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Chapter 9. Cold War Canada, 1945-1991

9.10 The October Crisis

FLQ bombing attacks intensified in 1969 and early 1970. The targets now included American-owned businesses; the homes and offices of elected and non-elected civic officials (including the City of Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, 1916-99); a traditionalist nationalist organization (the Sherbrooke Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste); and businesses engaged in labour disputes. A National Airlines flight from New York to Miami was hijacked and the Montreal Stock Exchange was bombed: 20 people were injured. Despite the arrest and imprisonment of nearly two dozen members of the movement, it continued to operate and, early in 1970, its members began to roll out a new strategy involving kidnappings and ransom demands. On separate occasions, police foiled plans to abduct the Israeli consul and the American consul-general in Montreal. On 5 October, however, the FLQ was successful in taking James Cross (b. 1921), the British Trade Commissioner in Montreal.

As this event elevated the separatist problem to an international level, Ottawa was directly involved. Prime Minister Trudeau’s response called for a coordinated strategy between the federal government, the provincial government, and the City of Montreal. This put Mayor Drapeau and, to a lesser extent, Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa (1933-1996) in the spotlight; neither was prepared to meet the FLQ’s demands for half a million dollars, the release of 23 FLQ members in Quebec jails, and the broadcast of the FLQ’s manifesto. Attempts to block the release of the manifesto were unsuccessful; several of the French-language newspapers reprinted it in full. Two days into the crisis, it was broadcast on radio with an eye to reducing tensions and working toward Cross’s release. The FLQ cell or unit holding Cross repeatedly made it clear that his life was at stake while, in the meantime, Montreal and Quebec authorities hoped for a successful police resolution to the standoff.

Five days after the kidnapping of Cross, a separate cell within the FLQ captured the Quebec Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte (1921-1970). Faced with the fact that one of their own was now at risk, the Quebec government took a more conciliatory tone. At the same time, the federal government began ramping up its protection of officials and buildings, putting more security (including military personnel) onto the streets, and engaging the federal RCMP more directly in attempts to track down the two cells. On 13 October, eight days into the October Crisis, Trudeau was informally questioned by journalists on the steps of Parliament. This became famous as the “Just Watch Me” interview.

“How Far Would You Go?”

This is a partial transcript of the interview of PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau conducted by the CBC’s Tim Ralfe and Peter Reilly of CJON-TV on 13 October 1970.

TIM RALFE: Sir, what is it with all these men with guns around here?

PIERRE TRUDEAU: Haven’t you noticed?

RALFE: Yes, I’ve noticed them. I wondered why you people decided to have them.

TRUDEAU: What’s your worry?

RALFE: I’m not worried, but you seem to be.

TRUDEAU: So if you’re not worried, what’s your … I’m not worried.

RALFE: I’m worried about living in a town that’s full of people with guns running around.

TRUDEAU: Why? Have they done anything to you? Have they pushed you around or anything?

RALFE: They’ve pushed around friends of mine.

TRUDEAU: Yes? What were your friends doing?

RALFE: Trying to take pictures of them.

TRUDEAU: Aha.

RALFE: Is that against the law?

TRUDEAU: No, not at all.

RALFE: Doesn’t it worry you, having a town that you’ve got to resort to this kind of thing?

TRUDEAU: It doesn’t worry me. I think it’s natural that if people are being abducted that they be protected against such abductions. What would you do if a Quebec minister another Quebec minister were abducted or a federal minister?

RALFE: But isn’t that one of the …

TRUDEAU: Is your position that you should give in to the seven demands of the FLQ and … ?

RALFE: No, not at all. My position is completely the opposite.

TRUDEAU: What is your position?

RALFE: My position is that you don’t give in to any of them.

TRUDEAU: All right. But you don’t protect yourselves against the possibility of blackmail?

RALFE: Well, how can you protect everybody that is going to be a possible target without a much bigger military force, without putting somebody on everybody in the country, and turning it almost into a police state?

TRUDEAU: So, what do you suggest that we protect nobody?

RALFE: How can you protect them all?

TRUDEAU: Well, you can’t protect them all but are you therefore arguing that you shouldn’t protect any?

RALFE: That’s right.

TRUDEAU: That’s your position?

RALFE: Right.

TRUDEAU: All right. So Pierre Laporte wasn’t protected and he was abducted. If you had hindsight, would you not have preferred to protect him and Mr. Cross?

RALFE: Well, second guessing is pretty easy, but you can’t do it.

TRUDEAU: Well all right, but I’m asking you to first guess now.

RALFE: No, because it’s impossible.

TRUDEAU: It would have been impossible to protect cabinet ministers of the provincial government or diplomats?

RALFE: I would suspect so, with all the diplomats there are in this country.

TRUDEAU: Well, we’ve got a big army.

RALFE: You’re going to use it up pretty fast at this rate.

TRUDEAU: What do you mean at this rate?

PETER REILLY: Six and seven. If I could interpolate something here. You seem to be thinking, in your statement in the House this morning you seemed to be saying that you thought the press had been less than responsible in its coverage of this story so far. Could you elaborate on that?

TRUDEAU: Not less than responsible. I was suggesting that they should perhaps use a bit more restraint which you’re not doing now you’re going to make a big news item of this I am sure.

REILLY: Well, the papers it is a big news item.

TRUDEAU: Yes, but the main thing that the FLQ is trying to gain from this is a hell of a lot of publicity for the movement.

REILLY: A recognition.

TRUDEAU: Yes 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.

REILLY: … the proposition that perhaps it would be wise to use less inflammatory terms than “bandits” when you talk about a bunch of people who have the lives of two men in their hands?

TRUDEAU: You don’t think they’re bandits?

REILLY: Well, regardless of what I think, I don’t think I would be inclined to wave a red flag in their face if they held two of my friends or colleagues with guns at their heads.

TRUDEAU: Well, first of all, I didn’t call them bandits. I called the people who were in jail now bandits, who had been tried before the law and condemned to a prison term and I said that you people should stop calling them political prisoners. They’re not political prisoners, they’re outlaws. They’re criminal prisoners, they’re not political prisoners, and they’re bandits. That’s why they’re in jail.

RALFE: But with your army troops you seem to be combatting them almost as though it is a war, and if it is a war does anything that they say have validity?

TRUDEAU: Don’t be silly. We’re not combatting them as if it’s war but we’re using some of the army as peace agents in order that the police be more free to do their job as policemen and not spend their time guarding your friends against some form of kidnapping.

RALFE: You said earlier that you would protect them in this way but you have said before that this kind of violence, what you’re fighting here, the kind of violence of the FLQ, can lead to a police state.

TRUDEAU: Sure. That’s what you’re complaining about, isn’t it?

RALFE: Well yes, but surely that decision is yours, not the FLQ’s.

TRUDEAU: Yes, but I’ve asked you what your own logic is. It’s to let them abduct anybody and not give any protection to anyone call off the police, that seems to be your position.

RALFE: Not call off the police. Surely the police’s job is to catch people who break the law.

TRUDEAU: Yes, but not to give protection to those citizens who might be blackmailed for one reason or another?

RALFE: Which must be half of the population of the country, in one way or another. I explained it badly I think, but what you’re talking about to me is choices, and my choice is to live in a society that is free and democratic, which means that you don’t have people with guns running around in it.

TRUDEAU: Correct.

RALFE: And one of the things I have to give up for that choice is the fact that people like you may be kidnapped.

TRUDEAU: Sure, but this isn’t my choice, obviously. You know, 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. And I think it is our duty as a government to protect government officials and important people in our society against being used as tools in this blackmail. Now, you don’t agree to this but I am sure that once again with hindsight, you would probably have found it preferable if Mr. Cross and Mr. Laporte had been protected from kidnapping, which they weren’t because these steps we are taking now weren’t taken. But even with your hindsight I don’t see how you can deny that.

RALFE: No, I still go back to the choice that you have to make in the kind of society that you live in.

TRUDEAU: Yes, well 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, but it is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of …

RALFE: At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?

TRUDEAU: Well just watch me.

Increasingly there were calls to open negotiations. Lévesque and his eventual successor as leader of the PQ, Jacques Parizeau (1930-2015), along with key figures in the Quebec labour movement and student groups appealed to Bourassa. They called on the premier to take the lead, make concessions to the FLQ, and rescue Laporte and Cross. Deadline after deadline (set by both sides) passed without resolution. Bourassa requested that Ottawa deploy troops for security purposes so that the Montreal police and the Sûreté du Québec could pursue leads and a thousand soldiers suddenly appeared on Montreal’s streets. The next day, 16 October, the federal cabinet declared that the FLQ crisis was now “an apprehended insurrection” and thus a signal to impose martial law under the War Measures Act. This is the only time in Canadian history that the Act has been invoked in peacetime and it provided police and the military with the ability to arrest and hold without charge (that is, it removed the need for habeas corpus). Over the next 48 hours, more than 250 people were arrested, but it was too late for Laporte. On the 18th of October his body was found stuffed in the trunk of a car. Six weeks would pass before Cross’s location would be disclosed to police and his kidnappers allowed safe passage out of the country to Cuba.

Pierre Trudeau and Robert Bourassa, leaving the funeral of Pierre Laporte, 20 October 1970. James Cross was still in the hands of the FLQ. (Beck/Montreal Star/Library and Archives Canada/PA-151863) http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&rec_nbr=3222729&lang=eng

Figure 9.45 Pierre Trudeau and Robert Bourassa, leaving the funeral of Pierre Laporte, 20 October 1970. James Cross was still in the hands of the FLQ.

The impact of the October Crisis on Quebec’s political culture and on Canada as a whole was substantial. Although Ottawa, the RCMP, and the Liberals in Quebec City took advantage of the situation to vilify separatists and sovereigntists alike, the experience of martial law pushed separatiste Quebecers closer to the PQ.[1] Police raids and illegal persecution of separatist movements (including the PQ) only served to harden attitudes toward Ottawa and the party’s fortunes further improved. Radical separatists who had formerly supported the FLQ were, in many instances, alienated by the movement’s outrages. With the crackdown on the FLQ and its marginalization, these voters had no place to go but the PQ. The spontaneous and unorganized energy of the FLQ disappeared soon after the October Crisis but it would take nearly five years to see the extent to which the PQ was the political beneficiary of these events.

Key Points

  • Beginning in 1969, the FLQ expanded its terror and robbery campaign from vandalism against federal properties to include attacks and robberies involving civic, social, business, and diplomatic targets.
  • In October 1970, British Trade Commissioner James Cross was kidnapped and held for ransom. When this failed to produce the desired result, another FLQ cell kidnapped Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte.
  • The October Crisis produced a large-scale police operation and compelled the federal government to invoke the War Measures Act. Canada was under martial law.
  • The murder of Laporte was followed by the release of Cross and the exile of his captors to Cuba.
  • The popularity of the Parti Québécois grew as a consequence of public disapproval of the revolutionary option and the performance of the Liberal Party, federally and provincially, during the crisis.

Attributions

Figure 9.45
Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Robert Bourassa attending the funeral of Pierre Laporte (Online MIKAN no.3222729) by Library and Archives Canada / PA-178340 has nil restrictions on use.


  1. Bryan D. Palmer, Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 364-5.

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9.10 The October Crisis by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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