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The October Crisis

Reporter Tim Ralfe questions Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on the invocation of the War Measures Act and elicits Trudeau’s famous “Just watch me” quote, Oct. 13, 1970. [PHOTO: PETER BREGG, THE CANADIAN PRESS]

Reporter Tim Ralfe questions Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on the invocation of the War Measures Act and elicits Trudeau’s famous “Just watch me” quote, Oct. 13, 1970.

Robert Cote is 74 now, retired and living in east end Montreal, the city where he was born, raised and worked most of his life. He is a former city councillor, Montreal police officer and Canadian soldier who served on peacekeeping missions in Europe in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. In the course of a long conversation about his varied and colourful career, Cote rhymes off certain dates with an ease and familiarity that suggests he is talking about the birthdays of his children or perhaps nieces and nephews: May 7, 1963; May 5, 1966; Nov. 18, 1969; July 12, 1970. But the dates have nothing to do with such pleasant events. On those occasions, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) planted homemade bombs in various parts of Montreal.

Every time the FLQ struck, Cote more than earned his pay. He was head of the police department’s bomb squad during the height of the FLQ crime spree, which lasted from 1963 until the end of 1970 and involved more than 200 violent incidents, including robberies, hold-ups, bombings and six deaths.

Cote either had to investigate in the aftermath of an explosion or dismantle the devices before one occurred. “The last one I dismantled was on July 12, 1970,” he recalls. “They left it in a stolen Volkswagen parked under the head office of the Bank of Montreal in the old section of the city. It contained 150 pounds of dynamite. I believe it was the largest bomb ever dismantled in Canada.”

Another date from that era is also deeply etched in his memory: Oct. 5, 1970. “I was giving a lecture at Windsor Station to a group of railway policemen from CN and CP when a bellboy brought me a message from headquarters,” Cote says. “James Cross, the British trade commissioner in Montreal, had just been kidnapped. I announced to the audience that the FLQ had adopted a new tactic—kidnapping.”

Earlier that day, as Cote drove to Windsor Station and thousands of other Montrealers made their way to work, a car was stolen from the LaSalle Taxi Co. A number of men later piled into the car and drove through rush hour traffic toward the exclusive Anglo enclave of Westmount. They ascended a steep, narrow, north-south street toward the summit of Mount Royal. The driver turned onto Pine Avenue, the last east-west thoroughfare on the side of the mountain—and then onto Redpath Crescent and stopped in front of number 1297—a two-storey, stone house where James Cross lived with his wife Barbara.

Cross, a native of the Irish county of Tipperary, was a fluently bilingual, career diplomat who had recently turned 49. He managed a staff of 28 from a large corner office in a downtown commercial tower and was described in a newspaper report as “an urbane, highly educated man who mixes easily with people and has a light touch in his dealings in the British government’s Montreal office.”

Police and protesters clash in Montreal, March 1969. [PHOTO: BORIS SPREMO, THE TORONTO STAR/THE CANADIAN PRESS]

Police and protesters clash in Montreal, March 1969.

Cross was upstairs getting dressed when the doorbell rang. The maid answered, toting a baby in one arm. “Birthday present for Mr. Cross,” said a man standing on the step. A companion next to him held a long, narrow brightly wrapped package.

The maid said she didn’t have a pen to sign for the gift.

“Here’s one,” replied the first man and pulled a revolver from his pocket.

The other tore away the gift wrap from the package—revealing a submachine-gun. “It’s the FLQ,” he announced and the two of them dashed upstairs.

At a home across the street, handyman Domenico Lasource was raking leaves. He had seen the cab drive up and stop. He paused for a moment and leaned on his rake and watched as the two men emerged with Cross between them. They pushed him into the car, then jumped in themselves. The driver pulled a U-turn and sped off toward downtown. That was the last anyone—other than his abductors—saw of the British trade commissioner for the next 60 days.

It was the start of the October Crisis and, 40 years later, another former Montreal police officer has equally vivid memories of that tumultuous autumn. Julien Giguere, now 75 and retired in the south shore suburb of Varrennes, was the detective in charge of the Combined Anti-Terror Squad, which was formed in 1969 to investigate the FLQ and included officers from the City of Montreal, the Sûreté de Québec and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “I arrived at the office around eight o’clock that Monday morning and at 8:30 we got a call about the kidnapping. I never went home till the following Saturday morning. I slept at our station on bunks provided by the army.”

That Saturday morning—Oct. 10—was the start of the Thanksgiving weekend and by the end of the day the FLQ had stuck again. Around 6:30 p.m., Quebec’s minister of labour and immigration, Pierre Laporte, was tossing a football with a nephew on the street in front of his home in St. Lambert, another south shore suburb. A beat-up green Chevrolet with four men inside approached. The car stopped. The men—Bernard Lortie, Francis Simard, Paul Rose and his brother Jacques—got out. They forced Laporte into the vehicle at gunpoint and then sped off.

Both groups of kidnappers were members of the radical fringe of the separatist movement that had emerged in Quebec. They intended to use their hostages as pawns to bargain for the release of so-called political prisoners—23 FLQ members serving time in federal penitentiaries for robbery, murder, bombings and other violent crimes. They also believed, naively as it turned out, that their actions might unleash a popular uprising against the Anglo-capitalist forces that had so long dominated the Quebec economy and, in their view, enslaved the French Canadian people.

A newsboy hits the streets in Ottawa, Oct. 16, 1970. [PHOTO: PETER BREGG, THE CANADIAN PRESS]

A newsboy hits the streets in Ottawa, Oct. 16, 1970.

But events quickly turned in directions they had not anticipated. The second kidnapping, by members of the FLQ’s self-described Chenier cell, shocked most Quebeckers and the vast majority of Canadians. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa moved quickly over the next week to take control and, in the process, they turned the October Crisis into one of the most controversial and hotly debated events in Canadian history.

On Monday, Oct. 12, the federal government posted soldiers outside the Ottawa homes of other potential targets, including cabinet ministers, opposition leaders and senior diplomats.

On the morning of Oct. 15, a Thursday, Bourassa and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau asked for troops to patrol the streets of Montreal. That evening, 3,000 students packed Paul Sauvé Arena for a pro-FLQ rally. They listened to speeches by leading supporters of the organization and repeatedly chanted “FLQ, FLQ, FLQ.” The rally was just a warm-up for a major demonstration planned for the streets of downtown Montreal the following day.

That protest never occurred. At 4 a.m., Oct. 16, the federal government invoked the War Measures Act on the grounds of an apprehended insurrection and by sunrise, Montreal police officers were conducting searches without warrants and arresting people without laying charges. Over the next 72 hours, 307 people were locked up. Within a few weeks, the number reached 497.

Paul Rose leaves criminal court after being charged. [PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS/MONTREAL GAZETTE]

Paul Rose leaves criminal court after being charged.

Provincial Justice Minister Jérôme Choquette unequivocally rejected an exchange of prisoners for hostages late on the afternoon of Oct.17, a Saturday, and that evening Montreal radio station CKAC received an FLQ communique that read: “Pierre Laporte, Minister of unemployment and assimilation, was executed at 6:18 p.m…. You will find the body in the trunk of the green Chevrolet (912420) at the St. Hubert base. P.S.: The exploiters of the Quebec people have only to behave themselves.”

The 49-year-old Laporte had been strangled with the gold chain he wore around his neck. Three weeks later, on Nov. 6, police arrested Lortie at an apartment in Montreal, but his three accomplices managed to escape by hiding behind a false wall they had constructed in a cupboard. By the end of November, police had located the Cross kidnappers at a duplex on Avenue des Recollets in Montreal North. They decided to negotiate rather than risk a confrontation with the heavily armed men inside the house.

The kidnappers agreed to release Cross unharmed provided they were given safe passage to Cuba. On Dec. 3, the British diplomat was set free while his captors, Jacques Lanctôt, (along with his wife and child), Jacques Cossette-Trudel (along with his wife), Marc Carbonneau and Yves Langlois (alias Pierre Séguin) boarded a plane at Dorval International Airport and flew into exile.

In late December, police captured Simard and the Rose brothers in a cold, damp tunnel they had dug beneath a rented farmhouse in St. Luc, Que., about 35 kilometres southeast of Montreal. Paul Rose and Simard were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Laporte. Lortie was convicted of kidnapping Laporte and Jacques Rose was convicted as an accessory.

Public opinion polls at the time showed that 85 to 90 per cent of Canadians, both French and English, supported the government’s handling of the crisis and the use of the War Measures Act. But many opposition politicians and civil libertarians did not. Tommy Douglas, leader of the federal New Democratic Party, accused Trudeau of using “a sledgehammer to crack a peanut,” while Progressive Conservative MP David MacDonald stood in the House of Commons and declared: “I am one of 264 people left in the Dominion of Canada who still have the right to say what I feel and believe.”

Civilians pass soldiers guarding Montreal’s city hall, Oct. 15, 1970. [PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS]

Civilians pass soldiers guarding Montreal’s city hall, Oct. 15, 1970.

A curious thing has happened with the passage of time. Most of those who have written about the October Crisis have condemned the use of the War Measures Act and consider it a blemish on Trudeau’s record. In Rumours of War, a book of nearly 500 pages published in 1971, Toronto newspaper columnist Ron Haggart and civil rights lawyer Aubrey Golden wrote: “A number of dangerous precedents were implanted in the Canadian political consciousness by the use of the War Measures Act. One was the notion that peaceful opposition to government policies should and can be suppressed by internment. Another was that in times of stress the law should be used like a club.”

A quarter of a century later, in a memoir published in 1996, longtime Conservative aide and adviser Hugh Segal wrote that “Civil liberties, including the right to free assembly, the right to free speech and other fundamental rights (were) suspended across the land.”

One of the few people to take a contrary view is William Tetley, now 83, who represented a Montreal constituency in Bourassa’s government and was a member of his cabinet during the crisis. Tetley, a retired professor of maritime law at McGill University, points out that political kidnappings were commonplace at the time of the October Crisis, especially in South America, and many governments exchanged prisoners for hostages—the result being that there were more kidnappings.

In Canada, by comparison, terrorist acts of kidnapping and bombing ended after October 1970 and Tetley argues many other governments adopted the Canadian approach. “The use of the War Measures Act was a very good thing,” he declares unapologetically. “The civil libertarians were all wrong. So were the 16 prominent Quebeckers who signed the petition urging the government to negotiate with the kidnappers. But they have never admitted it.”

Tetley wrote a book—The October Crisis, 1970: An Insider’s View—which was published in 2002 in order to challenge what he calls “the whole industry of revisionist history” that has arisen around these events. In it, he cites a legal opinion prepared for the Parti Québécois and dated Oct. 18, 1970, that should lay to rest arguments about the suspension of civil rights. “As members and as citizen,” it states, “we have the right to attend meetings of our party, to publicly express our allegiance, to publicize in printed form or orally the ideals, goals and policies of our party…and to criticize the government in place and the laws they promulgate, including the War Measures Act.”

Tetley cites another document, a tape made by one of the Cross kidnappers and retrieved from their hideout, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the federal and provincial refusal to negotiate. The recording, by an unidentified male, stated: “When we did the kidnapping we said: ‘Maybe in four or five days, a week at the outside, the government will agree to negotiate.’ What can you make of that, the all-out refusal, the final “No” of Trudeau…Bourassa…and then, what has our action achieved so far?”

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