In the years leading up to the October Crisis in Quebec in 1970, young people in Western countries were engaged in a series of ruthless battles. Civil unrest had broken out in France in May 1968, and in the United States, demonstrations and riots against segregation and discrimination, as well as the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War had gained ground. All of it occurred against a backdrop of political assassinations, major social upheavals and a rush to independence of former colonies.
Québec was no exception in those years. Demonstrations sometimes turned into riots, such as the St-Jean-Baptiste Day parade in 1968. The actions of the Front de libération du Québec, a clandestine group commonly known as the FLQ, turned bloody in 1963.
Québec youth found themselves in turmoil in October 1970. “Indeed, it was young people, mainly students, who would be arrested as soon as the War Measures Act was implemented,” explains Éric Bédard, who has just released the second edition of his book devoted to the events of October 1970, Chronique d'une insurrection appréhendée.
Bédard is a historian, professor at the Université TÉLUQ distance learning institution in Montréal and the author of L'Histoire du Québec pour les Nuls. His new volume on the October Crisis includes a document that had, until now, remained unpublished: a list of people arrested in the Greater Montréal Area within hours of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s federal government adoption of the War Measures Act on Oct. 16, 1970.
The Conversation spoke to professor Bédard about the October Crisis.
The Conversation: In your book, you analyze the political actions of young people who were enrolled at the Université de Montréal, the newly created Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), as well as Concordia University and McGill University. Who were they?
Eric Bédard: First of all, there were many of them. They were part of the Baby Boom. There were nearly 80,000 of them in universities in 1969 and they benefited from the democratization of higher education.
The most politicized were very attracted to revolutionary ideas and often saw violence as a necessary evil. Many of these young people dreamed of transforming institutions, liberal democracy and capitalism and equated the political awakening of Quebecers with that of people in the “Third World” fighting for their emancipation.
Others were more concerned about a revolution in morals, a radical transformation of viewpoints. They wanted to abolish the institutions inherited from the past, such as marriage, the church and traditional schools. It was the counter-culture, the psychedelic experience.
That’s the background. The FLQ was founded in 1963, one year after the Évian Accords, and its very name is clearly inspired by that of the Algerian revolutionaries: the FLN (Front de libération nationale. In the United States, African Americans were struggling for their civil rights and young people were very vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam war.
The Conversation: Were the student movements organized?
Bédard: Very few. There were stormy debates between them. In 1964, the students founded the Union générale des étudiants du Québec (UGEQ). It would become increasingly politicized and would claim to be separatist. For them, it was not only a matter of defending their members’ interests, as unions do, but of changing society.
At McGill, in 1969, it went very far. After two or three referendums, students joined the UGEQ and some even supported the movement that would have turned McGill into a francophone university. Things were also going badly at Concordia (then Sir George Williams University), where Black students revolted against a professor deemed racist and vandalized the computer centre.
This radicalization affected the student movement. In the late 1960s, UGEQ itself was considered too bourgeois and hierarchical, and was scuttled in favour of involvement in different forms of organizations, such as neighbourhood citizens’ committees. The most militant students preferred to associate with workers and labourers. We found ourselves without a large student association in 1970.
The Conversation: Does the context in which the October 1970 kidnapping crisis took place, during all this turmoil, explain the reaction of authorities, in your view?
Bédard: The authorities saw what was happening in the world, they followed the news. Two years earlier, France was paralyzed during the uprising of May 1968, which began with a student strike. A few months earlier, in May 1970, the National Guard intervened at Ohio’s Kent State University in a demonstration against the Vietnam war and four students were killed. It created an incredible backlash, which I would compare to the one surrounding the killing of George Floyd in the spring.
(Editor’s note: British Trade Commissioner James Cross was seized by the FLQ in North America’s first political kidnapping on Oct. 5, 1970. Laporte, a provincial cabinet minister, was snatched by another FLQ cell days later on Oct. 10.)
In my readings, what comes up all the time is the fear of disorder stemming from young people, a young population that cannot be controlled. It surpasses fear of the separatists in my opinion, at least from the point of view of the forces of law and order. We must keep in mind that the student movement was very different from the trade union movement, which had several decades of history behind it, with its traditions, its structures, its assemblies, its elections and its recognized leaders. With young people, there are no interlocutors, unlike in 2012, during the Maple Spring student protest. No spokespersons, no structures.
Instead of calming the authorities, who could have concluded that this movement was disorganized and therefore harmless, it increased their fear of a militant overheating on campuses. Perceived as a kind of unpredictable beast, the youth inspired real fear in the authorities.
The testimony of the Québec government’s lawyer, Robert Demers, is very revealing. He recounted that on Oct. 15, 1970, a few hours before the War Measures Act was decreed, Premier Robert Bourassa met with the chiefs of the Montréal police and the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial force, at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel where the government had decamped.
The police were focused on only one thing: the student threat. They asked for special powers because, they said, if the situation spiralled out of control, they would be powerless to deal with it. They insisted they would not be able to arrest everyone. This is the thesis of my book. In order to understand the origins of the War Measures Act, one must understand this atmosphere of fear associated with the youth of the time.
The Conversation: And it was these young people who were the first to be arrested as soon as the War Measures Act was proclaimed?
Bedard: Yes, they were essentially young people. Last year, I got my hands on a list from the then-deputy attorney general of Québec, Gilbert Morier, who would later become a judge. There are 263 names of people arrested in the Greater Montréal Area (there were 497 in all, according to John Turner, then-federal minister of justice). I have the date of birth for 220 of them: three-quarters are under 30 years old and 15 per cent are under 20 years old. They were essentially the ones who were targeted, at least those who were engaged in so-called subversive movements.
The War Measures Act created a shock wave among these young people. It was like pulling out a bazooka. But the death of Pierre Laporte had an even greater effect, in my opinion.
The Conversation: Your research shows that these young people were not very dangerous…
Bédard: Yes, indeed, but it’s easy to say that 50 years later and I insist on that because it’s too easy to give lessons. I understand the fog that enveloped the actors of the time and I even have a certain sympathy for them. I understand that they were under a lot of pressure. But a rational and cold analysis should have protected them from this panicky fear of youth, which was then scattered in a myriad of small groups, torn and divided, even within the FLQ. These young people were not equipped to make a revolution.
The Conversation: Did Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau really believe in a massive youth revolt?
Bédard: The archives suggest that he was hesitant because he knew the historical implications of invoking that odious liberty-destroying law. Hence the concern to obtain letters from Bourassa and the mayor of Montréal, Jean Drapeau, who said they feared an “apprehended insurrection.” This hesitation is contradictory, however, because on the other hand, since 1969, Pierre Elliott Trudeau had set up a crisis committee and a whole security apparatus to keep sovereigntist militants in check. He wanted to do intelligence work, to infiltrate the campuses.
The Conversation: What impact did these events have on this generation?
Bédard: It was like going to sleep after a hard day. No more partying, no more innocence and no more lyrical revolution. It all ended when Pierre Laporte’s body was found in the trunk of a car.