemed unreal then and they still do today. It is difficult five decades later to fathom our greatest peacetime crisis, one that left a cloud over Quebec for decades. Why did it happen the way it did? Did government panic and go overboard? Why were Canada’s foreign friends so startled by such uncharacteristic actions while our population was so supportive?

These are questions author D’Arcy Jenish explores in The Making of the October Crisis, while leaving no doubt where he feels the blame for the crackdown lies with his subtitle, Canada’s Long Nightmare of Terrorism at the Hands of the FLQ. Jenish gives the impression he believes much of what seems now as a heavy-handed state response was justified to stop the crisis escalating rapidly into dangerous civil unrest.

He insists we have a very imperfect memory of the crisis, which reinforces an increasingly negative view of official actions. The reason it so puzzles and evades us today is that historians and documentary makers have been fixated on the height of the crisis only—the relatively short period within the last quarter of 1970 that saw the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and the kidnapping and murder of senior Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte—while giving far too little attention to the long struggle of the Front de Libération du Québec to bring an increasingly violent terror campaign to Quebec.

What makes our grasp of events even more dubious, he believes, is that many of those who have written about October 1970 tended to be either former terrorists, such as Cross kidnapper Francis Simard, or at least emotionally sympathetic to the idealism and commitment of young felquistes as FLQ militants were called. This bias at the core of their accounts, Jenish argues, has led to a skewed history in which government actions are now routinely denounced as politically oppressive or scandalously unnecessary. This seriously overlooks the enormous threat of violence on quite-unprepared leaders in Montreal, Quebec City, and Ottawa that in the end forced them to grasp for emergency detention powers and backup troops.

Canada’s innocence when confronting the FLQ underground throughout its existence from about 1963 to 1971 is striking in hindsight. We forget that the 1960s FLQ violence preceded the far-left urban terrorist campaigns elsewhere in the West, such as those of the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army Faction in Germany, and the Weather Underground (Weathermen) in the United States. The West had little experience with terrorism, and there were few models for Canadian politicians to study; they seemed not to know quite what to make of the FLQ until too late.

The FLQ grew out of the intense impatience felt by some Quebec youth with the democratic reforms introduced by the Quebec Liberal Party’s Quiet Revolution at the start of the 1960s. These reforms ended long years of strict economic and cultural conservatism under a powerful coalition forged by strongman premier Maurice Duplessis, and his Union Nationale party, with the overwhelmingly traditionalist Catholic Church and the anglophone minority’s economic leadership. The youth of most felquistes was spent in that rigid 1950s environment that left them restless, embittered, and militantly nationalist.

Neither reform nor separatist goals satisfied FLQ members, who spurned as “wet hens” even charismatic Liberal party reformers such as René Lévesque and the spellbinding orator Pierre Bourgault, a leader of the first staunchly sovereigntist movement, Le Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (RIN), forerunner of the Parti Québécois. Instead, their inspiration came from Marx, Lenin, Cuban revolutionary saint Che Guevara, and anti-colonial guru Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary classic, The Wretched of the Earth.

For felquistes, Quebec was not a province but a francophone nation beaten into colonial status while Anglo Canadians (and U.S. business interests) were contemptuous occupiers. In Fanon they found assurance that there could be no alternative to bloodshed to break such chains: “National liberation, national resistance, the restoration of nationhood to the people…decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.”

While some felquistes were immature goofs and hopeless at clandestine existence (the Laporte kidnappers forgot to stock up on food and had to live on tinned spaghetti most the time), Jenish also highlights more dangerous characters: the twenty-something master bomb maker Pierre-Paul Geoffroy, responsible for thirty-one bombings including the boldest blast inside the Montreal Stock Exchange; Paul Rose, ruthless kidnapper and elusive fundraiser through bank heists; and lead FLQ theorist and ferocious polemicist Pierre Vallières, author of Nègres blancs d’Amérique, whose power with words claiming francophone oppression won an admiring following among students and ­academics.

From 1967 on, I had a rare vantage point as a young Montreal Gazette reporter covering the then extraordinarily powerful and world-famous mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, and reporting on a city hall that often seemed under siege. Drapeau would be one of two key figures, along with Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, who pushed an initially reluctant Trudeau to impose the War Measures Act. I ended up not only covering Drapeau but the many riots and protests of the time. It was an exciting period—and bizarre as it coincided with the mayor’s tireless push for civic grandeur, from Expo 67 to the Olympics that arrived in 1976.

I assumed I remembered the era well, albeit through the rosy haze of nostalgia for a city I had loved like no other, but Jenish’s point about memory is well made—I was surprised to find in The Making of the October Crisis information about events I had been unaware of in the FLQ campaign or had simply forgotten. Over the years, like others, I came to underestimate the relentless grind of violence and growing mood of pessimism in official circles at the time.

Over seven-and-a-half years, the FLQ pulled off more than 200 bombings and was responsible for six deaths even before Laporte’s murder, dozens of bank robberies, and the theft of tons of dynamite. It stole combat weapons from army arsenals with remarkable ease and had little trouble setting bombs alongside major buildings, factories, and inside mailboxes across Montreal. Members hijacked a plane, forged early links with Palestinian insurgents, planned the kidnapping of three diplomats—pulling off one—while simultaneously seizing and assassinating a major political figure.

The book is very detailed, relying heavily on police documents and news accounts. But it is never plodding, for Jenish has a clean style and a keen storyteller’s eye for quotes. For example, one Montrealer blasted spinning out of his chair and across the floor by a bomb said it felt “as if I was in an old-fashion barn dance.”

Jenish relies on the astonishing stories of Robert Côté, who I used to think might qualify as having the worst job in the world as head of Montreal’s undersized and ill-equipped bomb disposal squad. We follow Côté as he dismantles waves of bombs scattered about the city, perhaps fifteen a month, some with only minutes to spare. Though often nervous, he keeps his fingers steady by refusing “to pay attention to the ticking of the clock” and over years prevents truly catastrophic loss of life and destruction. One car bomb he disarms outside the Bank of Montreal headquarters in the heart of the city would have reduced much of the area to rubble. The FLQ plans booby traps to kill him, but this remarkable man survives to receive the Order of Canada.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion here that although the crisis was terrible, Canada was extremely lucky to have avoided far worse by 1970. Counter-terrorism efforts faced daunting odds because of the almost comically lax official security at the time. The FLQ was able to steal near-unlimited supplies of very high-explosive dynamite by simply taking it from virtually unguarded construction sites and quarries, where whole crates of it were painted bright red and marked “Explosives.”

Incredibly, three successive Quebec governments over seven years failed to act to adequately insist on safer storage of explosives and to punish lax security. When new legislation was finally passed in mid-1970, felquistes showed their defiance by immediately walking off with seven cases of dynamite and shaking downtown Montreal with yet more bombings.

By the late 1960s, the FLQ had a seven-member central committee giving loose direction to normally two semi-autonomous cells, containing five to ten members each, that were active in Montreal at any one time. Jenish quotes one government estimate that a core of forty to fifty dedicated terrorists were aided by perhaps 300 active sympathizers who supplied financial aid and hideouts, along with 2,000 to 3,000 passive supporters. I was interested to see this figure as some politicians estimated a higher number, but this seems a reasonable estimate now.

While most in Quebec strongly opposed the FLQ, there was a serious split in society. Most worrisome for governments was the large number of Quebec intellectuals, prominent artists, show business stars, academics, labour leaders, and separatist politicians who mobilized committees in defence of FLQ prisoners and who invariably tended to load major blame for the bombings on society itself.

The underground movement was able to surf atop a growing tide of political and labour unrest in the streets. Montreal endured years of riots, including the massive pitched battle on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in 1968 during which Trudeau famously faced down waves of bottle-throwing hard-core activists trying to storm his review stand while panicky police, from my vantage point, responded with extraordinary brutality.

This history emphasizes how rattled Quebec society had become. Drapeau, whose own home would be bombed the next year, delivered a singularly uncheerful Christmas message depicting his city sinking into “dangerous and depressing…violence and disorder, rancor and conflict.” Claude Ryan, respected editor of the newspaper Le Devoir, said that “Quebec, at this moment, has a climate of intellectual, spiritual, moral, and social anarchy.”

To top everything, Montreal police, surly at the best of times, stormed off the job over contract disputes on October 7, 1969, just one year before the crisis. Joined by fire services, it was a mass desertion that threw the city into an anarchy of rioting, bank robberies, and widespread looting before troops and provincial police restored order. I still think this event had a much-underestimated impact on the official handling of the October Crisis as there were dark hints well into 1970 that police might storm out again unless new demands were met. Authorities were haunted by a fear that the front line of law and order could not be entirely trusted in a prolonged emergency, which made reliance on Ottawa’s power more crucial.

By 1970, the FLQ was convinced by the unrest of the previous months that the timing was right to expand their campaign beyond bombings and robberies into kidnapping and even executions by adopting tactics increasingly common among South American insurgents. In early 1970, police seized documents showing plans were afoot to kidnap either an Israeli or a U.S. diplomat. No effort was made to warn other diplomats they could also be targets, including British trade commissioner James Cross, who was snatched with ease from his own home on October 5 and taken away in a borrowed taxi by a cell called Liberation.

The general facts of the October Crisis, from early October to end of December, are well known. Jenish proves to be a clear-eyed guide through the twists and turns of ransom demands and denials, a manifesto broadcast, the internal disputes between the Liberation cell holding Cross and the Chénier cell that brutally murdered Pierre Laporte on October 17 after kidnapping him a week earlier.

The use of troops was likely inevitable because police were too exhausted and far too few in number to guard all diplomats, politicians, and public buildings. The mass arrests, on the other hand, are still hard to justify. Governments had reason to be highly nervous, as a growing tide of thousands of student and hard-core activists were rallying in open sympathy to FLQ demands for prisoner release and ransom. The situation felt dire, but subtler methods and fewer arrests should have been tried. I would have liked Jenish to explore this area more, but he is solid in showing how years of terror operations leading up to the October Crisis did little to prepare felquistes for an operation on this ambitious scale. FLQ theorists assumed governments would buckle (they did not), that francophones would start rallying to them (they were revulsed instead), and that they were the future (their time was up).

Had they avoided kidnappings and stuck to bombs, the FLQ might have gone on longer as a serious threat but instead they plunged into catastrophic failure. Within months, the FLQ gave up, with most members serving years in prison. Or in the case of those who had freed Cross, a mostly sad, homesick exile in Cuba.

“There was a lot of crying during the flight [into exile],” kidnapper Jacques Lanctôt wrote. “Everyone had a heavy heart. It was the first time we had left our beloved Quebec, which we had plunged into a grave crisis…”

Eventually, eighty-three militants and twenty-three sympathizers were convicted of a wide range of crimes. None talked to Jenish, so he relied instead on historic interviews and past writings. Some of the most prominent like Pierre Vallières and Paul Rose have died, a few became politically active on the fringes, but most settled into unremarkable anonymous lives in Quebec away from media—and any association with the word “terrorism.”

It will soon be a half century since the October Crisis, and neither Quebec nor Canada has much interest in reliving the “long nightmare” of the years leading up to it. However, countries can benefit from a perspective on their history—even a distasteful historical perspective—and this work brings an important part of ours back into focus.