In October 1970, two cells of the separatist Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), a revolutionary organization promoting an independent and socialist Quebec, kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte. In response, armed forces were deployed in Quebec and Ontario to aid the police and the federal government invoked the War Measures Act, temporarily suspending the civil liberties.

Story by D’Arcy Jenish

additional content by Legion Magazine

On the morning of Monday, Oct. 5, 1970, four young men riding in a stolen taxi cab pulled up and stopped abruptly in front of 1297 Redpath Crescent—a stately, two-storey executive-style home that stood high on the slopes of Mount Royal, overlooking downtown Montreal, the Saint Lawrence River and the South Shore suburbs beyond. This was the home of British Trade Commissioner James Cross, his wife Barbara and their daughter Susan.

Three men jumped out of the cab. One was dressed as a delivery man. He sprinted up a set of concrete steps to the front door carrying a long, slender, gift-wrapped package. He knocked and the Cross family’s Portuguese maid—a woman cradling a baby in one arm—answered.

“Birthday present for Mr. Cross,” the young man said. “You’ll have to sign for it.” “I don’t have a pen,” the maid said. “Here’s one,” he said as he pulled a revolver from under his coat. His two accomplices dashed up the steps. One acted as a lookout. The other tore the gift wrap from the package, revealing a submachine gun.

The gunmen hustled the terrified maid up to the master bedroom. James Cross was getting dressed and discussing the week ahead with his wife. They marched him out of the house at gunpoint, put him in the back of the cab, made him lie face down on the floor and sped away.

Plotting the crime

FLQ members (from left) Paul Rose, Jacques Rose, Francis Simard and Jacques Beaulne discuss their plans.

Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS/AlamyQuebec's Minister of Labour and Manpower Pierre Laporte

So began the October Crisis of 1970. The kidnapping of James Cross—by militants of the Front de libération du Québec—unleashed a chain of events that shook and shocked our nation.

These included the kidnapping five days later of Pierre Laporte, a senior cabinet minister in Premier Robert Bourassa’s government, his brutal murder at the hands of his abductors, and the proclamation of the War Measures Act by the federal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

That was followed by the arrest and detention of nearly 500 people, most of whom were never charged with criminal offences. Combat-ready soldiers began guarding politicians and other prominent public figures and government buildings and military installations in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City and several smaller Quebec centres.

Soldiers appeared first in Ottawa—the date was Oct. 13—and that led to perhaps the most famous confrontation in Canadian history between a journalist and a prime minister.

The CBC’s Tim Ralfe cornered Trudeau outside the House of Commons and questioned him aggressively about the armed soldiers in normally placid Ottawa. Ralfe pressed Trudeau on how far he would go to preserve public order.
“Just watch me,” the prime minister replied.

Photo: Peter Bregg, The Canadian Press

The CBC’s Tim Ralfe cornered Trudeau outside the House of Commons and questioned him aggressively about the armed soldiers in normally placid Ottawa. Ralfe pressed Trudeau on how far he would go to preserve public order.
“Just watch me,” the prime minister replied.

Photo: Peter Bregg, The Canadian Press

Shocking appearance

Children look on in wonder as armed soldiers arrive on the streets of Montreal in 1970.


Bourassa requested military assistance on the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 15—some 14 hours before the proclamation of the War Measures Act—to bring a measure of control over a crisis that was rapidly escalating.

Ten days had elapsed since the Cross kidnapping and five since Laporte was taken outside his home in the South Shore community of Saint-Lambert. The police had no idea where the two men were being held. Hundreds of officers frantically searched for them.

Thousands of college and university students were preparing to leave their classrooms to demonstrate support for the kidnappers. Quebec authorities—having dealt with numerous violent demonstrations as well as several riots in the years leading up to October 1970—feared that demonstrations would lead to rioting, bloodshed and chaos in the streets of Montreal or elsewhere.

The federal government quickly agreed to Quebec’s request for military assistance and, within hours, soldiers were on the move from CFB Valcartier, CFB Edmonton and elsewhere. Some of those soldiers—young men at the time, now aging and long retired—still have vivid memories of those tense days.

Within hours, soldiers were on the move from CFB Valcartier, CFB Edmonton and elsewhere.

Jean-Guy Bernard was a captain with the Royal 22nd Regiment—the Valcartier-based Van Doos.

“I had just graduated as a captain from the staff college in Kingston,” he said. “I was in Valcartier at the time the crisis began and I deployed the brigade.” Those Van Doos headed west on Highway 20, the Trans-Canada Highway, in a convoy of 200 trucks destined for CFB Montreal, a supply base commonly known as Longue-Pointe.

“I was at a function in the officers’ mess in Edmonton and received a message to go home and get [my] gear ready,” said Dave Krauter, who was 24 at the time and a lieutenant with the Canadian Airborne Regiment. “We flew out at midnight. There were C-130 Hercules aircraft all lined up with ramps down. We got off buses and straight onto the aircraft.”

All told, some 1,100 soldiers boarded six aircraft destined for CFB St. Hubert, located in the South Shore suburb of the same name. They landed around 6 a.m. the following day and the normally quiet base was soon buzzing with activity. Little did anyone know that the FLQ’s four-member Chénier Cell was holding Laporte in a shabby bungalow at 5630 rue Armstrong, less than two kilometres from the base.

Laporte’s ordeal ended late in the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 17. He made a frantic attempt to escape and, while trying to restrain him, two of the kidnappers strangled him. They dumped his body in the trunk of a beat-up blue Chevrolet and abandoned the vehicle in the parking lot of Won-Del Aviation, a small company within sight of CFB St. Hubert.

Quebec’s Minister of Labour and Manpower Pierre Laporte is surrounded by his family as he speaks to the media from his Montreal home.

The Canadian Press/Montreal Gazette/06075387

The murder shocked the nation, led to a collective outpouring of grief in Quebec, and raised tensions to new levels. Tensions subsided, however, as days turned to weeks without any resolution or escalation of the crisis. Soldiers spent days and nights on guard duty, sometimes shivering in the cold, sometimes shaking off tedium. “We worked in 24-hour shifts,” said Krauter. “For 24 hours, you weren’t able to take off your boots.”

“I was on duty for 24 hours, guarding the home of Bourassa’s sister-in-law,” said former Van Doo René Boucher. “We would have one guy inside their home and one guy outside 24 hours a day.”

Apart from guard duty, soldiers conducted joint operations—usually searches—with police officers. The provincial Sûreté du Québec (SQ) established a command centre at its headquarters on rue Parthenais in east-end Montreal and senior military officers worked with their SQ counterparts and the Montreal Police Service to plan operations.

When conducting searches, soldiers formed a cordon around a building or area to be searched and prevented anyone from entering or leaving while police officers looked for FLQ suspects.

“One of the searches was in a wooded area on the island of Montreal,” recalls Bill Tremain, then 22 and a Canadian Airborne Regiment member. “It was early morning, around 4 a.m., and the sun was just starting to come up.

“We were all carrying loaded weapons and I’m standing on this pathway and out comes this Volkswagen Beetle with a guy and a girl in it. An officer ordered the vehicle to stop, but the guy’s yelling at me in French. We don’t speak French. They don’t speak English. The guy stops and rolls down his window and the officer puts a gun to his head and yells, ‘Get out now.’ He understood that. These two were out in the woods having some fun and were driving out in the morning.”

British Trade Commissioner James Cross plays solitaire while he sits in captivity.

The Canadian Press/905916

Some 5,000 troops were deployed to protect Hydro-Québec property and armouries and other military installations, said Bernard. The FLQ may have posed little or no threat beyond the large cities, but many residents of smaller centres were still on edge.

“At the time, it was hunting season,” said Bernard. “We were receiving reports of machine-gun fire from residents in rural areas. We had to send reconnaissance patrols out to confirm the shots were fired by hunters.”

Troops deployed in Ottawa, meanwhile, protected some of the leading figures in Canadian politics. Jim Hemlin, a member of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery stationed at CFB Petawawa, was on duty in the nation’s capital from mid-October until shortly before Christmas. At various times, he was assigned to John Diefenbaker and his wife Olive, John Turner and his family, Governor-General Roland Michener, and Eleanor (Nelly) Adams Martin, the wife of Paul Martin Sr.

“We were sitting in Mrs. Martin’s family room one day watching TV and she asked when was the last time you talked to your wife,” said Hemlin. “I said I haven’t talked to her since I came down here. She said: ‘What’s your phone number. You’re going to talk to her right now.’ She dialed and handed me the phone.”

Photo: Peter Bregg, The Canadian Press

“For us, it was hard to hear about the ‘occupation of Quebec.”

Most of those who served during the October Crisis were on duty seven days a week and put in a lot of overtime. But they made it home for Christmas. On Dec. 3, the kidnappers holding James Cross agreed to release the diplomat in exchange for a flight to Cuba and years of exile. By the end of 1970, all four Laporte kidnappers were behind bars. They eventually received prison sentences ranging from eight years to life.

That was the end of the FLQ, but not the story. At the time, the vast majority of Canadians, including Quebecers, supported the War Measures Act, the arbitrary arrest of nearly 500 people and the presence of soldiers on the streets. But, with the passage of time, sovereigntist politicians and sympathizers have cast these events in a darker light, asserting that the federal government used the October Crisis as a pretext for crushing the independence movement. They refer to the role of the military as “the occupation of Quebec,” which doesn’t sit well with the troops who served their country and their fellow citizens.

“For us, it was hard to hear about the ‘the occupation of Quebec,’” said Boucher. “After the crisis, people were really upset. When we were with our families, the discussion would start. Why would the federal government get involved in this? Why did you go? We were caught between the two. We served the federal government, but we were from Quebec. We had to defend our people.”


paul rose

Leader of the FLQ Chénier Cell

In 1971, Paul Rose was convicted in the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte, the Quebec minister of labour, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was paroled in 1982.

bernard lortie

FLQ Chénier Cell member

In 1971, Bernard Lortie was convicted of kidnapping and was sentenced to 20 years in jail. He was paroled in 1978.

jacques rose

FLQ Chénier Cell member

In 1973, Jacques Rose was acquitted of the murder of Laporte but was convicted of being an accessory after the fact in the kidnapping. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and was paroled in 1978.

francis simard

FLQ Chénier Cell member

In 1971, Francis Simard was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Pierre Laporte. He was paroled in 1982.

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