Just how serious was the October (1970) Crisis in Canada?

If we fail to look at what was clearly terrorism fifty years ago and call it what it really and truly was, what good is hindsight?

Hindsight is great, isn’t it? When you look back at an event after many years have flown by you can take advantage of information and perspectives you did not have when that event was unfolding.

Unfortunately, when things are moving at the speed of light and pieces are shifting on the chessboard too fast to appreciate you cannot sit back at that moment and make sense of what is transpiring.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, it all makes sense. That is why we have the phrase ‘hindsight is 20-20’ (i.e. akin to perfect vision). We attain perfect understanding.

Or do we?

An obituary caught my eye last week.

It marked the death of James Cross, a British diplomat who succumbed to COVID-19. But it was not the COVID that stood out for me, nor that he was ‘just’ a British diplomat. He was the captive of a terrorist group. In Canada.

Serving in the British Trade Commissioner Service he was posted to Montreal in 1968 after sojourns in India and Malaysia. On October 5, 1970 Cross was walking to the bathroom in his underpants early on the morning when terrorists from the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ – Quebec Liberation Front) took him hostage. The FLQ had been behind a spate of bank robberies and bombings in Montreal in the 1960s to back their campaign for independence.

Cross was lucky: he was rescued on December 2 (his cowardly kidnappers gave up in exchange for safe passage for themselves and their families to Cuba). Another kidnap victim, Pierre Laporte, a Quebec Labour Minister, was not so fortunate; he was killed on October 17 by the FLQ.

The diplomat returned to the UK but Canada was his last posting. He eventually retired to Seaford, a small town on England’s southern coast.

The Aftermath

All Canadians are familiar with – or should be – what transpired after Laporte was killed. Then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the current PM Justin, invoked the War Measures Act, the Canadian equivalent of declaring martial law. Civil rights were suspended and hundreds of alleged FLQ members and supporters were arrested. The situation called for such drastic action. In the end, the FLQ was cast on the ash heap of history where it remains.

What bugs me, someone who worked in counter terrorism for 15 years, is how some took the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis, as those times are known as, last fall (October 2020) to say that none of this was a big deal. At least 160 violent actions over seven years. The deaths of six Canadians. Bank heists. This was nothing?? How Canadian.

True, the scraps of Quebec independence today show no signs of a return to violence. The percentage of support for what some call ‘sovereignty-association’ (Canadian English for ‘divorce with bedroom privileges’!) is mired in the low thirties or even high twenties. Advocates are unlikely to go back to bombings and kidnappings any time soon.

But it was once very violent.

People DIED. It was serious and while we can argue over whether the Trudeau move was constitutional it was what was what was needed at the time. No nation can allow a tiny constituency from trying to alter facts by force. No nation.

If we fail to look at what was clearly terrorism fifty years ago and call it what it really and truly was, what good is hindsight?

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RELATED: Borealis explains the October Crisis and the aftermath

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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