I remember waking up when the bomb went off, though I didn’t know what it was. I found out the next morning that there had been a terrorist attack on a nearby bridge. That was 1963.
We think of Canada as a peaceful place, but growing up in Montreal in the 1960s we were very aware of the potential for unexpected violence. A domestic terrorist group, the FLQ (Front de Liberation du Quebec) wanted Quebec to be an independent country, not a Canadian province, and weren’t shy about attacking federal symbols.
The bombings were sporadic, but every child knew that the neigbourhood mailbox could have a bomb in it. Some people had been killed in the explosions.
Fifty years ago, in October 1970, the tension escalated. First a British diplomat, James Cross, then a provincial cabinet minister, Pierre LaPorte, were abducted by the FLQ. LaPorte was murdered.
The federal government invoked the War Measures Act as part of a massive crackdown on civil liberties. At the time it seemed justified – the government felt there was an armed insurrection underway. The reality was there were only a few terrorists, but government intelligence sources didn’t know that.
Which meant that the Prime Minister, father of today’s Prime Minister, ordered the violation of thousands of peoples’ civil rights. Several hundred people were detained without due process, suspected of having terrorist connections. This was strange behavior from someone who was an ostensible champion of rights.
I had thought there would be more of a retrospective look at what came to be known as “The October Crisis” on this, its fiftieth anniversary, but I have seen very little. Maybe too many people are concentrating on COVID-19 for the media to look back.
It also explains why, fifty years ago this month, I was under armed guard as I boarded the school bus each day for the trip home from class. As an Anglophone attending an English-language high school, I was considered a potential target.
Or maybe there isn’t much to be proud of. You don’t usually commemorate the bad things.
Since then, those favoring Quebec independence have opted for change through the democratic process rather than bombs. Separatist governments have twice asked the people to vote for Quebec independence. Twice the people have chosen to remain part of Canada. It has been 25 years since the last vote, and another seems unlikely.
There are still those who dream of Quebec as an independent nation, but they are no longer taking up arms to achieve that goal. The Bloc Quebecois, the separatist party in the House of Commons, has called on the government to apologize for its supposedly unjustified 1970 crackdown on civil liberties, but no-one is suggesting violence.
Today we live again in a society where civil liberties have been suspended as governments try to control a health emergency. (I’m torn by what words to use here. I know people who have died from COVID-19, so I am aware of its potential – but I am not convinced the threat is as great as some would have us believe. I don’t want to be seen as minimizing the situation, but I have many questions about the government response.)
I wonder when there will be calls for an official apology, for the government to admit it mishandled the pandemic and that many of the restrictions on liberty, as well-meaning as they may have been, were unnecessary.
In hindsight, imposing the War Measures Act in 1970 was unnecessary and an unjustifiable infringement of the rights of Canadians. There were only about a dozen terrorists – they never really had popular support. There was violence, but no real threat to the social order. But the government didn’t know that.
In five years time, maybe less, when we look back at 2020, I wonder if there will be a realization that most governments were wrong in dealing with COVID-19. There was no preparation for a pandemic, despite years of warnings from health care experts. And as bad as things got, we may conclude there was no real threat to society.
Maybe if our leaders had heeded those warnings and considered the possibilities they would have taken different measures. Maybe they wouldn’t have had to impose such arbitrary restrictions.
Looking back at the October Crisis I have sympathy for those leaders who overreacted. After all, they felt personally threatened.
I wonder what excuse today’s leaders have?