I saw the report about the death of a Canadian terrorist last week, first online then, the next morning, in my newspaper. I read the whole article instead of just skimming, noted some interesting details and that was about it. I thought about doing a blog post, but decided against it. Why give extra publicity to a terrorist, even a dead one?
Then the next day came word that four young Canadian men had died in the Middle East where they had been combatants for ISIS, the Islamic State. They left Canada to become terrorists, not that they would have identified themselves as such, fighting for a cause that seems foreign to many if not most Canadians. Which got me thinking again of the dead terrorist, Francis Simard, and what he had in common with these young men.
To those of my generation Francis Simard’s name was a familiar one. He was a member of the Chenier cell of the Front de Liberation du Quebec, the FLQ, and spent a decade in jail after murdering a Quebec provincial cabinet minister.
The FLQ was a 1960s organization dedicated to winning Quebec independence through violent means. As a pre-teen I was aware of them; they would blow up mail boxes in my native Montreal because the boxes were symbols of the British crown. Occasionally people died due to their actions. I don’t remember things being constantly tense (I was young after all) but there was an awareness that the FLQ were out there, somewhere.
From bombing inanimate objects they moved on to the October 1970 kidnappings of the British Trade Commissioner in Montreal, James Cross, and provincial cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, who was murdered by his captors. That was a traumatic time for a country that prides itself on peace, order and good government. Canadians deal with their differences at the ballot box, not by joining revolutionary groups. The full weight of the police and military was brought into action. I remember taking the school bus in my suburban Montreal neighbourhood under the watchful eye of a military guard. Eventually, the terrorists were captured and tried or exiled (in exchange for Cross’s release). Those in exile eventually did come home and faced legal charges – they missed Canada more than they had expected to. Better to be in a Canadian jail than free elsewhere.
Having paid their debt to society, they eventually were all released. Some have died, some are still alive, none of them has had further brushes with the law that I am aware of. Their cause, Quebec independence, is still alive but just barely. The cause is no longer seen as justification for terrorist acts. Two independence referendums have seen Quebecers vote to stay in Canada. Public opinion polls show support for Quebec independence to be at almost an all-time low.
I see parallels between those who joined the FLQ and the young Canadian men travelling to Syria and Iraq to die fighting for ISIS. Francis Simard, Jacques Rose, Paul Rose (I didn’t need to look up those names, they are part of my life experience) and their “colleagues” in the FLQ were idealistic young men alienated from society. All accounts I have read indicate that today’s radicalized recruits are young men who feel out of place and who turn to Islam and terrorism out of a need to belong to something bigger than themselves.
The FLQ terrorists made bad choices, but lived to tell their stories. Maybe it was the difference between political and religious fervor; they wanted to live for their cause not die for it.
I feel for the families of those who lost sons and brothers this past week in Syria and Iraq. The FLQ terrorists of the 1960s and 1970s were given a second chance. Today’s young men died for a cause that I suspect they didn’t really understand. Did we as a society fail them? Or would it have happened anyway? We can ask the questions, but for them it is too late for answers.