Mostly inhabited by the Catholic francophone population, Quebec has always seen itself as culturally different from the rest of Canada and its Protestant and anglophone people. This division resulted in a strong sense of separatism and a desire for independence, spurred by the formation of the Rally for National Independence (Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale or RIN) in 1960. Its creation marked the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, which shifted the general public’s opinion strongly towards independence. In this climate, Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) or Quebec Liberation Front was born in 1963.
Inspired by the various communist movements around the globe, FLQ was a Marxist-Leninist paramilitary organization advocating the independence of Quebec. Unlike RIN, who sought to use political means to achieve this goal, FLQ set on terrorism as their MO from the start. Some of their members were even trained in guerrilla fighting, preparing for the day when a general uprising would bring liberty to Quebec. From its inception in 1963 to 1970, they detonated more than 95 bombs throughout Quebec, mostly delivering them via letters. Their favorite target was the town of Westmount, inhabited by a rich Anglophone community. While mailboxes were their preferred method of bombings, FLQ didn’t balk from setting bombs the traditional way, which resulted in bombings of Montreal Stock Exchange, Montreal City Hall, Royal Canadian Mountain Police, various army targets and train stations. Eight people were killed and dozens injured in these attacks.
As bombings intensified, so did police actions against FLQ and by 1970 almost two dozen of its members were in prisons. FLQ changed tactics and set out on kidnapping high-value targets, aiming at exchanging them for their captured comrades. Their first attempts at kidnapping Israeli and United States consuls in Montreal failed.
Finally, on October 5th, they were successful. Their target was British Trade Commissioner, James Cross. Two members of FLQ, masked as deliverymen, gained entrance into his house and grabbed him, marking the start of the October Crisis. Three days later, FLQ issued a statement, demanding an exchange.
On October 10th, another FLQ cell approached the house of Minister of Labour for the province of Quebec, Pierre Laporte. He was abducted from his front lawn while playing football with his nephew. In response to the second kidnapping, federal government deployed troops to the border between Ottawa and Quebec on October 13th.
Robert Bourassa, the Prime minister of Quebec, was negotiating with FLQ, trying to buy some time for the police to find the victims. By October 15th, it was clear that police alone won’t be able to solve the October Crisis and he officially demanded from the federal government that army assist the police in the investigation. That day saw some 3,000 people demonstrating in Montreal in support of FLQ and their actions, leading Michael Chartrand, a union leader, to say that “There are more boys willing to shoot members of parliament than there are policemen.” Prime minister Bourassa saw this as an introduction to the open rebellion and demanded from Canadian Prime Minister Pierre-Eliott Trudeau emergency powers to deal with the situation.
For the first time in peacetime, Trudeau announced on October 16th that he is invoking the War Measures Act, allowing the government to use the military to ensure peace. The army occupied several of the Quebec cities and towns and arrested almost 500 people, without the possibility of bail. Ultimately, only 62 of them were charged. FLQ responded the next day by executing Pierre Laporte.
FLQ cell holding Cross threaten to kill him as well if discovered by the police and demanded, in addition of releasing all FLQ members from prison, a safe passage to Cuba or Algeria and half a million dollars, which they called a “voluntary tax.”
The negotiations continued, amidst strong criticism of the government for the use of War Measures Act. On November 6th, police raided one of the FLQ safe houses, arresting Bernard Lortie and charging him with kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte. Three of his accomplices managed to escape.
Finally, on December 4th, the agreement was reached and Cross was released. Five kidnappers were granted safe passage to Cuba onboard Canada Air Force airplane. The October Crisis was over.
Three FLQ members that evaded arrest in November were captured on December 28th.
Despite the fact that a majority of Quebec’s population supported the War Measures Act, it remains one of the most controversial decisions in the country’s history. The sight of soldiers and tanks on the streets was a shock to many and Trudeau’s critics claimed that he overreacted to a what was generally considered an amateur organization.
Support for Quebec independence is constantly shifting and is yet to have a clear majority. The events of the October Crisis are responsible for Quebecans largely divided opinions on the matter of independence.