The Making of the October Crisis: Canada’s Long Nightmare of Terrorism at the Hands of the FLQ
By D’Arcy Jenish
Doubleday Canada, 368 pages
Wilfred O’Neil was a 65-year-old native of the Gaspé region of Quebec. Though he had an Irish family name, he was more of a francophone. His mother was a Duguay and he had married a Lévesque. He was due to retire in a month when he died. Two dozen mourners attended his modest funeral.
O’Neil’s identity is not a secret, but neither is he well-known. He was a security guard who died when a bomb went off in Montreal on the night of April 20, 1963, making him the first victim of the Front de libération du Québec.
That biographical sketch of O’Neil, while succinct, is one of the poignant thumbnails that appear in D’Arcy Jenish’s new book, The Making of the October Crisis: Canada’s Long Nightmare of Terrorism at the Hands of the FLQ. However briefly, the author made sure to outline some details about the life and death of the night watchman, so he would not just be a footnote.
In the current age of terrorism, the merit of this thorough, compelling book is the timely way Jenish reminds us of the scale and intensity of this previous cycle of political violence. From 1963 to 1970, seven people died, scores of bombs detonated, including outside the Montreal Stock Exchange and City Hall, and radical Quebeckers held up stores, hijacked planes and trained at a camp in the Middle East.
This was the news from Quebec half a century ago, when the quest for independence led some to take arms. It would culminate with the episode most remembered by lay people, the October, 1970, crisis, when separate FLQ cells abducted the British diplomat James Richard Cross and the Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, who was killed in captivity.
Written so many years after the events, this book can be less clinical, less matter-of-fact and gives us a sense of its colourful cast of characters, where even minor players make memorable cameos – François Schirm, the former Foreign Legion sergeant who led a botched heist at a gun store; Carole de Vault, nicknamed Poupette, the FLQ supporter who was also a police informant and a one-time paramour of Jacques Parizeau; Albert Lisacek, known as “the toughest cop in Canada,” who was brutal and ruthless in his chase after the kidnappers of Laporte.
And of course, we are told about Walter Leja, who was severely maimed while trying to dismantle an FLQ bomb, Leslie McWilliams and Alfred Pinisch, who died in the gun-shop robbery, Thérèse Morin, a receptionist killed by a bomb, Jean Corbo, a 16-year-old FLQ member killed by a bomb he was trying to plant, Jeanne d’Arc Saint-Germain, a civil servant killed by a bomb that blew up outside National Defence headquarters in Ottawa.
A veteran of long-form journalism, Jenish knows how to gather tidbits from disparate sources – police reports, coroner inquests, newspaper clippings – and weave them to recreate narrative scenes, crafting a more appealing read for the general public than other works of the same scope, such as Louis Fournier’s often-cited 1984 book, F.L.Q., the anatomy of an underground movement.
One key source for Jenish was Robert Côté, the former head of the Montreal police’s bomb squad who repeatedly risked his life defusing explosive devices. His heroics made front-page news at the time and he would get the Order of Canada at the age of 36. But it is still worth reading about the occasion when he neutralized a bomb at the Eaton department store just five minutes before it was to blow up.
At the same time, the reader can see the limits of law-enforcement actions, despite the police’s success in arresting wave after wave of Felquistes. Like today’s jihadis, the FLQ supporters were part of an ideological movement with a loose structure. Busting specific networks didn’t stop others from starting their own cells.
Jenish didn’t get first-hand interviews with the former FLQ members, although he outlines the turmoil and social inequalities that led them to take arms. Some, such as Jacques Lanctôt, of the cell that kidnapped Cross, have written a lot about themselves. So we get a detailed portrayal of the man, from his stifling childhood as one of the 10 kids of a fascist father, to his rebellious years as a left-wing activist, to his growing disillusions during his Cuban exile.
Others, such as Pierre-Paul Geoffroy, didn’t open themselves as much. Geoffroy took the rap for other members of his cell, got 124 concurrent life sentences and remains an enigma even though Jenish notes that he had been the FLQ’s most prolific and dangerous bomber.
Already back then, there was a debate about balancing state powers and civil liberties. Pierre Trudeau, he of the infamous “Just watch me” quote, is reviled by Quebec nationalists as the man who took hundreds of innocents into custody during the October crisis. Jenish reminds readers that it was the provincial government of Robert Bourassa, overwhelmed and struggling to establish a negotiation line with the kidnappers, that actually asked Ottawa to bring in the army and invoke the War Measures Act.
The abductions and the ensuing crackdown effectively ended the FLQ. The 1976 election of the Parti Québécois showed that sovereignists could take power through peaceful means. This year’s election underlined how marginal the very idea of independence has become in Quebec politics.
The last part of the book underlines what happens after a terrorist movement runs out of gas. While not exactly exuding remorse, the former FLQ members served their sentences and returned to normal life. Some became disenchanted. Others, such as Paul Rose, pursued their ideals through peaceful actions.
There were two exceptions. In 2002, Raymond Villeneuve pleaded guilty to harassing and threatening an anglophone activist. And Rhéal Mathieu got a one-month sentence for trying to firebomb Second Cup coffee shops, in a protest against the chain's English name.
Jenish unfortunately treats those two cases in separate parts of his book. In an ironic twist, Mathieu was in the news again after he was denied boarding for a flight to Paris in 2015. During his failed court bid to get his fare reimbursed, it emerged that he was on a U.S. no-fly list. It wasn’t clear whether his conversion to Islam in the 1980s or his criminal past, or both, played a role in his flight ban. But Mathieu’s travel predicaments thus managed to link together past and present security issues.