On this day in 1970, Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, who had been kidnapped seven days earlier, was found dead in the trunk of a car.
We Canadians do not normally see ourselves, or are rarely seen by others, as a violent bunch. Deferential, perhaps a little too deferential (sorry about that!), polite, quaint even, but not violent. Except on the ice during a hockey game (or in the stands among spectators). When you go into a corner of the rink chasing a puck brace yourself to get hit by a Canadian player!
Similarly we do not have a lot of outstanding issues that can lead to extremist action. As a whole we handle things peacefully. It is not for nothing that our national motto is ‘peace, order and good government’ – compare that with our southern neighbours’ ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
Nevertheless, in recent history Canada was faced with a violent movement that stemmed eventually from the so-called ‘Quiet Revolution‘, a rise in francophone nationalism in the province of Quebec. Most people today see the Quebec sovereignty/independence issue as historical, if they think of it at all, although they may remember the two referenda in 1980 and 1995, the latter of which almost split the Canadian federation (the ‘no’ side won by the slimmest of margins).
But there was an extreme violent fringe to the movement.
Front de Libération du Québec
The FLQ – the Front de Liberation du Quebec – was active from 1963 to 1970 and its most serious act (there were over 160 incidents in which eight people died) occurred on this day in 1970. Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, who had been kidnapped seven days earlier, was found dead in the trunk of a car. He had been strangled, probably with the chain on which he wore a religious medallion, and dumped by his FLQ kidnappers.
The FLQ demanded the release of “political prisoners”, $500,000 and a flight to Cuba or Algeria. British diplomat James Cross, who had also been kidnapped in October, was still missing: he was freed 62 days later by the cell members who had taken him in exchange for flights to Cuba.
Then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, known as a bit of a flamboyant international jet-setter, responded to the killing of Mr. Laporte with his famous ‘just watch me’ remark when asked by reporters what he would do. He invoked the War Measures Act, giving police the power to arrest and hold people without charge or bail hearings and they did so, arresting suspected terrorists — but also ordinary sovereigntists who had no connection to violence or the FLQ. Most of the 497 people swept up were later released without charge.
Found hiding in a tunnel under a farmhouse, cell leader Paul Rose was sentenced in 1971 to life for murder but paroled in 1982. Others in his cell were given sentences ranging from eight years to life. Rose died in 2013 but before doing so he noted: “I regret nothing. … I did what I had to do. Placed before the same set of circumstances today, I would do exactly the same thing. I will not deny what I did and what happened. It was not a youthful indiscretion.”
As we go to the polls on Monday the ‘separatist’ faction in Quebec is a shadow of its former self. Polls in late 2016 showed that a full 82 per cent of Quebec respondents to a survey agreed with the statement “ultimately, Quebec should stay in Canada.” Nevertheless, the Bloc Quebecois, a Quebec-first (and only) political party in Parliament, is ‘neck and neck’ with the Liberals in terms of voting intention.
It is unlikely that separatism will ever truly die out in Quebec as this is still an unresolved grievance for some. I would go so far as to say that it is also unlikely that there will be a return to the level of the violence of the 1960s. Fingers crossed.