The October Crisis: a Summary

The October Crisis is the name given to a series of events centred around the kidnapping of two government officials by the Quebec separatist group the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) in Montreal during October 1970. Often viewed as a culmination of a campaign of bombings carried out by the FLQ over the previous seven years, the October Crisis escalated quickly resulting in the deployment of soldiers throughout the province and the only peacetime use of the War Measures Act in Canadian history.

The October Crisis is also notable for the affect it had upon public opinion, shifting separatist sentiment away from violent action and toward political campaigning as a means of achieving independence for Quebec.

The FLQ and the Quiet Revolution

As Canada’s second most populous province, Quebec’s unique history produced a powerful cultural division within the federation of Canada. Quebecers of predominantly catholic, francophone descent viewed themselves quite separately from the rest of the country’s mainly protestant, anglophone population.

On 10 September 1960, a group of influential Quebecer activists founded the Rally for National Independence (Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale or RIN) beginning a movement that would come to be known as the Quiet Revolution. During the 1960s and 1970s the Quiet Revolution saw a huge shift in social and economic power in Quebec and a surge in separatist thinking amongst the general population.

Against this background the FLQ (also known in English as the Quebec Liberation Front) was formed in 1963 as a Marxist-Leninist paramilitary group advocating the separation of the province of Quebec from the rest of Canada. Composed of recruits from various backgrounds, the FLQ had numerous cells throughout Quebec with some members even receiving training in guerilla warfare from sympathetic bodies abroad.

In 1966 the FLQ published a document titled Revolutionary Strategy and the Role of the Avant-Garde which outlined the group’s tactics including bombings and kidnappings. This belief in violence as the catalyst for change led to the FLQ being viewed as a terrorist organisation by the Canadian government and most other world governments. Between 1963 and 1970 the FLQ was responsible for 160 violent incidents claiming the lives of eight people and injuring many more.

The October Crisis

Flag of the FLQ

By 1970 the FLQ had claimed responsibility for over 90 bombings including that of the Montreal Stock Exchange on 13 February 1969 in which twenty seven people were hurt. With nearly two dozen of its members imprisoned, the FLQ launched a series of failed kidnap attempts against the Israeli and US consuls with the aim of forcing the Canadian government to negotiate for FLQ members’ release. On Monday 5 October 1970 a third kidnap attempt proved successful when British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, was abducted from his home in Montreal by two individuals posing as deliverymen. The October Crisis had begun.

Following Cross’s abduction, a ransom note was delivered to the authorities demanding the exchange of James Cross (pictured) for a number of political prisoners and the broadcast of the FLQ manifesto by all media outlets in Quebec. As the emergency services worked to locate Cross, the Premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, opened negotiations with the FLQ.

On 8 October, three days after the kidnapping, Bourassa arranged for the FLQ manifesto to be broadcast across Quebec in both French and English in a bid to buy time. Despite this gesture, on Saturday 10 October, with negotiations still under way, further FLQ members abducted Minister of Labour for the province of Quebec, Pierre Laporte while he played football with his nephew on his front lawn.

Alarmed by the second abduction, the federal Canadian government ordered the army to patrol the Ottawa region on the border of Quebec on 12 October. Although this move was intended to strengthen the government’s position and reassure the population, Wednesday 14 October saw increased calls from within Quebec to release ‘political prisoners’ in exchange for Cross and Laporte.

On 15 October, with negotiations at an impasse, Robert Bourassa made an official request to the federal government for the assistance of the army with the police investigation. That same day 3,000 students rallied to show their support for the FLQ; and union leader, Michael Chartrand, made a statement in which he claimed public support for the organisation was rising and that they would win because ultimately ‘there are more boys willing to shoot members of parliament than there are policemen’.

Fearing such bold statements were the prelude to outright insurrection, Premier Bourassa requested that Canadian Prime Minister Pierre-Eliott Trudeau (pictured), grant the government of Quebec ’emergency powers’. At 4:00am on Friday 16 October, Prime Minister Trudeau appeared in a broadcast announcing the enforcement of the War Measures Act, a statute first adopted during the First World War which allowed the Canadian government to use military means to ensure law and order during war or civil unrest.

Following the broadcast, the army was ordered to occupy several cities in Quebec and the powers of the police and military to apprehend individuals were extended resulting in almost 500 arrests. The following day, Pierre Laporte was executed by his captors.

The War Measures Act and the end of the Crisis

Following Laporte’s execution, the FLQ members holding Cross made a public statement declaring their intention to kill him if they were discovered by the ‘fascist police’ and altering their demands. In addition to the publication of the FLQ manifesto and the release of all twenty three FLQ members currently in prison, they now demanded safe passage to Cuba or Algeria along with a ‘voluntary tax’ of half a million dollars.

As talks continued, criticism of the use of the War Measures Act began to grow, with Quebecers denouncing the military presence and curtailment of their civil liberties. Nonetheless, the tactics appeared to bear fruit when, on 6 November, police raided the hiding place of a number of FLQ members believed to be responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte, making an arrest.

After several weeks of armed presence in Quebec, the October Crisis finally came to an end on Friday 4 December 1970 when talks between the Canadian government, the government of Quebec and the FLQ reached a conclusion. In the Canada Pavilion on Île Notre-Dame, Montreal, the site of the 1967 International Exposition which was temporarily made Cuban territory for the duration of the talks, it was agreed that James Cross would be released and that the five kidnappers would be granted safe passage to Cuba aboard a Canadian Air Force plane. At the time of Cross’s release he had been in captivity for sixty days.

Following the release of James Cross, the pressure on the government began to decrease. On 23 December, Prime Minister Trudeau announced the wind-down of the military presence in Quebec with the aim of removing all troops by 5 January 1971. The hunt for FLQ members continued however and on 28 December three more member of the cell responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Minister Laporte were arrested and charged.

The legacy of the October Crisis and criticism of the War Measures Act

The October Crisis was a unique event in Canadian history and continues to provoke a strong reaction in the country and the province of Quebec in particular. When the War Measures Act was implemented on 16 October, Prime Minister Trudeau was acting within his power as head of the Canadian government and at the specific request of the Premier of Quebec. Furthermore, polls conducted at the time indicated that the overwhelming majority of both English and French-speaking Canadians and Quebecers supported the use of the War Measures Act in protection of the public.

Nonetheless, the sight of troops, tanks and armoured vehicles on city streets gave the impression of martial law in the province and proved highly disconcerting to many Quebecers and the Canadian public at large. Critics of the use of the War Measures Act argued that Trudeau’s response to the October Crisis was excessive, even dangerous, and that granting police the power to arrest and detain individuals without warrants constituted a serious violation of Quebecers’ civil liberties.

The majority of the people arrested during the October Crisis were later released, but those who claimed the FLQ was essentially an amateur organisation accused the government of overestimating the threat posed by the terrorist group. This criticism finds modern parallels with the handling of terrorist threats and attacks today, such as the police and local government response to the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013.

To many supporters of Québécois nationalism, the abduction of a foreign diplomat and the murder of a government minister represented a dangerous escalation in the activities of violent separatist groups and the focus began to shift back toward political means of achieving independence for Quebec. In 1968 the RIN had dissolved and many of its members joined the new Parti Québécois, which won the right to form a provincial government in 1976. Over the following decades, support for Québécois sovereignty has waxed and waned but the events of the October Crisis remain an important if disturbing chapter in the history of Canada and its largest province.

In 2010, forty years after his abduction, former diplomat James Cross agreed to be interviewed by the CBC to talk about his abduction at the hands of the FLQ. A recording of the conversation is included in the CBC online digital archive here.

Liam A. Faulkner

Liam is the author of Ancient Medicine: Sickness and Health in Greece and Rome, published by Collca.