The October Crisis forty years after

Last year, a great injustice was done in Canada. At the muzzle of threats to violence issued by some Quebec sovereigntists, several events to mark the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham were cancelled.

It was a despicable affair, and a surprising one, for me — I would never have guessed that anyone outside academia would actually stake out a position on an event so remote. And yet there they were — a small group of malcontents derailing the commemoration of an undeniably crucial point in Canada’s past, for what amounted to political purposes.

Fortunately, that sordid pattern of events hasn’t been repeated with another, more recent, chapter in our history, at least not quite.

This past month marked the 40th anniversary of the October Crisis. On Oct. 5, 1970, two armed members of La Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped one James Cross, the British trade commissioner.

This triggered a landslide of events, including the subsequent abduction and murder of Quebec’s minister of labour, Pierre Laporte, and most famously, the enactment of the War Measures Act, which gave the police sweeping powers and led to the arrest of almost 500 people, of whom 62 were charged.

It was a critical moment in Canadian history. And four decades later, it is an event worth remembering, if not for the lessons that it taught us, then for the debate that it still inspires.

The broad strokes should ring familiar to most contemporary ears. Quebec separatism — of the decidedly peaceful variety, it should be noted — has been a prevalent topic in Canada ever since the 1970s, if somewhat less so over this past decade. Terrorism is a concept with which we are all quite familiar. And the show of strength by the police and military mirrors any number of recent examples, from the reaction to Sept. 11, to the recent G20 conference.

The particulars are, of course, different in each case, but the fact that they all dredge up the same issues seems to me to indicate that such issues are worth discussing.

So, with that in mind, what discussion transpired last month?

Some events were held in Quebec, of course. Of note, the Société St. Jean Baptiste, a sovereigntist group, erected a monument in Montreal dedicated to the people who were arrested during the October Crisis without cause. Several speakers were on hand (all dedicated separatists), and they spoke of tanks and helicopters and armed troops in the streets, menacing sights all.

Only one, Bloc Québécois MP Serge Menard, elected to remind the audience that, right or wrong, the whole situation was instigated by violent separatists.

Across the river, in St. Lambert, another monument was unveiled, in memory of the death of Pierre Laporte. Attendees included Premier Jean Charest, who spoke of the need to remember Laporte so that such events would not be repeated, and so that violence would always be seen as an intolerable means to an end. No mention of the War Measures Act.

As for the media, CTV ran a special report a couple of weeks ago on the Crisis. CBC has several pieces, and some archival footage, on its website. So, I cannot complain about a dearth of discussion.

However, I found said discussion a bit lacking. It’s partly that each side mostly ignored the other. Most of what is being said is by sovereigntists, eager to smear the federal government however they can. And the rest of the country, whom I can only assume decided their positions on the Crisis a long time ago, have mostly shrugged the anniversary off, dutifully paying homage as necessary, but generally disinterested in what it actually means to Canada.

Also interesting is what is not being said. I had expected at least a brief written statement out of the PMO, but so far nothing. Perhaps, with the G20 still stalking about the headlines, they’ve decided that this is an issue best left untouched. Perhaps others feel the same way, and have elected to wait for an anniversary less proximate to a similar event to pontificate on their positions.

Or maybe it’s just me, and October 1970 has, for most people, gone the way of the Plains of Abraham, a chapter worth remembering but so remote as to be beyond the realm of debate for all but historians.

If that is the case — and I hope it is not, for many of the issues surrounding and stemming from the October Crisis are far from resolved — then hopefully it will be allowed some measure of historical dignity, and avoid being resurrected inopportunely by malcontents with the intent to obfuscate and misconstrue the past for their own political ends.

-Greg Sacks is a first year law student at Robson Hall trying to prove that the keyboard is mightier than the pen, through an unholy alliance with the sword.