The 1970 October Crisis in Quebec

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Podcast Transcript

Canada has a reputation for being a rather low-key, friendly place. 

For the most part, this is true. It is a nice place to visit and is not usually in turmoil.

However, that hasn’t always been the case. Fifty years ago, Canadians faced the threat of extremism and terrorism, and it almost did irreparable damage to the country.

Learn more about Quebec’s October Crisis of 1970 on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

For those of you not familiar with the history, I should first give a background for how Quebec ended up where it did in the autumn of 1970.

As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, Canada was once exclusively French. The land was known as New France, and it was largely populated with settlers from France. 

However, the British started moving in, came into conflict with the French, and defeated them in 1759 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. 

The British now found themselves ruling over a people with a totally different language, legal system, and religion. The British were going to have a very difficult time controlling Quebec if they tried to force their customs and language on the French settlers. 

If you remember back to my episode on “why didn’t Canada join the American revolution?”, the solution the British adopted was the Quebec Act of 1774. 

This basically gave Quebec autonomy to run things their own way. They could keep their language, religion, and legal system, although they would still nominally be ruled by the British. 

This actually appeased most of the Québécois. They were largely left alone, which is why they didn’t join the Americans in revolting. 

However, as Canada grew, it mostly grew from British settlers.  Whereas Canada was originally almost totally French, as it grew, it became dominated by English speakers. 

French speakers went from a majority to a minority centered around the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec. 

Fast forward to the 20th century, and anger in Quebec started to rise. The economic conditions in Quebec were worse than in the rest of Canada. Many leaders and intellectuals in Quebec believed that the cause of their woes was due to the Anglophone dominance of Canada, and the solution was to cut ties with Canada and for Quebec to become an independent country.

Quebec independence was an idea that had lingered in the Québécoi consciousness ever since the Battle at the Plains of Abraham. However, the Quebec independence movement grew in earnest in the early 1960s. It went from an idea to something people began actively pursuing. 

The Cause of Quebec independence was boosted when French President Charles de Gaulle visited Montreal in 1967 and said from the Montreal City Hall, “Vive Montréal?! Vive le Québec?! Vive le Québec libre?!” or Long Live Montreal, Long Live Quebec, Long Live a Free Quebec!

I suppose his advocacy of splitting up Canada was his way of saying thanks to one of the countries which helped liberate France during the second world war. 

By the time the events of this episode took place in 1970, there were several Quebec separatist groups that had become quite radicalized. 

This group which is relevant to this story, was the Front de libération du Québec, or FLQ. 

The FLQ was a separatist guerrilla group. Like many extremist groups of that era, they were Marxists and advocated violence to achieve their goals. They were heavily influenced by communist revolutions in Cuba and Angola. 

Between 1963 to 1970, they committed over 160 violent acts, which resulted in the deaths of eight people, with dozens of others injured. These attacks resulted in the FLQ being declared a terrorist group by the Canadian government. 

Bombings took place at Canadian defense facilities, banks, the home of the Mayor of Montreal, McGill University, department stores, bookstores, and residential neighborhoods.

Perhaps their most notable attack prior to the events of this episode took place on February 13, 1969, when they detonated a bomb in the Montreal Stock Exchange during trading hours. 

The events which became known as the October Crisis began on October 5, 1970. 

Several members of the Liberation Cell of the FLQ dressed as delivery men to trick their way into the home of British Diplomat James Cross. Once inside, they produced firearms and kidnapped him at gunpoint. 

Later that day, they sent a list of demands which included the release of 23 FLQ members from prison, which they considered to be political prisoners, $500,000, safe passage to Cuba, and for the CBC to broadcast the FLQ Manifesto. Their deadline was October 9. 

The demands were the same as those from a failed kidnapping attempt of the US Consul in June. 

The next day, October 6, the federal minister for external affairs, Mitchell Sharp, called the FLQ demands to be “wholly unreasonable.”

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who was himself from Quebec, announced that any decisions would be made jointly between the Federal and Provincial governments.

On October 7, there were police raids in Quebec that resulted in the arrest of 30, and several radio stations were sent messages indicating that James Cross would be killed if their demands weren’t met. 

On October 8, the CBC honored their request and broadcast the FLQ manifesto on all French and English media outlets in Quebec. 

On October 9, the FLQ extended its deadline to October 10 at 6 pm, and if their demands weren’t met, they would kill Cross. 

On October 10, events escalated. 

At 5:40 pm, 20 minutes before the deadline, Quebec justice minister Jérome Choquette announced that if Cross were delivered alive, members of the Liberation Cell would be allowed passage to Cuba, but no other demands would be honored. 

Moments after the deadline passed, another FLQ cell, known as the Chénier Cell, abducted the Quebec Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte, who was playing ball in his front yard with his nephew

The abduction of a second government official was a major escalation. Moreover, the Chénier Cell took a much harder line than the Liberation Cell did. 

On October 11, politicians all over Quebec started to panic and began to demand protection. Chénier Cell announced the Laporte would be executed by 10 pm unless all the demands were met and released proof that he was alive, but later gave him a stay of execution. 

On October 12, the Liberation Cell issued a message contradicting the Chénier Cell, saying that if just the 23 prisoners were released, they would release their captive. 

Troops of the Royal 22nd Régiment are the first to be sent to Montreal.

So far, this has been a normal kidnapping drama, although perhaps with higher political stakes. 

On October 13, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked by the press about the increased military presence in Quebec. He replied, “Yes, well, there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people.”

When asked how far he would go, he responded, “Well, just watch me.”

The same day, Robert Demers, a senior official within the Quebec Liberal Party, began negotiating with FLQ lawyer Robert Lemieux, who was now representing both cells. 

On the 14th, negotiations continued with the FLQ, and in Ottawa, the federal parliament began debating the implementation of the War Measures Act. 

The War Measures Act dates back to the early days of the First World War. It gave the Canadian government broad powers to maintain security and order. During World War I and World War II, the Act was used to suspend the civil liberties of suspected “enemy aliens.” 

On the 15th, 1,000 federal troops were sent to Montreal.  Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau requested even more federal troops be sent. Tanks were stationed outside of the parliament building in Ottawa.

On October 16, at 3:30 in the morning, the Federal Government escalated things further by invoking the War Measures Act. The only time in Canadian history it has been invoked during a time of peace. 

Under the War Measures Act, the FLQ was outlawed, and all members were declared criminals. 

This was not done without protest. Opposition party members in Parliament objected, likening it to using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut. 

Within 48 hours of the invocation of the act, over 250 people were arrested in Quebec. This included people who were known members of the FLQ as well as people who simply offered public sympathy with them.

On the evening of October 17, at 10:50 pm, the body of Pierre Laporte was found in the trunk of a car near the Saint-Hubert Airport. It was determined that Laport had been strangled. 

With the death of Pierre Laporte and the invocation of the War Measures Act, arrest warrants for murder were issued for the members of the Chénier Cell. 

On October 20, the funeral for Pierre Laporte was held, and by this time, 1,628 raids were conducted under the auspices of the War Measures Act.

On October 25, it became obvious just how much the actions of the FLQ had backfired on them. Municipal elections were held in Montreal, and the incumbent mayor, Jean Drapeau, and his party won with a whopping 92 percent of the vote. 

James Cross, however, was still being held captive.

Arrests continued to be made throughout November, and a reward of was issued $150,000 leading to the arrest of the kidnappers.

On December 1, the War Measures Act was replaced by another act “to provide temporary emergency powers for the preservation of public order in Canada.”

Finally, on December 3, James Cross was released in exchange for the safe passage of Liberation Cell members to Cuba. Cross had lost weight, but was otherwise unharmed. 

The last military troops left Quebec on January 4, 1971, and the emergency measures were rescinded on April 30. 

The aftermath of the October Crisis reverberated for years in Canadian politics. 

While most Canadians initially supported Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act, there were many concerns about its impact on civil liberties. There were over 100 people improperly detained who were later given $30,000 each in compensation.

It also mostly put an end to attempts to achieve independence through violence. Separatists in Quebec put their efforts behind separation through political means.

The result was referendums for independence in both 1980 and 1995. The first referendum failed with 60% voting no, and the 1995 referendum failed with 51% voting no. 

Efforts shifted to political parties that supported independence, such as the Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois. 

While Quebec separatism is still alive and well, it doesn’t seem to be the issue it was even 25 years ago. Current polling shows support for independence at only 36%, with only 26% supporting it in the 18 to 24-year-old demographic. 

In 2020, on the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis, the leader of the Bloc Québécois Party in the federal parliament introduced legislation for a formal apology for invoking the War Measures Act.

Believe it or not, no one in Canada has formally said they’re sorry.

The October Crisis was one of the seminal events in the history of Canada. Echos of what happened in October 1970 in Quebec can be seen in Canada today.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Just a reminder that episode 1000 is coming up soon. If you would like to have your message included in the show, you can a short audio message at

It can be your favorite episode, a story about where or how you listen to the show, or something else. I’ll be closing this in a few days as I’ll be moving this weekend. 

I also have links to the page in the show notes as well as in the Facebook group.