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November 2010 - Nr. 11

The uneasy compromises that governed relations between English and French Canadians began to break down in the 1950s. French-Canadians had usually, if sometimes grudgingly, accepted that they were part of a Canadian nation, even if it meant that they had to cohabit with an English-speaking majority. A better-educated and more prosperous population in Quebec began to seek more elbow room — better jobs in the corporations headquartered in Montreal; the ability to use their own language in government; and if the national government in Ottawa did not allow that, why not a government of their own, one that spoke French? A new nationalism, not Canadian, not French-Canadian, but Québécois — a new word — came into being, and as the 1960s advanced, it proved more and more attractive to many of the French-speakers of Quebec.

As a result, Quebec society in the 1960s was bitterly divided. Many Quebeckers, French as well as English, preferred things as they were, or expected that the ordinary course of Canadian and Quebec democratic politics would change things. Some English-Canadians were waking up to the need for change and for new compromises to govern English-French relations. The prime minister, Lester B. Pearson, was among them, and he sought out strong French-Canadians to run for election for his Liberal party. He was successful, and among his new Members of Parliament was a rich Montreal intellectual, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was elected to Parliament in 1965 and quickly made federal minister of justice. In one of the most unusual political conventions ever held in Canada, the Liberals in 1968 made Trudeau Pearson’s successor and prime minister of Canada. And so it was Trudeau who had to confront what was possibly the greatest crisis Canada had ever faced. By 1968 Quebec separatism was proving more and more attractive, especially to a young and impatient generation of French-speakers in the province. The 1960s were a time of ferment and revolution everywhere in the Western world, and revolutionary Marxism was attractive to fringe groups of radicals — it offered both an explanation and a justification for grievances against what was called “the system.” Small groups of terrorists had appeared in Quebec starting in 1963, setting off bombs at armouries, in mailboxes, or at the Montreal stock exchange. There were riots in Montreal in the late 60s. At one, in June 1968, a steely Trudeau had stared down the rioters on national television, while other prominent Quebeckers ran for cover.

In the Quebec provincial election in April 1970, the Liberals under Robert Bourassa scored a decisive victory over a separatist party, the Parti Québécois. Bourassa was young and untried, but he had a strong majority in the Quebec legislature and a strong cabinet behind him — and the Liberals of Quebec were, of course, allied with the Liberals of Ottawa, under Trudeau.

Not everyone accepted the result. Small groups of Marxist revolutionaries gave themselves the name of the Front de Libération de Québec (Quebec Liberation Front) and embarked on a campaign of minor terrorist acts. They were few in number, but they believed that a striking revolutionary act would attract thousands to their side — and in the tense atmosphere of 1970, they were not entirely wrong.

First, the FLQ kidnapped the British trade representative in Montreal in early October 1970. It was an attention-getter, but it did not immediately bring mobs into the street or bring the government to its knees. So they kidnapped Quebec’s minister of labour, Pierre Laporte. That got attention. Students in Montreal became excited. Meetings of support were held. Nationalist notables in Quebec, some separatists, some not, urged that the elected government step down and make way for a government that would negotiate with the FLQ.

That drew Trudeau’s attention. For the prime minister, it was completely inadmissible to allow democracy to give way to mob rule. The provincial government panicked and asked for federal troops. These were sent. Laporte was then murdered, and the federal government proclaimed a state of emergency, using an old 1914 law called the War Measures Act. Hundreds of suspects were rounded up and imprisoned; soldiers patrolled the streets; and revolutionary propaganda was forbidden.

Trudeau had chosen the right moment. The would-be revolutionaries crept into hiding, if they had not been arrested. The mobs never appeared. Quebec society was appalled at the murder of Laporte. The diplomat’s kidnappers were found, and the Briton was released; and Laporte’s murders were also found, tried, and convicted.

The October Crisis put an end to a decade of revolutionary violence in Montreal and Quebec. It did not put an end to separatism, but it channelled Quebec politics back into democratic and law-abiding habits. Trudeau’s vigorous defence of the rule of law and democratic government had preserved Canada. Quebec might or might yet not go its own way, but if it does, it will be by a democratic process. That was the lesson of October ’70.

Next Instalment: The Beginnings of Canadian Multiculturalism


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