Tuesday, April 18, 2017

O - The October Crisis

Okay, I find this particular story unusual because despite it being a huge deal for our country and the fact that it took place only a few years before I was born, I knew next to nothing about the Quebec October Crisis until I started doing research for this post. Maybe it's just because Newfoundlanders didn't care about it (we have our own separatist feelings sometimes) but I really feel like this should have been covered in high school history.

Quick backstory: The English and the French don't like each other. You probably know that. You also probably know that Canada was an English colony (after they seized most of France's territories after the Seven-Year War). The province of Quebec, however, maintains a strong French identity and culture. They never appreciated being lumped in with the rest of the Dominion, and jumped on any chance they had to rebel. There are many parallels between English/French Canada and England/Ireland, as you're about to see.

Tensions were particularly high in the 1960s (it was a rebellious decade everywhere). The Front de libération de Québec - the FLQ, a Quebec nationalist group reminiscent of Ireland's IRA - detonated some 95 bombs between 1963 and 1970, especially around rich Anglophone (English-speaking) neighbourhoods, killing at least 8 people and wounding dozens more. In early 1969 they attacked the Montreal Stock Exchange and injured 27 people. As the decade closed they became more brazen, and police arrested several men who had been planning to kidnap the Israeli and American consuls.

This is one of the guys they arrested. Remember him, it becomes important later.

They managed to follow through with another plot in early October of 1970, when the FLQ kidnapped both the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, and the Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte. Both were taken from their homes in broad daylight. Laporte was playing football on the front lawn with his nephew.

This of course made international news and sparked the nation-wide crisis. On October 12 the military was sent to patrol Montreal. On October 13, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of current PM Justin Trudeau) was interviewed by the CBC about the military presence and asked him exactly how far he was willing to go to end the crisis.

Trudeau famously responded, "Just watch me."

Which is a way cooler answer than whatever the hell he's doing here.

On October 16, Trudeau implemented the War Measures Act, granting the police far-reaching powers to apprehend, question and detain individuals without warrants, probable cause or even explanation. It was the first time such an edict had been put into place during peace time, and was a HUGE deal as it suspended many civil rights and protections.

The crazy thing is we have similar, ongoing "anti-terrorism" laws now and people barely bat an eye.

On October 17, the FLQ announced they had executed Minister Pierre Laporte. His body was found stuffed in the trunk of a car. Now proving they meant business, they also released a list of demands, including the release of "political" prisoners (FLQ members who had been arrested for earlier bombings), a plane to fly them to Cuba and $500,000 in cash. The stand-off continued until November 6 when the police raided the FLQ cell. Though they captured several conspirators, including one who would ultimately be charged with the murder of Pierre Laporte, more escaped with James Cross. Over the course of two months the police arrested 497 people. Sixty-two of them were charged, 32 of them with crimes serious enough that they were denied bail. The public was generally supportive of these actions, with polls at the time showing some 90% approval of the War Measures Act, though in the decades since there has been plenty of debate as to whether it was the right choice.

Quebec must have been pretty bad if soldiers in the streets garnered a 90% approval rating.

But here's where the story gets really weird, and reminds me how dumb the Canadian justice system is sometimes.

Though I don't fully understand why, the government eventually negotiated with the terrorists, and Cross was finally released on December 4. The five remaining known conspirators were released and flown to Cuba with Fidel Castro's approval. After months of tension, national intrigue, murdering a cabinet minister and testing the limits of human rights in the country, they let the bad guys go.

It gets even more ridiculous. Four of them eventually returned to Canada, with the government's consent, in exchange for standing trial. They were sentenced to two years (TWO YEARS!) but two of them only served 8 months before being released on parole, and have now returned to society and done quite well for themselves. Jacques Cossette-Trudel is a filmmaker who has received arts grants from the government to fund his films. His ex-wife, Louise Lanctot, received a doctorate from the University of Montreal, worked for several government health departments, and is now a successful author.

Louise's brother, Jacques Lanctot, actually served his full two years before going on to become a writer and publisher. Guess what?

Remember him?

Lanctot was the guy they arrested for attempting to kidnap the Israeli consul and then let him go. Of course. No big deal. It wasn't like he was a danger to anyone.

The only one of them who got any kind of comeuppance was Yves Langlois, and that was only because he was arrested in France for gun-related charges and spent two years in prison there.

Let's compare: Langlois got 2 years in prison in France for gun charges. His conspirators got less than that in Canada for terrorism, kidnapping and accessory to murder.

I don't know either, Pierre.

Quebec nationalism still runs strong in some parts of the province, and there remains a small but vocal portion of the population that would be all too happy to see Quebec be granted independence. They've tried a couple of times to legally move in that direction through referendums and policy reforms. Hopefully we won't get to a place again where militant rebels take matters into their owns hands.


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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