Book Review: “The Making of the October Crisis” by D’Arcy Jenish
Published by Doubleday Canada, 360 pp. $35.00
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
“Just watch me.”
-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when asked by reporters on Parliament Hill how far he would be prepared to go to protect Canadians from FLQ terrorists.
Exactly 50 years ago this morning, a drama began to unfold that was unlike any other this country had ever experienced After it finally came to a conclusion not quite ninety days later, one innocent life would have needlessly come to a tragic ending, and Canada as a nation would never be the same.
Early on the morning of October 5, 1970, the doorbell rang at the home of James Cross on Montreal’s Redpath Crescent. Cross was a British diplomat who had been posted to Montreal with his wife and daughter in February 1968 to serve as Senior Trade Commissioner, and just a few days before that fateful October morning he had celebrated his 49th birthday. When the family’s maid answered the door, she was confronted by a young man brandishing a revolver. Accompanied by two accomplices, the gunman forced his way into the house, and the trio of thugs proceeded to handcuff Cross and ordered him to follow them to a car waiting nearby.
The kidnappers then spirited Cross to an apartment in Montreal’s east end, where he would eventually spend the next two months in captivity. Immediately afterwards, they issued a communiqué to a local radio station announcing the diplomat’s abduction, and listing a series of demands that the authorities would have to meet in order for Cross to be released safely. The dramatic events of that October Monday shocked Canadians all across the land, and marked the beginning of a period of extraordinary tension that would be remembered forever after as the “October Crisis”.
Half a century after the fact, in a new book aptly titled The Making of the October Crisis, veteran journalist D’Arcy Jenish examines the roots of this unprecedented time in Canadian history, and recounts in detail the events of the three months that followed the armed seizure of the British diplomat. As the book shows, the kidnapping was not an impulsive action on the part of the hoodlums, nor was the desire for a lucrative ransom the principal motivation. Rather, the turmoil of the autumn of 1970 should be more accurately characterized as the culmination of a lengthy period of increasingly violent dissent that finally boiled over, and ultimately had far-reaching effects that no one could have anticipated. Barely ten days after the abductors made their move, the Ware Measures Act was proclaimed in Quebec, and suddenly residents of the province found themselves watching and anxiously waiting for what would happen next.
As Jenish discusses in his book, to fully understand the roots of the October Crisis, it is important to consider the events that had transpired in Quebec during the ten years that preceded that time. As the 1960’s dawned, the province was slowly starting to emerge from a period that would later be metaphorically described as La Grande Noirceur (“The Great Darkness”). This term was used to refer to the twenty-year period when the province had chafed under the authoritarian rule of former Premier Maurice Duplessis. In many ways, the Duplessis era had been a time of unprecedented economic growth and modernization for Quebec, but this had come at a price. The autocratic Premier brooked no opposition to his policies, habitually suppressed organized labour, and viciously harassed those he regarded as his enemies.
While Quebec benefited in many ways from Duplessis’ leadership, many Francophone residents of the province also felt marginalized and denied the opportunities they believed they deserved. As a result, following the Premier’s death in September 1959, Quebecers were hungry for change. They were also conscious of the fact that the world around them was rapidly evolving, and in the wake of the disintegration of the great global empires that began after the end of the Second World War, they took note of the fact that many former British and French colonies were becoming new nations in their own right. As the 1960’s took shape, a small but growing number of Quebecers began to think that political independence could be a very real possibility for their own homeland.
Inspired by Latin American revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, some fringe elements in Quebec started to believe that violence against the establishment would provide the most expedient route to realizing their dreams of a new nation. It was out of these roots that, in the spring of 1963, a new movement was born. This would be known as the Front de liberation du Quebéc, commonly abbreviated as “FLQ”. Over the next several years, members of the group would wage a sporadic campaign of bombings, robberies, protests, and general mayhem, climaxing with the 1970 kidnapping that sparked the October Crisis and the subsequent chain of events that would lead to the FLQ’s eventual demise.
In the spirit of those who they viewed as being their role models, the FLQ saw themselves as being freedom fighters who were on a mission to liberate Quebec from the dominance of colonial oppressors. They made their first strike against their perceived overlords on the evening of March 8, 1963, when crudely fashioned Molotov cocktails were hurled against the armories of three Montreal-area militia regiments, with negligible damage done. Six weeks later, shortly before midnight on April 20, a much more powerful bomb exploded in a garbage bin located behind the Canadian Army Recruiting Centre in downtown Montreal. This time, the consequences were far more sinister, as Wilfrid O’Neill, a 65 year-old night watchman who was only a month away from retirement, was killed by the blast.
Throughout the next several years, the FLQ continued its campaign of planting homemade bombs made of pilfered dynamite to attack targets that they believed would advance their cause. For the most part, the impact was limited to property damage, although in one celebrated incident in 1969 a bomb was detonated in the Montreal Stock Exchange, resulting in 27 people being injured. The terrorists played a skillful cat-and-mouse game with the Montreal police, and the psychological effects of their activities upon the city’s residents was significant. Even so, the revolution that they had hoped to spark failed to materialize, and when Robert Bourassa’s Liberals cruised to a landslide victory in the provincial election in the spring of 1970, it seemed as though the dream of an independent Quebec was now farther away than ever.
Over the course of that summer, two groups of dedicated Felquistes decided that their goals could only be achieved by making an even bolder and more audacious statement. This conviction led to the decision by the group’s “Liberation Cell”, led by Jacques Cossette-Trudel, to kidnap James Cross. The group’s plan was to use the Trade Commissioner as a bargaining chip to negotiate for the release of 23 of their compatriots who they viewed as being “political prisoners” and secure a ransom of $500,000 in gold ingots and safe passage to Cuba or Algeria.
The abduction of Cross shocked the nation, and in its aftermath, the authorities in both Ottawa and the Quebec Government adamantly refused the kidnappers’ demands to negotiate. This impasse prompted another group within the FLQ – the “Chénier Cell”, led by Paul Rose – to make a move that they believed would put additional pressure on the government. On the afternoon of October 10, accompanied by his brother Jacques and their 19 year-old accomplice Bernard Lortie, Rose kidnapped Pierre Laporte, the Deputy Premier of the Quebec Government, as he tossed a football with his nephew across the street from his home on the South Shore of Montreal. Suddenly, the game had changed, and Canadians across the country now feared that Quebec was on the verge of erupting into an armed insurrection.
For the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte erased any doubt that the time had come to play hardball with the FLQ. In the wake of this latest outrage, events started to move rapidly. On October 12, troops of the Royal 22nd Regiment were dispatched to Montreal to stand guard over Federal Government property. Three days later, the Quebec Government under Premier Bourassa formally requested “emergency powers” from Ottawa in an attempt to get the situation under control. On Friday, October 16, the War Measures Act was proclaimed, effectively placing Quebec under martial law. That same evening, Trudeau took to the airwaves in a televised address that made no bones about the government’s determination to take a firm stand. “I am speaking to you at a time of grave crisis, when violent and fanatical men are attempting to destroy the unity and the freedom of Canada” he told the nation. “Should governments give in to this crude blackmail, we would be facing the breakdown of the legal system, and its replacement by the law of the jungle”.
The carefree, relatively placid existence that Canadians had enjoyed for most of the 1960’s had suddenly been shattered, and the next ten weeks would prove to be one of the most tense periods in the nation’s history. Immediately after the War Measures Act went into effect, the Montreal police unleashed a massive dragnet, rounding up nearly 500 suspected FLQ sympathizers, most of who would be briefly detained and later released without charge. Meanwhile, on October 17, the body of Pierre Laporte was found in the trunk of an abandoned car. At the time, his kidnappers issued a communiqué announcing that Laporte had been “executed”. They would later claim that he had been accidentally strangled, as his captors attempted to restrain him following a botched escape attempt.
All the while, lawyers representing the Federal and Quebec Governments pursued intensive negotiations for the release of James Cross with the FLQ’s representative, a flamboyant Montreal attorney named Robert Lemieux. As these discussions continued, the Montreal police searched relentlessly for any clues that might lead them to the FLQ kidnappers. On several occasions, the desperados narrowly avoided being apprehended by the authorities. In one celebrated incident in early November the two Rose brothers and their accomplice Francis Simard escaped capture by the police by hiding behind a false wall they had constructed in the closet of an apartment.
Finally, after weeks of leaving no stone unturned, the police got a break. In early November, a young woman walked into a police station and confessed to being an FLQ sympathizer who had unwittingly become caught up in an armed robbery plot. She soon became a valuable informant known to police as “Poupette”. Two weeks later, an abandoned car was discovered on the South Shore of Montreal; when police ran a license check, they discovered it had been registered to Jacques Cossette-Trudel, the leader of the FLQ’s Liberation Cell. Further investigative work determined that Cossette-Trudel and his wife had recently moved to the Montreal North district. By piecing information together, detectives eventually determined that the Cossette-Trudels were living in an apartment at 10945 Des Recollets Street – the same place where they were almost certain that James Cross was being detained.
The apartment on Des Recollets was immediately put under round-the-clock surveillance, and during the early morning hours of Thursday, December 3, the surrounding area was sealed off and evacuated, and utilities to the apartment were turned off. By now, it was clear to the FLQ members that they had been cornered. At 2:45 AM they tossed a pipe onto the street containing a communiqué; it advised the authorities that they were ready to negotiate for the release of Cross but warned that the diplomat would be the first to die if the police attempted to use force. Following some tense negotiations, a deal was cut: the kidnappers agreed to release Cross unharmed in exchange for a guarantee of safe passage to Cuba. A few hours later, the members of the Liberation Cell were aboard an unheated Canadian Forces Yukon headed southbound to the island dictatorship, and James Cross was once again free after enduring a 59-day ordeal.
All the while that this was happening, the members of the Chénier Cell who were responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte remained on the run. Their youthful accomplice Bernard Lortie had been apprehended in a police raid in November, but the Rose brothers and their lackey Francis Simard sought refuge in the countryside, first in an empty barn outside the village of Saint-Bonaventure, and later in a remote farmhouse near the South Shore community of Saint-Luc. Early on the morning of December 28, the jig was finally up when the trio were discovered by police hiding in a tunnel they had burrowed underneath the farmhouse.
The October Crisis was over. But it would not be forgotten, and it would have a lasting impact on both the future destiny of both Quebec and Canada.
As 1971 began, the authorities moved quickly to prosecute the Laporte kidnappers, as well as other FLQ sympathizers who had been identified as accessories to their crimes. The members of the gang remained openly defiant during their trials; at one point Paul Rose, who represented himself before the court, accused the presiding judge of being “a whore of the establishment.” To no one’s surprise, all four were eventually convicted, with Paul Rose and Francis Simard being sentenced to life in prison for their roles in Laporte’s murder. By 1982 all of the kidnappers had been paroled, and would live out their remaining days in obscurity.
Meanwhile, the members of the Liberation Cell who had been granted safe passage to Cuba quickly discovered that life as guests of the isolated Caribbean dictatorship turned out to be a far cry from the socialist paradise they had envisioned. The Cuban authorities kept them on a tight leash, and the Quebecers spent their days basically under house arrest with little to distract them and virtually no contact with the outside world. When at one point they asked their Cuban hosts for something to do, they were duly rewarded with ten weeks of backbreaking labour during the annual sugarcane harvest.
After enduring more than three years of a miserable existence in Cuba, the fugitives from Canadian justice were finally permitted to leave for France, where they arrived in the summer of 1974 with $150 in their pockets and hopes for a better life. But they soon discovered that their prospects in La République weren’t much better than what they had just left behind. Subsisting hand-to-mouth on whatever menial jobs they could find, by 1977 the former self-styled “freedom fighters” decided they had had enough. In a lengthy letter published by the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir in January 1978, the group asserted that after seven years in exile they had paid their debt to society. The declared their desire to return home to Quebec, and implored the authorities to grant them clemency.
The Felquistes’ impassioned pleas didn’t cut much ice either with the authorities or the general public, and when they landed in Montreal amid a media circus in December 1978 they were immediately taken into custody. Their trial began in May 1979, and on the opening morning they pleaded guilty to all charges. In determining their fate, the presiding judge took into account the hardships they had enduring during their years in exile, and awarded the defendants short sentences in prison, to be followed by probation. Their stay as guests of Her Majesty would not last long, and like their compatriots in the Chènier Cell, after their release the former members of the Liberation Cell disappeared from public view and retreated into lives of comfortable anonymity.
At the time of the October Crisis, Pierre Trudeau’s tough-guy posturing was widely praised, and his sternly-worded condemnation of the FLQ’s actions served to reassure the many Canadians who feared the worst. But fifty years after the fact, scholars have now widely debated whether his actions in 1970 went far beyond what was really necessary in order to maintain law and order and safeguard the public. During the Second World War, Trudeau himself had studiously avoided venturing anywhere near the sound of gunfire, and as the Vietnam War was raging he had famously expressed the view that Canada should be “a refuge from militarism”, and opened the nation’s borders to U.S. deserters and draft dodgers. But when it came to dealing with the threat posed by the FLQ, Trudeau apparently had no qualms about using the military to make a show of force and convey the impression that he had the situation firmly under control.
It is true that in the wake of the October Crisis, the FLQ rapidly disintegrated, and as the fringe element disappeared, so too did any further attempts to use violence as a means of supporting the cause of Quebec independence. But some observers have since speculated that Trudeau’s heavy-handed actions during those fateful months, and in particular, his decision to arbitrarily suspend civil liberties and place the province under martial law, may in the long run have contributed to building popular support for the sovereigntist movement, and helped Rene Lévesque’s Parti Quebécois to achieve victory at the polls in 1976.
The book does not mention it, but the October Crisis was a situation in which many Ex-Cadets served. The CDS at the time was 2420 General F.R. Sharp, who had graduated from RMC in 1938 and later earned a DFC while commanding the RCAF’s 408 Squadron in 1945. In addition, many other Ex-Cadets also held key positions of responsibility at all levels of command. For the newly-amalgamated Canadian Armed Forces, the October Crisis would be an important formative experience in the careers of many young officers, and one from which valuable lessons about internal security and the role of the military as an aid to civil power would be learned.
As an overall assessment, I found The Making of the October Crisis to be an excellent, thoroughly absorbing read. Speaking from the perspective of someone who grew up in Quebec during the events that the book describes, I felt the author offered an insightful, well-researched analysis of the political and social roots of the October Crisis. What adds infinitely more spice to this book is the detailed recounting of the events of the crisis itself, which read like a first-rate thriller. The many complex and colourful personalities who were leading actors in this affair are described in vivid detail, and the longer-term implications of the events that transpired in the autumn of 1970 are given their just due.
The bottom line is that this is a book anyone with an interest in our country’s history simply won’t want to miss. I highly recommend The Making of the October Crisis as being a must-read for all Canadian military officers, past, present, and future.