“Get down on the floor or you’ll be fucking dead,” went the instructions of the anonymous gunman, shortly before threatening to shoot a dalmatian. But this was no agent of Cruella de Vil seeking pelts for a new coat. This callous ultimatum was in fact issued by a member of Canadian terrorist group, the Front de liberation du Quebec [FLQ] at the home of British trade commissioner James Cross and his pet pooch in October 1970. But let me backtrack a little.
Canada - yes Canada - provides an early example of modern terrorism, and a controversial, no holds barred method of counterterrorism.
Famed for its docility and placidness as much as it’s maple syrup and mounties, Canada has garnered a reputation as the Switzerland of North America. Within popular culture this has been explored time and again. The likes of Michael Moore’s striking portrayal of Canada, when compared to the almost maniacal U.S. in “Bowling for Columbine” demonstrates why the Canadians entertain this harmonious reputation. Yet Canada has a less than cordial past, and 2013 marks fifty years since the formation of bloody urban terrorists the FLQ in 1963, a separatist movement with designs to secede Quebec from federal Canada.
Although not really undertaking anything groundbreaking until the late 60s/ 1970 this group were formed in 1963, curiously by foreigners. They were made up mostly of disenchanted students, convinced they were victims of oppressive colonial rule. Kidnap victim, James Cross commented that ‘it used to be said that in any large building in Montreal the proportion of French Canadians decreased as you rose to the top floors’.
British oppressors enjoyed top positions in the city, not the repressed French Canadians. In the volatile atmosphere of social change in the 1960s that saw the birth of movements such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army [PIRA], the FLQ was spawned. They began by raiding banks, attacking arms stores and carrying out various bombings, most notably the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1969. These tactics were similar to that utilised by the urban guerrillas in Latin America. They had brought revolutionary struggle out of the countryside and presided over the rural insurrectionary of Cuba infamy rising from the ashes to spread his bomb-strapped wings as the urban terrorist.
Westmount, Montreal, an Anglophone region often found itself a target of FLQ bombing.
The FLQ’s campaign climaxed in October 1970 when they “diplonapped” - a growing trend of international terrorism alongside the “skyjacking” of palestinian liberation movements - James Cross, and a few days later Quebec Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte, later found dead in the trunk of a car. In fact, this was the first modern case of political kidnapping in North America. The ever-docile Canucks had ushered in a new tenet of urban terrorism.
Their demands were sevenfold: 1) the cessation of all police activity designed to find kidnappers of their hostages; 2) the publication of a political manifesto on the front pages of all major Quebec newspapers and its broadcast on Radio-Canada; 3) the release of 20 political prisoners; 4) the provision of a plan to fly them to either Algeria or Cuba; 4) the rehiring of a unionized group of postal drivers, known as the Lapalme boys, who had been replaced with another company by the Federal Minister of the Post Office; 6) a voluntary tax of 500,000 dollars in gold ingots to be placed on the plane with the political prisoners; and 7) the publication of the name and photo of a suspected informer related to a previous ‘diplonap’ plot.
These demands were to be met in order to “preserve the life of the representative of the ancient racist and colonialist British system”. But of all these demands, the minimum requirements were the release of the political prisoners and publication of the manifesto. In this respect the ‘diplonapping’ was a manifestation of propaganda of the deed; to propagate their demands for the secession of Quebec, and congregate support for their aims. A Toronto reporter, Anthony Westell, picked up on this succinctly,
As Trudeau emphasized, the key demand for release of FLQ members in jail, was not a Robin Hood attempt to rescue comrades, but a calculated effort to weaken authority by creating a parallel power able to enforce its will on the government, if only for a few hours.
Alarmingly for the Canadian authorities, this platform the FLQ so desired was somewhat established. After FLQ supporters took over an opposition party rally at the Paul Sauve Arena on Thursday 15th October 1970 it was clear that the FLQ’s high-profile kidnapping had done just the trick. A degree of sympathy and support for the Quebec terrorists pervaded Canadian society.
Canada’s response was surprisingly draconian. The following day, Friday 16th the War Measures Act was passed, for the first time in peace-time. This gave the police powers of arrest, search and seziure without warrant, and the preventive detention of suspects for up to 21 days without laying charges and up to 90 days without setting a trial date. 238 people had been arrested by the end of the morning of the 16th. Placid eh.
Anyone who had ever shown any form of sympathy or support for the left or nationalistic elements of society were rounded up. Civil liberties had been suspended in Canada, yet within a few days outside support for the FLQ had effectively dried up and popular support for the government was returning.
James Cross was eventually released after negotiators had agreed the kidnappers a flight to Cuba. The Canada Pavillion in Montreal was formally declared Cuban territory for the purpose of the transfer. The FLQ had achieved their minimum political aims of publication of their manifesto, and the Canadian government had provided them an iota of political legitimacy by negotiating with them; a short term victory perhaps. However the hardline measures adopted by the Canadian authorities also wiped the FLQ out in the long term. This form of martial law had allowed the authorities to identify sympathisers and supporters of the movement; effectively breaking up their cell network.
Interestingly, these sorts of measures would later have disastrous consequences for the British when attempting to combat the popular subversion of the PIRA on the streets of Londonderry. Furthermore, these counter-terror tactics did attract criticism despite effectively nipping the FLQ in the bud. Yet importantly this uniquely dark chapter in Canada’s history and vanguard example of modern terrorism, dispels certain myths.
So next time you see popular culture take a dig at poor Canada’s expense, just remember they can and have been pretty badass in recent memory. Their southern drone-wielding, neo-interventionist brothers in the U.S. may have a more complete resume in this field, but French-Canada’s home-grown terrorists elicited a hardline suspension of civil liberties that should completely change your perception of them docile Canucks. Not so much placid as Lake Placid.