The October Crisis Remembered: The origin, rise, and end of the FLQ

The Front de Libération du Québec was a marxist and extremist political group founded in Quebec during the early 1960s.  The group existed for barely a decade (ceasing activities in 1971).  Despite the image they presented of themselves as a popular movement with many supporters (à la the Irish Republican Army) in reality never had more than 200 members.

Resentment and animosity within Quebec was not solely at English speakers and Ottawa.  Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis ruled the province with an iron fist for eighteen years (1936-39, 1944-59), a time referred to as le grande noirceur (the great darkness).  He was not only premier but also attorney general, and censored printed media for anything advocating socialism or for the rights of certain minorities (e.g. jehovah’s witnesses) who suffered under his regime.  The catholic cult controlled schools and much of society.  The Duplessis Orphans (orphans, children of unwed mothers, etc.) were placed under catholic control and subjected to sexual and physical abuse for decades (e.g. lobotomies).

Duplessis’s death in 1959 ended his hold on the province, allowing new intellectual and social freedoms.  While most Quebecois embraced and participated in the “Quiet Revolution”, some wanted full independence for Quebec.  The Réseau de résistance (RR) and Comité de libération nationale (National Liberation Committee) committed the first acts of vandalism and violence.  Members of both groups formed the first incarnation of the FLQ in 1963: Belgian emigré Georges Schoeters and two Québécois, Raymond Villeneuve and Gabriel Hudon.

More below the fold.

The FLQ’s first acts of terrorism were the bombing of mailboxes (military and wealthy people) but it was their armed robbery in 1964 that showed their willingness to kill and use other extreme violence.  They robbed an armoury company of firearms and other equipment, killing one employee in the process.  Five were convicted, one sentenced to death, others to life or long sentences. (Canada had the “death penalty” until 1976, but no such killings since 1962.  The sentence was later commuted to life.)  Other crimes and violence continued throughout the 1960s, with the February 1969 bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange being the most high profile.  The FLQ tried to associate themselves with labour unions who did not share their sentiments, though some members of the public supported them.

It was on Monday, October 5, 1970 that they kidnapped James Cross, the UK trade commissioner, demanding a set of conditions for his release (money, freeing of convicted FLQ members, etc.) and a plane to escape to Cuba.

On Saturday, October 10, four other FLQ members kidnapped Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s labor and immigration minister (or “unemployment and assimilation” as the FLQ referred to the minstry) in broad daylight, in front of his home.  Over the next few days, much public sentiment was on their side.  This was the high water mark of their activities; things were to drastically change.

On October 13, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau held a secret cabinet meeting where the government voted to use the War Measures Act, a poorly written law used during wartime and misused by racist governments during World War I and World War II to discriminate against minorities.  The minutes of the meeting were hidden for thirty years to protect those involved from questions and consequences.

The WMA was enacted on October 16, 1970, turning Canada into a police state for six months.  Human rights protections were suspended, and both police, soldiers and tanks were visibly armed.  Arrests were made of anyone even suspected of involvement or supporting the FLQ.  The RCMP abused those arrested, and the right to a lawyer or seeing family members was usually denied.

Worse was to come: the FLQ admitted on October 17 that they had killed Pierre Laporte.  Public sympathy disappeared, and the members were soon rounded up.  The “thousands” the FLQ claimed to have turned out to be dozens of members.  Five managed to escape to Cuba and France.  Two were sentenced to life in prison.

Only a fraction of Quebec separatists were violent.  The Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale (RIN) was a new political movment which later became the Parti Québécois.  It was under PQ leader René Lévesque that the first of two peaceful (and failed) separatist votes happened.


  1. Pierre Le Fou says

    What scares me most is that we’d think a modern Canada (and Quebec) would never return to turning into a police state, but it’s still a possibility. Like everywhere else. There should be *no* way to ever suspend people’s basic judicial rights.

    • says

      In part 5 I plan to talk about the “Emergency Act” which replaced the “War Measures Act”. If you didn’t see the news items, Trudeau and others have actually talked about using it in 2020. Like father, like son of a b…..

  2. DataWrangler says

    I was not quite 5 years old, and I still remember “Just watch me”. Of course it wasn’t until later that I understood why I must never forget.

    • says

      I was three, not old enough to even know what was going on. But it’s not something you can grow up without hearing, since it was such recent history.

  3. says

    What scares me most is that we’d think a modern Canada (and Quebec) would never return to turning into a police state, but it’s still a possibility.

    While true, the Constitution Act, 1982 with its Charter of Rights & Freedoms was passed in significant part out of the momentum for change that came from that period. So it’s not like Canada has made no statement in repudiation.

    I compare that to the US and the drafting of the US Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation or the repeal of the 18th amendment by the 21st.

  4. says

    One of the articles covering the recent death of John Turner had a photo of Turner that must have been taking during the crisis. It showed Turner walking down an Ottawa street, accompanied by an armed soldier.

  5. voyager says

    My husband was living in Montreal ( Pointe Claire) at the time and he remembers there being armed guards on almost every corner on his way to school. At the time the area was an English stronghold.