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October Crisis

The October Crisis was a series of dramatic events triggered by two terrorist kidnappings that occurred in Quebec, Canada, during the month of October, 1970. It resulted in the brief declaration of emergency measures, some of which resembled martial law, under the War Measures Act.

As a prelude to the dramatic events, since 1963, terrorists calling themselves the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) had committed over 200 violent crimes, including numerous bombings that killed several people, one of which was a major blast at the Montreal Stock Exchange on February 13, 1969 that injured 27 people. Further, they burgled military and industrial sites, accumulating several tons of dynamite. After many of these deeds, they made their warnings to the public of more murders and bombings to come through an official communication organ known as La Cognée. These terrorists funded their activities with armed bank hold-ups.

By 1970, 23 members of the FLQ were in jail, including four convicted murderers. On February 26, 1970 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. One of them was a man named Jacques Lanctôt. In June, police raided a home north of Montreal in the small community of Prévost in the Laurentian mountains and found firearms, 300 lb (136 kg) of dynamite, ammunition, detonators and the draft of a ransom note to be used in the kidnapping of the United States consul.

Seminal events of the 1970 October Crisis:

  • October 5 - Montreal, Quebec: British Trade Commissioner James Cross is kidnapped by members of the "Liberation cell" of the FLQ. This was followed by a communiqué to the authorities that contained the kidnappers' demands, which included the release of a number of convicted or detained terrorists and the broadcasting of the "FLQ Manifesto". The terms of the ransom note were the same as those found in June for the planned kidnapping of the U.S. consul. At the time, the police did not connect the two.
  • October 10 - Montreal, Quebec: Quebec Vice-Premier and Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte is kidnapped by members of "Chenier cell" of the FLQ;
  • October 15 - Quebec City - The Government of Quebec, solely responsible for law and order, formally requisitions the intervention of the Canadian army in "aid of the civil power", as is its right alone under the National Defence Act. All three opposition parties, including the Parti Québécois rise in the National Assembly and agree with the decision.
  • October 16 - The premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, formally requests the federal government in Ottawa to declare a state of "apprehended insurrection" and impose measures resembling aspects of martial law under the War Measures Act, mainly the suspension of Habeas Corpus giving wide-reaching powers of arrest to police. (The City of Montreal had already made such a request, the day before.) These measures came into effect at 4:00 a.m.
  • October 17 - Montreal, Quebec: The "Chenier cell" of the FLQ announces that hostage Pierre Laporte has been executed. He is strangled to death and his body is dumped in the trunk of a car and abandoned in the bush near Saint-Hubert Airport, a few miles from Montreal. A communiqué to police advising that Pierre Laporte had been executed referred to him derisively as the "Minister of unemployment and assimilation." In a communiqué issued by the "Liberation cell" holding James Cross, his kidnappers declared that they were suspending indefinitely the death sentence against James Cross, that they would not release him until their demands were met and that he would be executed if the "fascist police" discovered them and tried to intervene.
  • November 6 - Police raid the hiding place of the FLQ's Chenier cell. Although three members escaped the raid, Bernard Lortie was arrested and charged with the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte.
  • December 3 - Montreal, Quebec: After being held hostage for 60 days, kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross is released by the FLQ Liberation cell terrorists after negotiations with police. Simultaneously, the five known terrorist members, Marc Carbonneau, Yves Langlois, Jacques Lanctôt, Jacques Cossette-Trudel and his wife, Louise Lanctôt, are granted their request for safe passage to Cuba by the Government of Canada after approval by Fidel Castro. They are flown to Cuba by a Canadian Forces aircraft. One of them is the same Jacques Lanctôt who earlier that year had been arrested and then released on bail for the attempted kidnapping of the Israeli consul.
  • December 27 - Saint-Luc, Quebec: The three remaining members of the Chenier Cell still at large, Paul Rose, Jacques Rose and Francis Simard, are arrested after being found hiding in a 6 m tunnel in the rural farming community. They would be charged with the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte.

About 3,000 students gathered in a Montréal arena to show their support for the FLQ. A great many Canadians were very scared; it was the kind of thing that was supposed to happen in some far-off dictator-run "Banana republic," not in modern, democratic Canada. In the middle of the crisis, adding to the fear were the comments of the powerful and radical labour leader, and vociferous FLQ supporter, Michel Chartrand who said, "We are going to win because there are more boys ready to shoot members of Parliament than there are policemen."

When asked how far he was willing to go to stop the FLQ, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau stated, "Just watch me!". Three days later he invoked the War Measures Act. As in the rest of Canada, opinion polls showed overwhelming support in Quebec for the War Measures Act. However, since then, the government's use of the War Measures Act has been a subject of debate in Canada, and the events of September 11, 2001 revived the issue. In 1970, due to the known existence of several terrorist cells and previous terrorist bombings by the FLQ, the Premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa and the Mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, requested Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to invoke the War Measures Act which would put the country under laws resembling martial law in regard to powers of arrest and detention in order to deal with the situation. Prime Minister Trudeau agreed and the act was invoked for the first time in peacetime.

Simultaneously, under provisions quite separate from the War Measures Act and much more commonly used, the Solicitor-General of Quebec requisitioned, from the Chief of the Defence Staff in accordance with the National Defence Act, the deployment of the military in "Aid of the Civil Power". Troops from Quebec bases and elsewhere in the country were dispatched in order to provide manpower, under the direction of the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec's provincial police force) to guard vulnerable points as well as prominent individuals at risk. This freed the police to pursue more proactive tasks in dealing with the crisis. As well, outside Quebec, mainly in the Ottawa area, the federal government deployed troops under its own authority to guard federal offices and employees. The combination of the increased powers of arrest granted by the War Measures Act, invoked by Pierre Trudeau, and the physical military deployment requisitioned and controlled by the government of Québec, gave every appearance of the imposition of martial law. A significant difference, however, is that the military remained in a support role to the civil authorities (in this case, Quebec authorities) and never had a judicial role.

Under the War Measures Act, 118 residents of Quebec who were known communist supporters or sympathizers of the FLQ, as well as those suspected of being part of it, were subsequently arrested and held according to the law for questioning, without charge or trial for several days. Pierre Laporte was eventually found murdered by his captors while James Cross was freed after 60 days as a result of negotiations with the kidnappers who requested exile to Cuba rather than face trial in Quebec. The cell members responsible for Laporte were arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder.

This incident proved to be the most serious terrorist attack on Canadian soil in modern times and the response by the federal and provincial governments still sparks controversy. However, at the time, opinion polls showed overwhelming support in Quebec for the War Measures Act. A few critics (most notably Tommy Douglas and the NDP) believed that Prime Minister Trudeau was being excessive in using the War Measures Act to suspend civil liberties and that the precedent set by this incident was dangerous. The size of the FLQ organization and the number of sympathizers in the public was not known. As such, the authorities had no real idea of the scale of terrorist events that could happen. Also, for years, the wording of the FLQ communiqués strove to present an image of a powerful organization spread secretly throughout all milieus of society. Supporters of the government's strong measures also point out that there have been no equivalent terrorist incidents since 1970 and it might well be because the vigorous response by the government has been a deterrent.

Regardless, the events of October 1970 galvanized a loss of support for violent means for Quebec secession that had gone on for nearly ten years, and increased support for the secessionist political party, the Parti Québécois, which took power in 1976.

For details and photographs of the people involved, see: Front de Libération du Québec.

The Quebec director Pierre Falardeau made the movie Octobre about the October Crisis.

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Last updated: 05-17-2005 03:56:55