A Commemoration Reviewed
"Quebecers in 1970 were not forced to choose between revolution and repression" — writes Professor Éric Bédard
QUEBECERS marked the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis two years ago. In the context of a pandemic, one would have thought that this commemoration would slip by under the radar. Yet against all expectations, it attracted a great deal of public attention — in Quebec at least. All the major dailies gave voice to surviving participants and carried substantial articles, sometimes spread over several weeks. What explains this level of interest?
The media’s extensive coverage is itself part of the explanation. At the forefront was the Quebecor news empire which owns the main Quebec dailies, Videotron cable company, and the TVA television channel, the most-watched in Quebec. Quebecor provided financial support and premiered a documentary, “Les Rose.” The Rose family was of course highly committed during the events of October, the brothers Paul and Jacques belonging to the Chénier cell, which kidnapped and assassinated Pierre Laporte, the deputy premier of Quebec.
Directed by Félix Rose (the son of Paul), “Les Rose” was very well received when it was released in August this year. At sundry indoor screenings, several political personalities of the sovereignist left took a moment to have their picture taken next to the display poster. Some, like National Assembly member Catherine Dorion of Québec solidaire, went so far as to raise a fist, an ostentatious sign of the revolutionaries of the 1960s.
Rose’s film is now available for free on the website of the National Film Board, which helped finance it. It taps into a rich vein of unpublished audiovisual archives to evoke the era of humiliation endured by many hard-working French Canadians, one of the underlying sources of anger which the FLQ tapped into. Some commentators thought Rose went too easy on the FLQ, an unfair criticism since the director fully admits his artistic subjectivity and makes no claim to offer an impartial and definitive account of the events of October or the history of the FLQ.
Other documentaries have also drawn attention. Another directed by Félix Rose, the series “The Last felquiste,” broadcast on a pay-TV channel of Videotron, offered a fascinating and well-done investigation by journalists Antoine Robitaille and Dave Noël into the mysterious assassination of François Mario Bachand, an FLQ activist found dead in a Parisian apartment on Mar. 29, 1971. For its part, the French-speaking channel Historia (Corus Média) presented “FLQ : la traque” (“FLQ: the Hunt”) a docudrama directed by Guillaume Fortin which took the point of view of the police and Quebec Crown Prosecutor Jean-François Duchaîne, charged by the Quebec government with shedding light on the events. On Radio-Canada, journalists Marc Laurendeau and Anne-Marie Dussault offered “Pour l’avoir vécu” (“To Have Lived It”), a radio series on their own reflections on the events.
The quality of these media productions has given them significantly more impact than that of historians or journalists. Books by Jules Falardeau (La Crise d’Octobre : 50 ans après, published by Édition du Journal de Montréal) and Jean-François Lisée (Insurrection appréhendée. Le grand mensonge d’octobre 1970 (“Apprehended Insurrection: The Big Lie of October 1970”), published by Carte blanche) were really syntheses based on secondary sources. The reissue of Louis Fournier’s account, FLQ: Histoire d’un mouvement clandestin, reprinted this year by vlb éditeur (and translated in 1984 as FLQ: the Anatomy of an Underground Movement), provided unpublished details and new documents, but nothing to transform our understanding of events. The same could be said of my 1998 Chronique d’une insurrection appréhendée. Jeunesse et crise d’Octobre, reissued by Septentrion this year.
The actors in the crisis did not bring out any books of great interest either. Certain participants such as Jacques Rose, Jacques Cossette-Trudel or Louise Lanctôt opted to give interviews rather than bring out new accounts of their youthful militancy. Only Marcel Faulkner (FLQ. Histoire d’un engagement (“story of a commitment”), published by Fides; and Robert Comeau (Mon Octobre. La crise et ses suites (“the crisis and its aftermath,” from vlb éditeur) took the trouble to write a book, but neither contained significant revelations.
THERE MUST SURELY have been significant demand for all of this. If the media, publishers, and booksellers concluded that the anniversary of the October Crisis was a big deal, it was because they were convinced that the events still fascinate Quebecers 50 years later.
The interest, no doubt, stems from the events themselves. Unlike France or the United States, modern Quebec was not created by revolution. Throughout their history, Quebecers have preferred classical liberalism over Catholic ultramontanism in the 19th century, the social doctrine of the Church over fascism during the Depression of the 1930s, social democracy over authoritarian socialism during the turbulent 1960s. In other words, Quebecers have always preferred reform over rupture. To see young people take up arms, plant bombs, kidnap famous people, and end the life of a prominent politician was absolutely unique in our history.
Today in an aging Quebec, still dominated demographically by the baby-boomers, the memory of these events may have awakened some nostalgia for an era that refused to compromise and that aspired to radical political and cultural change, even resorting to violence. The current political polarization, dominated by populism and Manichean narratives, makes simplistic solutions attractive. These memories may also revive, in some, the nostalgia for a pro-independence project coupled with an ideal of socio-economic transformation. In the eyes of the felquistes (the FLQ and their sympathizers), independence and socialism went hand in hand.
War Measures Act
But to remember October is also to recall the historic grievance surrounding the War Measures Act, decreed during the night of Oct. 15 to 16, 1970. Within a few days, police had arrested 497 people, many in the middle of the night. This is without counting the tens of thousands of searches carried out in numerous homes. If the violence of the FLQ was disturbing, the repression of the authorities was disproportionate, more worthy of an authoritarian regime.
This autumn, the Bloc Québécois asked for an official apology from the federal state. But the latter, through the voice of its Prime Minister, rejected the request out of hand, alleging that this liberticidal law had at the time been requested by the City of Montreal and the Province of Quebec, whose police forces were overwhelmed.
A refusal was of course dictated by Mr. Trudeau’s desire to preserve the memory of his father, who is seen by progressive English Canada as a great defender of rights and freedoms to whom Canadians owe in particular the re-foundation of 1982 and its august Charter, which is supposed to protect minorities. But to refuse to apologize for the suspension of the most fundamental freedoms in peacetime, arbitrary imprisonment, and the military occupation of Quebec, is to ignore one of the darkest pages of the reign of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
IN QUEBEC TODAY, becalmed since the election of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) in 2018, the October commemoration has reopened an old wound that has still not healed. Fifty years later many Quebecers still felt compelled to takes sides.
Through the fall of 1970, the partisans or sympathizers of Canada mourned the death of Pierre Laporte and the violence of the FLQ as unacceptable, but were careful not to condemn the use of the War Measures Act. For their part, sovereignists mostly ignored felquiste violence and focused their ire on police raids. And many adopted the rhetoric of certain FLQ leaders on the Quebec “blocage” of the time.
This “blocage” theory – the notion that Quebec was politically boxed in, cornered with no way out – is advanced by Paul Rose in his son’s documentary, drawing on a prison interview in 1980. To justify the use of violence, the former head of the Chénier cell claimed that Quebec in the fall of 1970 was at a democratic impasse. The repression of young people at the Maison du pêcheur in Percé, the ban on demonstrations in Montreal decreed in 1969, the “Brinks coup” during the Quebec election in the spring of 1970, and the disappointing performance of the Parti Québécois, thus in a certain way justified the kidnapping of two prominent figures and the assassination of one of them.
When you take a step back, Rose’s argument holds absolutely no water. Quebecers in the 1960s witnessed numerous structural reforms in the economy and in education. The Parti Québécois, after less than two years of existence, had obtained nearly 25% of the popular vote in the Apr. 29, 1970 election, which was considerable. Its campaign events drew large young and enthusiastic crowds. Sovereignists had a right to high hopes, as long as they were patient and kept up the work of mobilization.
Quebec in the fall of 1970 was in no way “blocked.” But neither was it faced with an “apprehended insurrection” or a youth revolution. These justifications by the authorities for suspending the most fundamental freedoms were based on rumours, fear, a certain climate of opinion, not objective data or reliable information. The strength of the FLQ was indeed rickety, its action improvised, its intentions confused.
Quebecers in 1970 were not forced to choose between revolution and repression, any more than they are in 2020. A balanced and peaceful natured people, they will always prefer order, reform, and unity. This is what François Legault and his government seem to have understood, and it is partly what makes him successful.
Highlights of the October Crisis
Oct. 5 Kidnapping of James Richard Cross, British commercial attaché
Oct. 8 Reading of the Front de Liberation du Québec manifesto on Radio-Canada
Oct. 10 Kidnapping of Pierre Laporte, Deputy Premier of Quebec
Oct. 15 Large assembly in support of the FLQ at the Paul-Sauvé Arena in Montreal
Oct. 16 Decree of the War Measures Act; 497 people arrested
Oct. 17 Discovery of Pierre Laporte’s body in the trunk of a car
Dec. 3 James Richard Cross is released in exchange for safe conduct to Cuba for his captors
* This article was originally published in The Dorchester Review Volume 10 Number 2 Autumn/Winter 2020, pp. 39-42.
Éric Bédard is a historian and professor at TELUQ University, the distance learning component of the Université du Québec. In 2020, Septentrion released a new edition of his book, Chronique d’une insurrection appréhendée. Jeunesse et crise d’Octobre (“Chronicle of an Apprehended Insurrection: Youth and the October Crisis”). His other books include a History of Quebec for Dummies (Wiley, 2013), and Les Réformistes: Une génération canadienne-française au milieu du xixe siècle (Boréal, 2009). He has a Ph.D. from McGill and studied international affairs at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies.