Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
How Trudeau halted the reign of terror
Thirty years later, the clearest image remains
that of a defiant prime minister standing his ground.
The War Measures Act was drastic,
but it worked, JOHN GRAY concludes
By JOHN GRAY
Saturday, September 30, 2000
Thirty years later, the memory of that October still evokes a certain pain and a terrible anguish. It was an autumn of brilliant sunshine and relative prosperity, and it should have been a time of hope and thanksgiving.
But October, 1970, became instead a time of turmoil unprecedented in the country. Terrorists seized a corner of power and a corner of legitimacy. Soldiers were in the streets and the body of a politician was in the trunk of a car. And a great many Canadians were simply scared.
It was the kind of thing that was supposed to happen in other countries -- the other countries that were the stuff of newspapers and television -- but not in the Canada that had just celebrated its centennial and dazzled the world with Expo 67.
As the years go by, it is harder and harder to explain what happened in October, 1970, to those who weren't around.
Hard to explain why the country's values seemed imperilled, why the country itself seemed in danger of collapse.
Hard to explain how anyone could believe that boring old Canada could be in danger of an apprehended insurrection, how the prime minister of the day could describe the city of Montreal as "seized in a reign of terror."
Of the images that remain, one of the clearest is of that prime minister, as cocky and defiant and tough as a Canadian prime minister has ever been, shrugging when he was asked how far he would go to combat terrorism.
Just watch me, he said. And Canada did, and so did the world.
The image seems especially sharp now because of the death of Pierre Trudeau, an old man from a different time, a figure of history.
His last public appearance was two years ago, a frail father grieving for his lost son. For those who were not there 30 years ago, it must have been impossible to see in that old man the brilliant and charismatic figure -- hero to some, fascist manipulator to others -- who dominated that great national drama.
That was long ago. For those who lived through that drama, those days remain clear and intense. But half of all Canadians are not yet 40 -- in fact, just under 37 -- which means they have at best a fleeting recollection of those days. For them, that period in Canada's history is strictly history.
That bit of history began on the morning of Oct. 5, 1970, when a gang of four armed men drove along Montreal's Redpath Crescent and up to the imposing house that was the home of the British trade commissioner, James Richard Cross, known to his friends as Jasper.
Within moments, they had invaded the house and emerged with the hapless Mr. Cross in handcuffs. They bundled him into a car bearing the dome light of a Lasalle taxi and they drove off.
As they went, one of them announced to a startled gardener across the street that they were the FLQ, the Front de libération du Québec.
Within hours, they had issued a swaggering communiqué that described Mr. Cross as "the representative of the ancient racist and colonialist British system" and set out a breathtaking list of demands.
They wanted the release of 23 "political prisoners" who would be flown to Cuba or Algeria, $500,000 in gold bars, publication of the FLQ manifesto in newspapers and on radio and television across Quebec, identification of the informer who led police to an FLQ cell and reinstatement of a group of truck drivers who had been displaced from the Post Office.
The FLQ was not born on the morning of Oct. 5. Its initials were branded on seven years of terrorism. Seven people had died and dozens had been injured. In retrospect, it seems impossible, but one bomb was planted somewhere in Quebec every 10 days.
The bombs were planted in places that might reasonably seen as symbols of capitalism or English-Canadian colonialism: government offices, Westmount homes, armed forces installations, RCMP offices, City Hall, great retail and industrial enterprises that bore English names, mailboxes, the Montreal Stock Exchange, the Liberal Club.
In June, a student had pleaded guilty to 17 armed robberies that were carried out to bankroll the FLQ. Fifteen months before, police had arrested a man whose home contained one half-completed bomb, 24 bombs that were ready and 96 sticks of dynamite. He pleaded guilty to 124 counts related to bombing.
Oddly, people learned how to live with that. As Frank Walker, editor of The Montreal Star, wrote: "A record of systematic violence, yes, but not a reign of terror, never an irreversible challenge to peace and order: to most Montrealers, in fact, not much more than intermittent spasms in the slow current of getting and spending, living and loving."
So nobody should have been entirely surprised when Mr. Cross was kidnapped.
In February, two men in a panel truck were arrested in Montreal when they were discovered to have a sawed-off shotgun and a communiqué announcing the kidnapping of the Israeli consul.
Then, in June, police raided a home in the Laurentians and found firearms, 300 pounds of dynamite, ammunition, detonators and the draft of a ransom note for the return of the U.S. consul, although, like the Israeli consul, he had not been kidnapped. The terms of the ransom note were the same as those for Mr. Cross.
If Montrealers had become accustomed to bombs, they were not accustomed to kidnapping. And, in political terms, what made the kidnapping different was that the fate of diplomats was the responsibility of the federal government.
Ottawa's involvement meant that Pierre Trudeau was suddenly a player. He got into politics in the first place to fight what he regarded as the excesses of nationalism, so fighting the FLQ was the call of destiny.
At first, not everyone took it so seriously. Many Quebeckers who were a long way from the FLQ were both amused and intrigued when the federal government allowed Radio-Canada to read the group's manifesto on air.
The public airwaves have probably never been treated to an attack as long and bitter and extreme. No major public figure, institution or interest group was not excoriated. The mayor of Montreal, the premier of Quebec and the prime minister of Canada were dismissed as a dog, a lackey and a fairy.
It took the announcer 13 minutes to read through an endless catalogue of what seemed like every grievance that had angered Quebec workers in the previous 10 years. This was not about hand-wringing, small-l liberalism or democratic socialism; this was a Marxist cry for revolution.
After slashing the wealthy and powerful, the manifesto carefully turned to the Quebeckers without wealth or power:
"Yes, there are reasons for poverty, unemployment, slums, and for the fact that you, Mr. Bergeron of Visitation Street, and you, Mr. Legendre of Laval, who earn $10,000 a year, will not feel free in our country of Quebec. . . .
"Yes, there are reasons why you, Mr. Lachance of St. Marguerite Street, must go and drown your sorrows in a bottle of that dog's beer, Molson."
In light of the manifesto, it was hardly surprising a few days later to hear radical labour leader Michel Chartrand say: "I have no more sympathy for Mrs. Cross than for the wives of thousands of men without jobs in Quebec at the present time."
After the crisis was over, Mr. Walker of The Montreal Star tried to remind English Quebeckers that there was a real reason for the manifesto and for the FLQ:
"One thing is to be stressed: The FLQ did not grow out of fiction nor out of some utopian hope. Quebec is a victim of its own past and of historic circumstances which left Quebeckers, as a group, economically underprivileged. . . .
"Not all answer with violence the unseen and unspoken rules which condemn them to poverty and neglect, which is fortunate for us who are the victims of neither."
Whatever the origins of the FLQ, what followed the kidnapping of James Cross had nothing to do with Mr. Bergeron of Visitation Street, nothing to do with the desperate drinking of Mr. Lachance on St. Marguerite Street or the predilections of the rich and famous.
The FLQ crisis was about power and how it could be preserved. That at least was what motivated the leaders of government in Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal.
Elsewhere in the country, the FLQ crisis is remembered in terms of civil liberties rather than power. But elsewhere didn't matter because elsewhere didn't have the power that was threatened by the FLQ.
The uneasiness caused by the kidnapping of Mr. Cross became serious alarm five days later.
Quebec's labour minister, Pierre Laporte, was playing football with his nephew in a park on the South Shore. A car with four armed men inside drove up, ordered Mr. Laporte inside and drove off.
One kidnapping was bad luck. Two was scary.
Later, it became clear that the FLQ, as an organization, was a laughable threat. It was more than anything else a broad community of young nationalist radicals, sometimes friends, who found each other and made common cause.
Far from being part of a sophisticated master plan, the Laporte kidnappers had been on a holiday in Texas when they heard on the radio about the Cross kidnapping. They immediately headed back to join the fun.
Led by premier Robert Bourassa, new to office and a stranger to the exercise of power, the Quebec cabinet retreated to the heavily guarded top floor of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
The fear of Mr. Bourassa and his colleagues was an echo of the letters from Mr. Laporte. He was a man who was desperate for his life, pleading with his premier to give in to the kidnappers' demands.
"After me, there will be a third one, then a fourth and a twentieth. If all political men are protected, they will strike elsewhere, in other classes of society. One might as well act now and avoid a bloodbath and an altogether unnecessary panic."
Two days later, soldiers moved into Ottawa and Montreal, ostensibly to support police forces grown weary of the task of protecting vulnerable politicians. In reality, it was a show of force.
The force was that of the federal government, and in his defence of that force, Pierre Trudeau said all he ever needed to say about the right of a state to protect itself. And he made clear his determination that it should do so:
"The main thing that the FLQ is trying to gain from this is a hell of a lot of publicity for the movement . . . and I am suggesting that the more recognition you give to them, the greater the victory is, and I'm not interested in giving them a victory. . . .
"I think it is more important to get rid of those who are committing violence against the total society and those who are trying to run the government through a parallel power by establishing their authority by kidnapping and blackmail. . . .
"There are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don't like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed. . . .
"I think the society must take every means at its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in this country, and I think that goes to any distance.
"So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representatives of the people, I think that power must be stopped and I think it's only, I repeat, weak-kneed bleeding hearts who are afraid to take these measures."
Three days later, in the early hours of Oct. 15, the federal government announced that there was a state of apprehended insurrection in Quebec and proclaimed the War Measures Act.
In doing so, the government gave itself powers that no Canadian government had ever done in time of peace. Retroactively, it made the FLQ an illegal organization and membership in -- indeed, virtually any involvement with -- the FLQ an indictable offence.
Anyone suspected of any offence under the War Measures Act could be arrested without warrant and held without bail for 90 days, after which a trial date would be set. A peace officer was empowered to enter any place and search without warrant.
Within six hours of the proclamation, police and soldiers in Montreal had swept up 150 suspects. Within 12 hours, 250 had been detained. Some clearly had some involvement with the FLQ; others were simply well-known nationalists.
The War Measures Act was too late for Pierre Laporte. On Saturday night, Oct. 17, a communiqué announced that Mr. Laporte -- "minister of unemployment and assimilation" -- had been executed, one week to the minute after he had been kidnapped.
His body was found stuffed into the trunk of the blue Chevrolet in which he had been taken. He had been strangled by the gold chain on which he wore a religious medal around his neck.
Quebeckers and Canadians generally approved overwhelmingly of the War Measures Act. Like Mr. Trudeau, they had scant regard for weak-kneed bleeding hearts.
Of those who were critical, the objections inside and outside Quebec were startlingly different. It was the difference between those who feared for civil liberties and those who feared for power.
Tommy Douglas, the leader of the New Democratic Party, set the tone for those from outside Quebec within a few hours of the proclamation of the War Measures Act:
"We are not prepared to use the preservation of law and order as a smoke screen to destroy the liberties and the freedom of the people of Canada. . . . The government, I submit, is using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut."
Some sledgehammer. Some peanut.
Inside Quebec, there was scarcely mention of civil liberties. Even those of towering reputation such as Frank Scott, civil libertarian and a father of the Canadian left, was on Mr. Trudeau's side on this one:
"I do not think we have to fear what they do to civil liberties as greatly as that threatened by the FLQ."
Mr. Douglas lived in Ottawa and had political roots nurtured in the West. He was not unsympathetic, but the internecine conflicts of Quebeckers were not his. Mr. Scott was a Quebecker; the events of the previous seven years had been in his backyard.
Three decades later, it is difficult to explain the climate of fear. But when labour leader Michel Chartrand said that "we are going to win because there are more boys ready to shoot members of Parliament than there are policeman," people believed him.
Mr. Trudeau's most effective critics in Quebec were the mainstream nationalists who saw the army and the War Measures Act as part of a calculated plot by the prime minister and his colleagues to suppress Quebec.
The symbol of that nationalist opposition was Claude Ryan, the publisher of Le Devoir whose habitually dense prose was devoted to the proposition that this was a Quebec problem that needed a Quebec solution, without meddling by Ottawa.
He did not want the FLQ crisis to be seen just as a criminal matter. It was a problem of far greater concern than mere criminal activities.
"There is a very considerable political and social phenomenon in the events of the past few days. If you try to understand it by just looking at it through the magnifying glass of the Criminal Code, you are bypassing the main issue."
Mr. Ryan was among those intellectuals who agitated publicly to persuade the Quebec government to exchange the two hostages for the 23 "political prisoners" whose liberty was sought by the FLQ.
Early on in the crisis, another journalist, Jean-Paul Desbiens of La Presse, had warned against such thinking, and he dealt with the reality of terrorism. His was a different world from that seen through the nationalist blinkers of Mr. Ryan.
"There is something even more disgusting than blackmail and that is to give in to blackmail. . . .
"The terrorists' strength depends on an understanding with the people. There is no such understanding here. There will be more acts of terrorism, but it doesn't take root amongst our people. It is still a marginal phenomenon."
The intervention of Mr. Ryan and his friends was more alarming in Ottawa than the activities of the FLQ, or so John Turner, the justice minister, claimed in his justification of the War Measures Act:
"We have also a series of bombings and violence, a rising increase in thefts of dynamite now available in some hidden caches in the province of Quebec. More disturbing, we have a type of erosion of the public will in the feeling among some sincere people that an exchange of prisoners for the victims of the kidnappings would somehow ease the situation."
In words Mr. Trudeau was to use later, he said there was "the growing feeling among the people of Quebec, particularly the citizens of Montreal, that they are living under a reign of terror."
Mr. Trudeau's Quebec critics never really faced up to the reign of terror or the erosion of the public will that persuaded some to propose an exchange of hostages for imprisoned murderers and bank robbers, albeit murderers and bank robbers who did what they did in the name of Quebec.
At first, René Lévesque, the leader of the separatist Parti Québécois, had denounced the murderers of Mr. Laporte as sewer rats. But, like Mr. Ryan, he also saw October as a struggle for power over Quebec.
"The bit of country over which we had any control has been swept away by the first hard blow. The Bourassa cabinet has stepped down and is no more than a puppet in the hands of the federal leaders. . . .
"This degradation of Quebec was intended -- quite consciously by some and instinctively by others. . . .
"This was a manipulation of the people of Quebec, and Trudeau behaved like a fascist manipulator."
Mr. Lévesque's judgment was not shared by many. As in the rest of Canada, opinion polls showed overwhelming support in Quebec for the War Measures Act.
After the first shock of those extraordinary measures and those extraordinary events, October, 1970, seems to have had remarkably little impact on Canadian public life.
There was an impressive array of apocalyptic predictions, but Quebec settled back into its role as the burr under the Canadian saddle. Six years later, René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois were elected, but Quebec remained in Canada.
The War Measures Act was not without cost. By the end of the year, 468 had been arrested, but 408 were released without charges. Scarcely 10 were convicted.
It is troubling to shrug off the obvious injustice to more than 400 people, troubling to argue ends over means.
But the legacy of that October 30 years ago is the bittersweet recognition that the War Measures Act worked. After seven years of bombs and deaths, there has not been a single resort to violence to achieve political ends since 1970.
Perhaps we will never entirely understand the real cost to Canada's political system, but perhaps in the end there was no cost.
Just watch me, he said, and we did.
March 8, 1963: Molotov cocktails are found outside three Montreal armouries where the letters "FLQ" are painted on the walls.
April, 1963: The FLQ is blamed for a number of bombings in Montreal, including that of a Canadian army recruiting centre where the watchman, W. V. O'Neil, was killed.
May 16-17, 1963: Several time bombs are placed in mailboxes in Westmount by the FLQ. Sergeant Major W. R. Leja is critically injured attempting to dismantle one.
1963-67: The FLQ is involved in more than 35 bombings, including that of the residence of Mayor Jean Drapeau.
1968-70: The FLQ is responsible for more than 60 bombings; a major blast at the Montreal Stock Exchange on Feb 13, 1969, injured 27 people.
Oct. 5, 1970: British trade commissioner James Cross is kidnapped from his Montreal home by four armed men.
Oct. 10: Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte is kidnapped by four men of a second FLQ cell in front of his house in suburban St-Lambert.
Oct. 12: The army moves into Ottawa to protect important people and government buildings.
Oct. 13: Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau suggests that the government will stop at nothing to combat a "parallel power which defies the elected power." Asked "how far would you go with that?" he responds: "Well, just watch me."
Oct. 15: Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa asks Ottawa to impose the War Measures Act.
Oct. 16: At 4 a.m., the federal cabinet proclaims the act, outlawing the FLQ and giving police sweeping powers of search, arrest and detention without warrant. By noon, more than 450 people have been jailed.
Oct. 17: The FLQ says Mr. Laporte has been killed.
Oct. 18: At 12:25 a.m., police find the body of Mr. Laporte in the trunk of a car in St-Hubert.
Oct. 19: The House of Commons votes 190-16 to approve the imposition of the War Measures Act.
Nov. 6: The police search an apartment in Montreal's west end and arrest Laporte kidnapper Bernard Lortie. His accomplices, brothers Paul and Jacques Rose and Francis Simard, hide in a compartment built behind a wardrobe and later escape.
Dec. 3: Surrounded in a north Montreal apartment, the kidnappers of Mr. Cross agree to release him in return for safe conduct to Cuba for them and their families.
Dec. 4: At 2 a.m., after the Cuban consul receives word that the kidnappers have arrived on the island, Mr. Cross is released.
Dec. 27: The Rose brothers and Mr. Simard are arrested in St-Luc.
1971: The Laporte kidnappers and murderers are convicted.
1978-84: Most of the FLQ members who fled the country return to face justice in Canada. Jacques Cossette-Trudel and Louise Lanctot arrive in December, 1978, followed by Jacques Lanctot, Michel Lambert, Alain Allard and Pierre Charette in 1979, Marc Charbonneau in 1981, Yves Langlois in 1982 and Raymond Villeneuve in late 1984. Most receive sentences of less than two years.
1978: Jacques Rose and Bernard Lortie are granted parole.
1982: Francis Simard and Paul Rose are paroled.