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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

October Crisis

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Name given to the events that occurred in Quebec in he fall of 1970. On October, 5 of that year, British Trade Commissioner,  James Cross, was kidnapped by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) and the government of Quebec was presented with a set of demands in return for his freedom.

Originally, the demands were:

  1. end of police search;

  2. publication of an FLQ manifesto;

  3. rehiring of the Lapalme employees;

  4. liberation of all political prisoners (23 FLQ members);

  5. denunciation of the informer who had led the police to the capture of a cell of the FLQ in June of 1970;

  6. $500 000 in gold;

  7. safe-conducts out of the country.

Eventually the FLQ concentrated on demands no. 1, 4 and 7.

Important as they were, the events of early October were not seen originally as tragic; they did not prevent Robert Bourassa, then Prime Minister of Quebec, from taking a pre-planned trip to New York to seek out American investments for Quebec. Ever since the early sixties, there had been trouble with FLQ elements who had espoused the causes of radical socialism and independence for Quebec through revolutionary means. They had always been perceived as marginal in Quebec society, as an inevitable outgrowth to the Quebec movement of social and national self-assertion of the 1960's. However, in the face of the refusal of the Canadian and Quebec governments to negotiate, another kidnapping (by a second FLQ cell) took place on October 10, that of the then Minister of Labour and Manpower, Pierre Laporte. At that point, Canada and Quebec entered into a feverish and very tragic phase. On October 15, the Canadian army was sent to Quebec and in the next 24 hours, letters were sent to the federal government by Robert Bourassa, Jean Drapeau (Mayor of Montreal), Lucien Saulnier (Chairman of the Executive Committee of the City of Montreal) and M. St-Pierre (Director of the police in Montreal) all expressing the belief that the law, as it stood, was inadequate to meet the situation and that emergency powers should be invoked. The convergence of all of these requests would suggest that it must have been the result of concerted actions (some have charged, since, that it was all a put-up job on the part of the federal government).

On the night of October 15 and 16, the federal government issued a proclamation that a state of war existed and, on the l6th, on the advice of the government, Parliament adopted the War Measures Act (Public Order Regulation, 1970). As news of the implementation of the Act and of massive arrests reached the kidnappers, Pierre Laporte was murdered under circumstances that are still not completely clear to this day. The situation dragged on for weeks and, eventually, after routine police work, James Cross was found, unharmed, on December 2, 1970. His kidnappers received safe-conducts for Cuba and have remained in exile until they returned to Canada in the 1980’s to face rather insignificant sentences.

The issues raised by the October events are many and complex; they strike fundamentally at the heart of our political system and of its ability to effect changes in the face of conflicting values. Many Canadians were torn on the issue of the curtailment of civil liberties through the War Measures Act. The position of the Canadian government was that it desired "to ensure that lawful and effective measures (...) be taken against those who thus seek to destroy the basis of our democratic governmental system, on which the enjoyment of our human rights and fundamental freedoms is founded, and to ensure the continued protection of those rights and freedoms in Canada" (Preamble- Public Order Regulations, 1970). In other words, contended the government, basic freedoms could only be protected by the temporary curtailment of society's fundamental rights; and the overwhelming majority of the Canadian people agreed with the federal government (87% approved according to a Gallup poll conducted in December of 1970. There was also a substantial majority of the population of Quebec supporting the War Measures Act).

That basic rights were curtailed can be easily demonstrated: the Public Order Regulations not only outlawed the FLQ but also permitted the detention of persons without bail and without being charged; arrests without warrant were permitted and no charges needed to be brought up for up to 7 days after arrest; that period could be extended to 21 days on the request of the Attorney-General of the province. Searches without warrant were permitted and property could be seized and held for up to 90 days. The infractions to the Canadian Bill of Rights were permitted by the government, and approved by Parliament and the Canadian people, in the context of a mass hysteria well entertained by the press and the politicians (Jean Marchand, an important Cabinet minister in the Trudeau government, claimed that there were 3000 terrorists in Quebec, hundreds of pounds of dynamite were supposed to be in the hands of the FLQ, and the establishment of a provisional government was supposedly being plotted in Quebec. The mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, claimed that his political opponents in the municipal elections -FRAP- were nothing less than a "front for the FLQ:"). More than 450 citizens were arrested and nearly all of them (435) were released later without ever being charged. A disturbing pattern emerged: for the most part, those arrested were separatists and radical social spokesmen. In the eyes of many, the purpose of the operation was to crush separatism - the legitimate legal movement- and to uphold the status quo in the socio-economic sphere. In an article written in Le Devoir on December 30, 1970, Claude Ryan, editor of the influential daily, and future leader of the Liberal party, summarised very well the impact of the crisis on Quebec and Canada:

"A tort ou à raison, un grand nombre d'intellectuels, de jeunes d'éléments nationalistes et syndiqués ont eu l'impression que le gouvernement Bourassa, sacrifiant les gains de la dernière décennie, s'était placé sous la tutelle du gouvernement Trudeau et avait raté par le fait même une occasion unique de s'affirmer. En même temps, il nous a semblé qu'il affaiblissait la position politique du Québec vis-à-vis du reste du Canada. Fait non moins grave: les gouvernements se sont, à leur insu, solidarisés par leur attitude avec des éléments qui s'opposent dans ce pays à tout chargement de fond et qui sacrifieraient volontiers les libertés fondamentales pour le maintien d'un ordre qui, de toute façon, craque de l'intérieur. [Translation: Whether right or wrong, a large number of intellectuals, as well asof young nationalists and of trade unionists, have had the impression that the Bourassa government, sacrificing the gains made throughout the last decade, placed itself under the tutelage of the Trudeau government and, thus, lost a unique opportunity to affirm itself. At the same time, it appears to have weakened the political position of Quebec vis-à-vis the rest of Canada. Another point to consider - one that is no less serious - is that the governments have, without realizing it, allied themselves with elements that oppose all fundamental changes in this country and who would willingly sacrifice basic freedoms to maintain an order that, in any case, is crumbling internally.]

(...) Nous refusons de croire que les immenses efforts accomplis depuis 1960 ne furent qu'agitation éphémère. Ils furent l'expression d'un peuple qui cherche obstinément son destin dans la voie d'une plus grande liberté, d'une plus nette affirmation de son identité. Nous relions a ce phénomène la plupart des crises que nous avons vécues. Nous avons la conviction que nous ne réussirons pas à sortir du climat malsain d'aujourd'hui avant que le corps politique, au lieu de les rejeter, consente enfin à assimiler les valeurs nouvelles issues de la révolution tranquille." [Translation: We refuse to believe that the huge efforts made since 1960 were mere ephemeral agitation. They were the expression of a people searching obstinately for its destiny in the path of greater freedom and a clear affirmation of its identity. Most of the crises we have witnessed were linked to that. We are convinced that we will not succeed to get out of the currentunhealthy climate before the body politics accepts to assimilate the new values that emerged during the Quiet Revolution rather than reject them.]

The best documentary account on the October events is

John SAYWELL's Agenda 70, University of Toronto Press, 197l.

For a justification of the government's position see

Gérard PELLETIER, La Crise d'Octobre, Montréal, Ed. du Jour, 1971, and

Robert BOURASSA, Les Années Bourassa, Editions Télémedia, 1977, chap. l.

For critical assessments,

Claude RYAN, Le Devoir et la Crise d'Octobre 70, Leméac l97l, and

Ron HAGGART and Aubrey E. GOLDEN, Rumours of War, New Press, 197l.

For a radical interpretation and background see

‘Québec 70. La Réaction tranquille’ Socialisme québécois, Nos 21-22, April, 1971.

See Also:

Chronology of the October Crisis, 1970, and its Aftermath

Documents on the October Crisis

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College