Today is the anniversary of perhaps the most dramatic moment in our country’s recent history. On Oct. 16, 1970, prime minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act to put down a terrorist movement in Quebec that threatened civil war.
The circumstances leading up to this crisis were as grim as they were unprecedented. A provincial cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte, was kidnapped by the Front de libération du Québec, a violent separatist group. Laporte was subsequently murdered by the FLQ, and his body stuffed in the trunk of a car.
British trade commissioner James Cross was also kidnapped, though later released, and plans were in progress to capture the Israeli and U.S. consuls.
More than 90 bombs had been detonated across the province in the preceding seven years, one causing extensive damage to the Montreal Stock Exchange and injuring 27 people. Army barracks and RCMP offices also came under attack with dynamite stolen from industrial and military sites. Banks were robbed to fund the terror campaign.
The curtailment of civil liberties authorized by the War Measures Act proved decisive. Nearly 500 individuals were arrested and held without bail, as members of the Canadian Armed Forces deployed throughout Quebec to support civil authorities.
Within a few months, the uprising had effectively collapsed. Twenty-three members of the FLQ were in prison, four of them convicted of murder. Large quantities of guns, ammunition and explosives were seized. A threat made earlier, to form a revolutionary army 100,000 strong, came to nothing.
While there was a lively debate, both at the time and later, as to the wisdom of curtailing civil liberties, subsequent history is clear on at least one point. Quebecers, even those who most ardently supported separation, realized that resorting to violence was a moral and political disaster.
Polls across the country showed that, while there was considerable sympathy with the desire of French-speaking Canadians to preserve their language and culture, there was little or no backing for the use of force.
Ironically, the demise of the FLQ led to events that proved far more threatening to our country’s unity. René Lévesque and others formed the Parti Québécois, a political movement committed to independence via peaceful means.
Lévesque became premier in 1976, and four years later held the referendum he had promised. The “Leave” side went down to a crushing defeat, with only 40 per cent of Quebecers in support.
But in 1995, the PQ tried again, and this time came within a single point of winning. The vote was 49.4 per cent in favour of seceding, versus 50.6 per cent who wished to stay.
Legal opinion was divided as to whether such a narrow victory could have formed a basis for breaking up the country. But Quebec’s premier at the time, Jacques Parizeau, said afterward that if the outcome had been reversed, he would have proclaimed a unilateral declaration of independence immediately.
So is the separatist project dead? It certainly appears to be on life support at present.
In the provincial election two years ago, the PQ garnered just 25 per cent of the vote. The party has gone through four leaders in 11 years, and the current leader says a third referendum is not on the books, at least for now.
Demography presents an obstacle. Quebec, like the rest of the country, has an aging population that might be more attracted to a comfortable retirement than the risks of a go-it-alone agenda.
But nationalist sentiments never truly die. They merely wait their chance.
In the grand scheme of things, the last referendum in Quebec is a blink of the eye away. Unless we remain vigilant, the independence movement might eventually regroup.
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