Ideas and Impressions: The October Crisis – 50 years later

By Jason Moscovitz

It was 50 years ago this month that Canada was reeling from the October Crisis. By any historic measure, the use of the word “crisis” was not a stretch. When the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped British diplomat James Cross, and then kidnapped and murdered Pierre Laporte, a Quebec cabinet minister, quiet peaceful Canada shocked the world.

As a university student in Ottawa, it was an amazing moment to be on Parliament Hill the night the Liberal government under Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act which, in a free country like Canada, suspended civil liberties. When hundreds of Quebecers were rounded up, handcuffed, thrown into the backs of paddy wagons, and jailed without charges, it seemed so acceptable at the time. Polling in English Canada and in Quebec overwhelmingly approved the government’s harsh action. It should be noted that Laporte was murdered after the War Measures Act was invoked, not before.

On the initial vote in the House of Commons on October 16, 1970, two principled people were the only two to stand up and say no. They were both members of the New Democratic Party of Canada: leader Tommy Douglas and the soon-to-be leader, the Jewish socialist, David Lewis. It is so hard to imagine the strength of conviction it took to stand up against the herd.

Most historians agree the War Measures Act was an overreaction because the Quebecers thrown in jail were not, and never were, terrorists. They were artists, poets, musicians, university professors and union organizers. Most were arrested because they were separatists who believed Quebec should be a country. Since when was that ever against the law in Canada?

The terrorists were, in fact, precious few in number. You could count on your fingers the number actively involved in the events of the October Crisis. And while their movement never garnered much popular support in Quebec because of its use of violence, ideologically, many French Quebecers were on the same page. For all of them, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which began in 1960, was too quiet and too slow. In 1970, a growing number of Quebecers, especially young Quebecers, wanted to improve their lot in life.

It is likely no accident the FLQ crisis hit Quebec during the ongoing anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States. The FLQ crisis also coincided with the desegregation movement which led to all those marches for freedom and all those riots, fires and looting. The Woodstock Era rejected the status quo of a post-Second World War world of automatic acceptance of authority, whether parental or governmental. The freedom songs of the Bob Dylan generation translated and resonated in Quebec.

Fifty years ago, the FLQ crisis resulted from pent-up frustration of too many Quebecers needing to speak English to get a job because their bosses didn’t speak French. Although French was Quebec’s, and even Montreal’s, majority language, most English-speakers they worked beside didn’t speak a word of French. Unlike them, they didn’t have to learn the other language to feed themselves and their families. In 1970, the ticking time bomb was that immigrants coming to Quebec enrolled their children in English schools because they believed their children would be economically advantaged as adults by being English-speakers in a Quebec that was majority French.

The Marxist ideology of the FLQ was seen as extreme to a vast majority of Quebecers, but the messaging wasn’t. Big business in Quebec was English Canadian, or it was American, and Quebecers were often among the lowest paid labourers. The FLQ crisis happened for a reason, many reasons.

On the political side, frustration had boiled over just four months before the October crisis began. In June 1970, the Parti Québécois ran for the first time in a Quebec election with separatist candidates in all 110 ridings. The democratic process saw them win 23 per cent of the vote, which amounted to a measly seven of the 110 seats in the National Assembly. René Lévesque, the leader, was badly defeated in his own riding, which he had handily won three times as a Liberal – but in 1970, the immigrant vote turned the tide against him.

While the FLQ was dismissed as a fringe group of “sewer rats and bandits,” they nonetheless assured themselves a significant niche in Quebec history. They ushered in a time when separatists were no longer seen as radicals but rather as the people next door, and as the teenagers at the dinner table in all regions of Quebec. In 1976, just six years after the October Crisis, the separatist Parti Québécois won a resounding majority.

Fifty years ago, a decorated army general, a Québécois who fought for Canada in the Second World War and Korea, was living in Montreal. Soon after the War Measure Act was invoked, he woke up one morning and saw soldiers on his front lawn who had been sent to protect him. He phoned the high command and let it be known he didn’t need protection from his own children.

Fifty years after the FLQ crisis, Canada is very different but remains united.

Vive Le Canada!