On March 26, 2007, in an event that went largely unnoticed (or, if noticed, generally misunderstood) by the American media, the Parti Québecois, which stood for the independence of Québec from Canada and which had for over 30 years been the most important force on the Québec political scene, was relegated to third party status in the provincial legislature. The significance went well beyond simply the reduction of the “separatist threat” and of any possible complications to the political and economic order in North America its success might have entailed. For the story of its rise, and at least temporary fall, also contains a powerful lesson for the conduct today’s Terror War, when the actions of a handful of violent fanatics are seized upon by the powers that be as a pretext to advance a domestic political agenda and/or to try to discredit a legitimate political challenge with unanticipated and, more often than not unwelcome, results.
After 9/11, the U.S. mobilized to meet the al-Qa’idah threat on two fronts. While the military one created the best photo ops, perhaps more important for the long haul was a set of legal initiatives to take the handcuffs off the police and intelligence agencies. These changes were necessary, the authorities grimly told the public, to help round up the sleeper cells Usama bin Laden had planted across the U.S. before their alarm clocks rang, and to find and freeze his hoards of terror dollars before they could be mobilized for a repeat performance. Unprecedented threats required tough new responses. And what threat could be more unprecedented than the magical emergence of a giant hierarchically-structured Transnational of Terror with affiliates from Afghanistan to Zanzibar and with oodles of boodle to finance terror across the globe, including a program to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction?-
However, the notion that “the world changed” on 9/11 may say more about America’s ignorance of anything outside its own borders than it does about historical reality. The West’s first post-modern War on Terror was actually declared some three decades before 9/11 by the government of another rather more obscure country only a short distance north. There, much as had allegedly happened to the U.S. when faced with the looming menace of al-Qa’idah, civil society had reputedly been put under siege by interlocking terror cells in a conspiracy inspired by foreign ideologues and financed partly by domestic crime, partly by secret contributions from hostile countries. The concerned government responded, much as did that of the U.S. after 9/11, by a deploying its armed forces (albeit to patrol the streets at home rather than to drop bombs on rag-heads abroad) and by invoking measures similar in spirit to the Patriot Act. These were directed not just against the perpetrators of terrorist acts but also against those who provided material support, financial or logistical, or who simply proselytized in favor.
Yet back then the problem was ultimately resolved, not by the military intervention or extraordinary legislation, but by routine police work under the terms of conventional law; while public outrage at the terrorist acts in the short run together with a profound change in underlying political and social conditions in the long run sufficed to prevent any recurrence.
Vive le Québec Libre!
On October 16, 1970, after two political kidnappings in Montréal, the late Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, a man renowned as a passionate defender of liberal values, proclaimed, with the near unanimous support of his Parliament, the War Measures Act. It was a piece of legislation dating from 1914, previously used only in the two world wars or their immediate aftermath, for example, to help crush the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. In effect the entire country, which, but for a small role in Korea in the early 1950s, had been at peace for 25 years, was again officially at war. Canada, Trudeau and other senior government figures insisted, was facing an “apprehended insurrection,” the product of a “seditious conspiracy.” Even before the War Measures Act was invoked, the Canadian army had been sent to patrol the streets of Montréal and to guard certain political leaders in Ottawa. (Others who were denied military protection protested at the apparent belittling of their status until they, too, got to pose for their neighbors with a couple of bored soldiers on their front lawn.) After the Act went into force, normal civil rights with respect to things like political protest along with major restraints on police power were suspended.
The initiating event had been the kidnapping by a group of self-proclaimed members of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) of James Cross, a British diplomat, from his home on Montréal’s elegant Redpath Crescent. Their most important demands for his freedom were: the release of 23 “political prisoners” (all convicted of bombings, robberies and murders) held in Québec prisons; sanctuary in either Algeria or Cuba for kidnappers and released prisoners alike; the rehiring of postal workers recently fired by the federal government; $500,000 in gold bars; and the reading over the most popular radio channel of the FLQ manifesto, a hodge-podge of crude Marxist slogans and patriotic incantations based on a rather ideosyncratic – infantile might be a better term – reading of Québec’s history. The most widely read of the “radical” Québec political literature of the time either invoked a monolithic Anglophone conspiracy hypothesis to explain Quebéc’s apparent misfortunes (as in Léandre Bergeron’s Petit Manuel d’Histoire du Québec) or drew absurd analogies between the situation of American blacks and Canada’s francophones (as in Pierre Vallière’s Les nègres blancs d’Amérique).
At first, responsibility for handling the crisis rested with the government of Québec; and it, with the support of major opinion makers, was inclined to negotiate. While the matter was certainly treated as urgent, it was left to the provincial police (the Québec Sureté) to resolve. But then, convinced that the government was dragging its feet as the cops searched for the hideout, and worried that the original set of kidnappers was backing off from critical demands, another group of FLQ “members” who had been in the U.S., reversed their car and headed home, trying to pick up some weapons en route. Back in Montréal they kidnapped Pierre Laporte, Québec’s Minister of Labour and Immigration and probably the most powerful political personage in the province after its Prime Minister. In response, the federal government proclaimed the War Measures Act. A few days later Laporte’s strangled body was found in the trunk of an abandoned car.
The imposition of wartime emergency regulations subsequently became the stuff of political legend. To staunch federalists it was a shining example of standing firm to face down the radical tide threatening to engulf Judaeo-Christian Civilization. To separatist leaders, it was a federal conspiracy to thwart democratic mass action. Indeed some, anticipating the spirit of post-9/11 conspiracy theories, claimed that the entire crisis was concocted by the feds who had infiltrated and manipulated the FLQ to produce just such an atrocity in order to discredit legal separatists and pave the way for military rule in Québec. Although some federalist leaders were certainly delighted at what they perceived to be a golden opportunity to deliver a body blow to the separatist movement, the main instigators for the suspension of civil rights seem to have been the police forces, both the Québec Sureté and (federal) Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who were then delighted to find themselves unshackled from normal peace-time constraints.
Under the War Measures Act, the FLQ was outlawed, with even former “members” subject to arrest and imprisonment; and it became a criminal offense not just to provide it with material support, financial or otherwise, or to assist in its communications, but to speak publicly in its favor. Even landlords who allowed premises to be used for FLQ purposes could be fined and jailed. The same punishments could be meted out to members of or sympathizers with other groups who indicated approval of FLQ actions or objectives, or who simply advocated criminal activity to achieve political change, even in a private conversation. Meanwhile police could search without warrant, and arrest and hold without bail. They did so with such gusto that, in an unusual departure from the prevailing herd atmosphere, an editorial cartoon in Québec’s leading English-language newspaper showed Jean Marchand, federal Minister of Transport and Pierre Trudeau’s right-hand man, holding a Montréal telephone book under his arm and announcing “Nous avons maintenant des listes de suspects.” (“We’ve now got lists of suspects.”)
As always in such affairs, there was an official version (both of the nature of the threat and of the reasons why the government response took the form it did) and a later, considerably more nuanced one. As always in such affairs, too, events are explicable only with reference to the general political environment at the time.
During the late 1960s and on into the early 1970s, western Europe, particularly Italy but also France and Germany, saw the emergence of urban radical groups who resorted to bombings and assassinations of key economic or political figures plus bank robberies, extortions and ransom kidnappings to finance their activities. These troubles had their echoes in the U.S. with the spread of both militant black civil-rights and student anti-Vietnam war groups. Canada, as usual, remained largely immune, with one exception.
It was a time of rapid growth of Québec nationalism. While in the past that sentiment had been safely diverted by ambitious politicians to be used mainly to secure their own power bases or to squeeze more money out of Ottawa, in the 1960s nationalism was combined with demands for social justice and endorsed by a burgeoning population of university students along with a trade-union movement that was flexing its muscles. Soon there were several openly-operating separatist movements. The danger to the federalist establishment increased dramatically when the principal nationalist groups successfully merged under the leadership of dissident political veterans into the Parti Québécois. It pledged to contest Québec elections, then, if it won, to hold a referendum on sovereignty. Indeed, what brought Pierre Trudeau to the leadership of the federal Liberal Party and to the Prime Ministership of Canada was his visceral opposition to Québec nationalism in all its forms and his commitment to wrestle the demon of separatism to the ground. In October, 1970 he seemed to get his chance.
Along with the peaceful, democratic nationalist movement, there had emerged a violent fringe. Throughout the 1960s Québec saw a series of bank robberies and bombings of political inspiration. Most bombs were amateurish affairs which often did not explode, produced little damage if they did, or hit minor symbols of the federal presence like post-office boxes. But a few were lethal, for example, in 1963 when one claimed the life of the night watchman at a Canadian army recruiting post. The largest blast occurred in 1968 at the (then overwhelmingly anglophone) Montréal Stock Exchange, the center, so a communiqué from the bombers read, of capitalist exploitation in Québec. About 20 people were injured, several seriously. During these years there were other incidental deaths in terrorist actions, for example, in a robbery at a firearms store. But there were no political assassinations; and kidnappings were unknown. Canadian and Québec politicians still thought nothing of wandering about unguarded. But at the end of the 1960s, things began to heat up.
That era saw particularly bitter strikes, especially in construction, into which radical separatists insinuated themselves, although, contrary to the accusations of the authorities and the bosses, they did so more as political profiteers than as instigators. With labor troubles came another wave of bombings. It was still far from the Apocalypse. From the supposed founding of the FLQ in 1962 to the crisis of October, 1970, some 200 bombs went off in Québec, of which an indeterminate number were of strictly criminal origin. By contrast in the 15 months prior to October, 1970, the U.S. saw 4,300 bombs which killed 43 and injured 384.
Then in 1969, FLQ “members” began to debate a change in tactics. Following examples in places like Uruguay and Spain, they embraced the idea of kidnapping foreign diplomats as a means both to publicize their cause and perhaps to raise money. While successful police infiltration stymied early plots, in 1970 they were ready and so was the ambiance.
That year the Parti Québécois was challenging federalist parties in a provincial election campaign in which it was expected to run a solid second. In a rising panic, federalist politicians fanned public fears that the Parti Québécois was merely a front for the FLQ which in turn was portrayed a tool of Communist subversion, usually Cuban in origin. (Cuba, so the story went, was trying to open a second front against the U.S. by stirring up revolution in Québec.) Early one morning shortly before the election, reporters were invited to the headquarters of Sun Life Assurance, one of the biggest financial institutions, to watch Brinks trucks loading securities ostensibly heading to Ontario. Headlines screamed of massive amounts of capital fleeing Québec in anticipation of the upheaval that would follow a separatist victory – the incident was subsequently renowned in Québec history as the “Brinks coup.” The Parti Québécois still managed to receive 23% of the vote, but only elected 7 of 104 deputies to the National Assembly, while none of its leaders won in their ridings. Although those results could be imputed at least as much to a traditional gerrymander which favored conservative rural districts over modern urban ones, anger focused almost exclusively on federalist machinations. Bombings began again, particularly when the election was followed by more nasty labor disputes.
In the increasingly tense atmosphere, a federal cabinet super-committee, at the Prime Minister’s orders, deliberated under what conditions the War Measures Act might be invoked several months before the FLQ “members” who conducted the subsequent kidnappings had actually met to plan their own response to the election. Furthermore, the Québec Minister of Justice had already begun to stoke public hysteria when he proclaimed that: “We have proof that there are 3,000 terrorists in Québec, following a line set for them by foreign powers, particularly Cuba. They are financed from abroad.” Soon the plot expanded to include Moscow and Algeria. The temperature rose further after French-language television interviewed in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan two more self-proclaimed FLQ members who declared that while their comrades back home were busy with useless bombings, they were learning the art of selective assassination of political leaders.
After the kidnappings all restraint vanished. Jean Marchand, the federal Transport Minister who served as Prime Minister Trudeau’s point man in the crisis, repeated to a somber nation the frightening claim of Québec’s Justice Minister, that “the FLQ has nearly 3,000 members”. Of course, the minister admitted that there might be some doubt about the exactitude of the figures. But “one thing we know for sure: there is an organization with thousands of guns, rifles, machine guns, bombs and about 2,000 pounds of dynamite, enough to blow up the heart of Montreal..” Having planted firmly the image of great skyscrapers representing the commercial and financial center of the city crumbling into the dust, the minister went on to invoke the threat of sleeper cells. “They have infiltrated into all the vital strategic places in Quebec.” Others would elaborate that FLQ adherents had wormed their way into the Canadian Army and Air Force, even into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; that their actions would soon be backed by massive public demonstrations; that they had set in motion a plan for a special provisional government to take over Quebec to lead it to socialism and independence; that they were working in stages according to a formal script inspired by Mao Zedong; even that, according to a hair-raising tale told in the federal Parliament, a Québec woman had been kidnapped and murdered with the initials FLQ carved in her stomach. In some accounts, too, the amount of dynamite in FLQ hands was inflated to as much as 9,000 pounds or 18,000 sticks making it, combined, a de facto weapon of mass destruction. Indeed, there were even reputedly terrorist training-camps in the Laurentian hills northeast of Montréal, apparently so well hidden as to never attract the attention of the many thousands drawn regularly to the idyllic beauty of the area’s lakes, forests and ski hills. All of this was supposedly guided by a couple of home-grown philosophers of violence whose rantings would have attracted little serious attention were it not for the government’s need to point the finger at purported instigators. And it served to rationalize, not just the War Measures Act, but a special anti-terrorist force of 13,000 soldiers and cops under the command of the Director General of the Québec Sureté at a time when active underground separatists numbered perhaps 35.
As with the al-Qa’idah legend three decades later, virtually nothing in the official story turned out to have much relationship to the truth. Simply put, there was no such thing as a Front de libération du Québec. Over the 1960s a succession of groups were created spontaneously, with little connection to each except that as one was busted or just broke up, a few still-enthusiastic members might join or form another. The first such grouplet was the Comité de libération nationale, formed in 1962 by four members of the legal separatist Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale. At peak it had no more than 20 adherents, many of whom soon left to constitute the more impatient Réseau de résistance. The Comité never graduated much beyond writing revolutionary slogans on walls. However the Réseau initiated thefts of dynamite and bombings of federal symbols. It divided its mighty ranks of perhaps 30 members into two wings a political one and a military one with the grandiose name Armée de libération du Québec. The political wing’s most sophisticated terror weapon was the mimeograph machine, the key, members were convinced, to changing the false consciousness of Québec’s francophone population. The military wing conducted a couple of successful raids on Québec armories. Then came its 1963 bombing of a Canadian army recruitment center in Montreal which killed the night-watchman. The police had little problem rounding up the ALQ members (full of youthful zeal but hopeless in terms of security) or retrieving most of the stolen weapons, using ordinary police methods under normal criminal law.
The ALQ was followed at various times by the Front républicain pour l’indépendence, the Partisans de l’indépendence du Québec, the Chevaliers de l’indépendence and the Armée révolutionnaire du Québec which killed the manager of a firearms store during a raid, getting its leaders sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment). Most of these groups at different times referred to themselves, and came to be referred to by others, as FLQ. Thus FLQ was an increasingly popular brand-name which various grouplets could freely appropriate to give themselves an apparent coherence, scale, continuity and organizational foundation that they did not actually possess, or to give the media a way to keep things simple enough for audiences whose main interest was really how well the Montréal Canadiens were doing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Francis Simard, one of those involved in the Laporte kidnap-murder, described the formation of his particular unit: “We became a group, but without a name or a constitution or statutes. When the time came to identify ourselves, we decided on the FLQ. …We didn’t join a group: we took the name of a movement that had become us.”
Not only were there an assortment of groups, but they lacked agreement on strategy. Some deplored bombings as counter-productive: others lauded them as blows to keep the system off balance. While almost all used leftist jargon, some were simply angry anglophobes; others had a genuine commitment to social revolution. Nor were bombings the result of some coherently organized campaign. “Waves” of bombings were sometimes the work of single individuals which stopped when that person either was apprehended or just turned to other pastimes. Even the last set of bombings before October 1970, timed to coincide with a bitter construction strike, was done by one person who, along with a couple friends, called himself the Front de libération des travailleurs du Québec, although his “cell” later adopted the simple FLQ label as well. The two October kidnappings were equally the work, not of an organization with a coherent plan into which the kidnappings fitted as a tactical move, but of nine people who in turn split into two discordant groups, each of which made things up as they went along.
When those nine FLQ “members” deliberated the possibility of kidnapping diplomats, five were in favor, four opposed. The five then constituted themselves as the Liberation Cell, so called because of their intent to use their hostage, whoever he or she turned out to be, to force the release of the 23 “political prisoners.” Once the majority had made their decision in principle, but with no designated target, the four in opposition decided that their role would be to find money to support the others. How they tried to do so exposed another central myth.
Far from being financed from abroad, as the Québec Justice Minister claimed to believe, FLQ actions were paid for from local resources. Nor did the “movement” have a central treasury each grouplet took care of itself. Militants who had jobs contributed out of their salaries; while dynamite and guns were stolen. When their own resources were insufficient, a frequent occurrence since most members were students or unemployed, some diverted the proceeds of bank loans, while others engaged in credit-card fraud, for example, the purchase on credit of goods which were resold for cash to friends. Since this took time and energy for low returns, some turned to bank robberies. When the group of four headed off to the U.S., it was to run a scam in which they would sell American Express travelers’ checks on the black market for a certain percentage of their face value, then report them stolen to get a full refund.
However, while they were there, they heard the news of the Cross kidnapping. So they turned around and headed home. Their decision to kidnap Pierre Laporte was made only after they decided that the government was stalling; and when they issued their own demands, they added the requirement that the government rehire the fired postal workers, a demand which their comrades in the Liberation cell had dropped.
In other words, even though the nine involved in the events of October, 1970 had formally met, which many FLQ “members” do not seem to have done, there had been no coordination as to targets and no agreement on objectives. In fact these were subject to radical change on an ad hoc basis – those who grabbed and murdered Pierre Laporte were precisely the ones who had originally dissented from the strategy of kidnapping. Even the financing arrangements were haphazard. Nothing better summarizes this fearful manifestation of “terrorist finance” than the fact that, after adopting the lofty name “Chénier financing cell,” the four who seized Pierre Laporte managed to feed themselves and their captive and to pay for trips across the city to plant communiqués only by lifting $60 from their victim’s pocket.
The kidnapping of the British diplomat had been handled in a cool-headed way, as an important but not really exceptional police matter. The Prime Minister of Québec thought nothing of leaving for a state visit to the US. Pierre Laporte, the Minister of Labour and Immigration (or as FLQ communiqués rudely preferred, Minister of Unemployment and Assimilation) was grabbed while playing football with his nephew on his front lawn, with no police escort in sight. After the Laporte kidnapping, the roof fell in.
Senior politicians in the Trudeau government in Ottawa stressed publicly the compelling need not just to combat the FLQ but to reassert federal moral leadership in Québec. This was cheered on, perhaps even manipulated, by the government of Montréal. The mayor, Jean Drapeau, an old-fashioned machine politician with a flare for self-promotion to rival that of Rudy Giuliani, faced a municipal election in which a coalition of social-justice groups was mounting a serious challenge. Their leaders were among those that the police rounded up. With the opposition discredited and decapitated, Drapeau’s party swept 92 per cent of the vote and captured every city-council seat. While doubtlessly the amateur nature of the campaign run by activist groups only recently stuck together into a quasi-political party played a role in the lop-sided victory, there can be little doubt that the politics of fear were also powerfully at work.
In the aftermath, the federal government took the opportunity to replace the War Measures Act which, by definition, could only be used in very exceptional circumstances and for limited periods, with a new, more saleable Public Order Act which permitted the government to ban the FLQ or any other association which advocated a change of government in Québec or a change in its political relationship to Canada by violent means. In effect the civil libertarian Trudeau got his wish to criminalize association and exhortation if it might serve to advance the one political cause he truly detested. The War Measures Act itself was eventually repealed and replaced by the Emergency Measures Act which, while permitting much the same arbitrary actions, had the virtue of requiring any measures undertaken under it to be vetted by the Canadian bill of rights – which did not exist at the time of the October Crisis.
Yet neither the War Measures Act nor its successor(s) had anything to do with the end of violent separatism in Québec. Virtually all of those arrested en masse including some of Québec’s best known poets, singers and union leaders were released very quickly with not much to complain about except the embarrassment and inconvenience or, at worst, an occasional whack over the head with a telephone book. In fact, being one of those arrested during the October Crisis became a badge of social distinction in Québec for decades after.
In the aftermath the FLQ itself was rolled up – by ordinary police work. James Cross was safely released. His kidnappers went into exile in Cuba before petitioning to return home where they served time. Once out of prison, instead of reverting to planting bombs, one of their leaders made a career in renovating houses, including the Montréal home of Canada’s current Governor-General. Pierre Laporte’s assassins, by contrast, were arrested and convicted, to general applause. By killing their hostage they had nothing left with which to bargain and had forfeited any public sympathy.
The murder of the labour minister caused support to collapse. Public revulsion also made it much easier for the police to cultivate informants and to infiltrate the remaining grouplets, which were quickly wound up. Even those “theoreticians” who had supposedly inspired and guided FLQ actions spent the rest of their public careers denouncing political violence. Perhaps the only irregular police action came a few years after the events when a leader of the earlier generation of FLQ militants was assassinated in exile in Paris. The suspicion among his sympathizers was that the murder was done by a hit squad recruited by the Security and Intelligence Branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to ensure that he never carried out an alleged threat to kill the Prime Minister of Québec in revenge for the October events. However that is probably giving Canadian police forces credit for a ruthless efficiency they are unlikely to possess. That same RCMP managed a few years later to so blunder in its efforts to infiltrate the legal separatist movement as to force the federal government to strip it of its security and intelligence functions which were then vested in a new civilian agency. After many years with really nothing to do, CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) finally found a post-9/11 raison d’être in harassing citizens of Muslim and/or Arab descent.
As to the notion that the federal government, by using the events, could also strike a blow against peaceful separatism, there was a chance to test that hypothesis during the 1976 Québec provincial elections – which the Parti Québécois won handily. Many who had been sympathetic to the cause in principle but apathetic in practice had been angered and energized by the federal actions. The very victory of a democratic separatist movement was enough to ensure that the violent separatism of the so-called Front de libération du Québec vanished from the political scene. When a bomb goes off in Montréal today, it is most likely the work of rival biker gangs.
After its 1976 victory, the Parti Québécois held power for most of the next 30 years, even though it never succeeded in winning a referendum on independence. When it was finally relegated to third party status in the March, 2007 elections, it was because the social and economic grievances which had brought it to power had, if not disappeared, at least been so reduced as to largely obviate their use as an ethno-political rallying cry. By the start of the new millenium the old disparity of incomes between anglophone and francophone in Québec had almost completely vanished some data indicates that it has even reversed. The French language was fully entrenched in law, education and, more importantly, common use, including in business. And the old dominant class of “Queen and Country” anglophones had either fled to Ontario or been increasingly marginalized by a rapidly growing population of comfortably trilingual allophones.
Much the same kind of results would undoubtedly hold true throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia if nature were allowed to take its course. Egregious terrorist acts in and of themselves would lead to general revulsion. Indeed, across much of the Muslim world, 9/11 had precisely that impact – until the U.S. government decided to fritter away its moral capital by a set of special atrocities of its own. And any victory by peaceful Islamist movements, particularly if allowed to address legitimate social grievances, would do far more to discredit violent political Islam than bunker-busting bombs or mass incarcerations based on race and religion whose only long term effect is to legitimize and strengthen what they seek to crush and destroy. Alas, the U.S. government, along with its “allies” abroad, including, remarkably enough, the current Canadian one, has a rather different view.
R.T. Naylor is the author of highly original and radical work on Money, Myth and Misinformation, now assembled in Satanic Purses, being published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, from which this essay has been excerpted. Naylor is professor of Economics at McGill. He can be reached at email@example.com