Monday, January 02, 2012

October Echoes in December

The Christmas season is now comfortably behind us. And a very good thing, I can hear some people say. While at the same time other voices intone, ‘We can hardly wait until next year’. I am probably somewhere in between. Christmas does have its pleasures.

This past Christmas, my partner Suzanne and I journeyed from Ottawa to Montreal for a Christmas-Eve midday dinner with members of her extended family. The dinner was hosted by her cousin and his wife at their home on Redpath Crescent on Mount Royal. Their home, purchased some five years ago, was in October 1970, the residence of the British Trade Commissioner James Cross. On October 5, 1970, Cross was kidnapped from his residence by two members of the FLQ, the Front de Libération du Québec. Ultimately, Cross was held captive for two months; he was finally released on December 3.

The kidnapping of Cross set in motion what has become known in Canada as the October Crisis. The events of that tumultuous time have been written about extensively in the forty years since. The CBC – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – produced a two-hour documentary, Black October, in 2000. More recently, an eight-part miniseries, October 1970, was released in October of 2006.

One book that I have read on the crisis is The Revolution Script, by Brian Moore. Moore was a very good writer with an admirable collection of novels to his credit. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Moore became a Canadian citizen, and eventually moved to California. He died in 1999. Although Moore eventually “disowned” the book – it’s sometimes described as a foray into the kind of “non-fiction novel” made popular by Truman Capote of In Cold Blood fame – my memory of it is that it explained the events very well, and also placed them in a meaningful historical context. I am unaware of any other fiction writer, Canadian or non-Canadian, who had managed to do that.

On October 10th, just five days after the Cross kidnapping, members of the FLQ’s Chenier Cell kidnapped the Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre LaPorte. Unlike Cross, LaPorte would not survive his kidnapping: on October 17th, he was murdered by his captors. His body was found stuffed in the trunk of a car abandoned near the Saint Hubert airport. He had been strangled to death.

The day before LaPorte’s body was found, the Premier of Quebec formally requested that the Government of Canada grant the Quebec government emergency powers to “apprehend and keep in custody” individuals believed to be associated with the two kidnappings. This request resulted in the implementation of Canada’s War Measures Act; the legislation permitted the suspension of habeas corpus and gave the police wide-reaching powers of arrest. The powers thus granted were eventually found to have been abused by the police in Quebec. It was reported that 497 people were arrested; only 62 were eventually charged with an offence, and of that number, only 32 were charged with crimes serious enough for them to have been refused bail.

It was the only peacetime use of the War Measures Act in Canadian history. Although there was widespread support in Canada, generally, and also in Quebec, for the imposition of the legislation, there were many who criticised the decision. Among those speaking against the imposition were two prominent English-speaking politicians, Robert Stanfield and Tommy Douglas – respectively, leaders of the Progressive Conservative and New Democratic parties in the Federal Parliament – and René Lévesque, a prominent journalist-turned-politician in Quebec who would, in 1976, lead the first (of several) sovereigntist (or separatist) governments in that province. Lévesque eventually led two provincial governments in Quebec, but never – obviously – managed to separate Quebec from Canada. He resigned as leader of the Parti Québécois in 1985.

The various perpetrators of the October Crisis were dealt with by the authorities, although in what might seem rather odd ways. The murderers of Pierre LaPorte eventually were tried and convicted, and served time in prison, being sentenced to twenty years and paroled after seven. The five known kidnappers of James Cross were apprehended, but under a deal negotiated with the provincial and federal governments, they were given safe passage to Cuba in a Canadian Forces aircraft. All eventually returned to Canada, but three of them lived in France for a time. Several served prison sentences in Canada for their role in the kidnapping. All are free today, and most are working in Quebec in various fields, notably in communications.

On a personal note, I was living in Ottawa when the October Crisis hit. I was politically naïve at the time, but I do have one explicit memory of the event. In October of that year – as an employee of the federal Department of Agriculture – I went to Montreal to attend some meetings. I travelled by train. While I was waiting to board, I looked back along the platform and saw the (then) Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jean Chrétien, striding briskly in my direction with a soldier by his side holding an automatic rifle at the ready. Chrétien, by the way, had advised Trudeau to invoke the War Measures Act, using the phrase “act now, explain later”.

Jean Chrétien would have his own Quebec-separation “October crisis” years later, in 1995, when he had been Canada’s Prime Minister for two years. A referendum on separation in Quebec that October was only narrowly defeated: 50.58% of Quebecers voted “No” and 49.42% voted “Yes”.

Canadians have been living with the possibility – or threat – of Quebec’s separation for going on 40 years now. In the aftermath of the last Canadian federal election in May of 2011, it’s tempting to think that the issue might finally be in its death throes. In that pivotal election, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority of seats in Parliament – 166 out of 308 seats – although with only 39.62% of the popular vote. The bigger news was the huge increase in the number of seats for the New Democratic Party, going from 36 seats to 103, and winning an amazing 59 seats in Quebec, where previously they held only one. The NDP’s gains were mostly at the expense of the dominant Quebec party, the Bloc Québécois, which went from 47 seats to only 4; even their previously popular leader was defeated. Also, a new Quebec political party has been formed and a major plank in its platform is that the sovereignty-separation question will be put on the “back burner” for at least ten years. As I write, the party’s leader is more popular in the province than the current Premier or Leader of the Opposition.

Is it possible that Canada will have an extended period of peace and quiet on the Quebec sovereignty front? One can hope.

And, with that fond and fervent hope, I wish everyone a Very Happy 2012.


Rick Blechta said...

Other than a couple of quick forays over the border with my family when I was a kid, my first real visit to Canada was in October 1970 when I flew up to Montreal to visit my girlfriend (now wife) at McGill. My plane landed a few hours after Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and I was greeted by a smiling redhead backed up by several unsmiling soldiers milling about Dorval Airport with machine guns at the ready. The bus trip back downtown was punctuated by a convoy of army trucks and several patrol vehicles, all onboard armed to the teeth.

And here I’d thought Canada was a quiet, law-abiding country where not much happened other than hockey...

Charlotte Hinger said...

I found the War Measures act a fascinating bit of history. Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, and of course many Americans were and still are uneasy over recent Patriot Act.

Victoria Reeve said...

Wow, this certainly brings back memories of the lead-up to the October Crisis. Alta Vista (in Ottawa)was a quiet neighbourhood, home to several members of the Corps Diplomatique and to government officials. At that time, the most disruptive occurrence in recent memory was that we kids took over Randall Avenue with our skateboards. All day. Every day (my belated apologies to the poor residents). Like many Canadians, we had carefree, comfortable and relatively privileged lives.

Suddenly, though, we were inhabiting this frightening, alien world, where something as mundane as walking to school meant passing armed guards and soldiers and avoiding mailboxes that might blow up. It was the first time I'd ever seen a real gun, and I remember fervently hoping that the follow holding it in his hands had his wits about him and knew how (and where) to aim. We were so scared of them that sometimes, to avoid turning our backs to the guns, we walked backwards. Of course, that only slowed our progress and prolonged the anxiety, so mostly we resorted to running as fast as we could to get to school.

Perhaps most of us would like to forget that very uncomfortable period in our history, but thank you for reminding us, Thomas. We would do well to keep in mind that the issues that led to the October Crisis have not been resolved - and we've already seen where that can take us.