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Fifty years after his FLQ cell abducted and murdered Pierre Laporte, Paul Rose is still a polarizing figure in Quebec – and a figure of mystery to the family who saw a softer side of him

Paul Rose is pictured at top left alongside Quebec provincial police sketches showing how he might have changed his appearance. The images were circulated in 1970 manhunt for Mr. Rose, the leader of a Front de libération du Québec cell that kidnapped and killed a provincial cabinet minister.The Canadian Press

Paul Rose – political prisoner, loving father, terrorist – grew up in Ville Jacques-Cartier, a working-class suburb of Montreal.

The family’s small, imitation-brick house was located on a dirt road where stray dogs and chickens roamed, and large Catholic families often lost children to disease.

Down the street was bourgeois, anglophone Saint-Lambert, and its public swimming pool. Children such as the Roses would play in the water silently, so their voices didn’t reveal them as French speakers from the wrong neighbourhood.

It was growing up this way – poor, diminished because of his language – that turned Paul Rose into a radical, capable of killing a man in the name of a cause.

That is the thesis of Les Rose, a hit documentary directed by his son Félix Rose. The film, which traces their family’s involvement in the events now known as the October Crisis, has become a surprise success in Quebec this fall.

It has also helped to revive memories and debates about a traumatic moment in history, which the province is still processing 50 years later.

As he walked the streets of the old Ville Jacques-Cartier on a rainy morning earlier this month, the younger Mr. Rose recalled the moment, aged 6 or 7, when he learned what all of Canada already knew about his beloved “papa poule” – that he had been convicted of murdering a cabinet minister in one of the most notorious acts of political violence the country has seen. It was a revelation that would fuel a life’s worth of research and eventually inspire his film.

“I didn’t understand: My father was a gentle person,” he said. “I wanted to understand what led my father to such grave actions.”

Many Quebeckers have been asking themselves the same question for half a century.

Félix Rose stands in front of the childhood home of his father, Paul Rose, in suburban Montreal. The younger Mr. Rose tells his father's story in a new National Film Board documentary.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

On Oct. 10, 1970, a four-person cell of the Front de libération du Québec, which included Paul Rose and his brother Jacques, abducted the province’s deputy premier and labour minister, Pierre Laporte, from the front lawn of his house in leafy Saint-Lambert (by then, and still, more heavily francophone than it was in the 1950s).

It was a shocking escalation of the group’s campaign of revolutionary violence. Five days earlier, another FLQ cell had kidnapped British diplomat James Cross. The Front was now demanding the release of 23 fellow members who had been imprisoned for a campaign of bombings and robberies in the 1960s that had left six people dead and injured dozens.

As even Mr. Rose, the respectful son, makes clear, the October abductors were not very good at being terrorists. The cell that seized Cross forgot to put on their ski masks before bursting into his home. The Roses left their licence plate exposed, allowing Mr. Laporte’s nephew to write it down as the crew drove off.

What happened to Mr. Laporte during his week of captivity remains something of a black box, which the film does little to illuminate. Members of the Chénier cell – named after a leader of the 1837 Lower Canada Rebellion – were cagey about the circumstances of the labour minister’s death. Theories about an escape attempt gone wrong, or a botched effort to silence a frantic Mr. Laporte, have always circulated among FLQ sympathizers; the four abductors maintained a policy of collective responsibility for the killing and broad discretion about the details.

What is clear, however, is that on Oct. 17, a day after the federal government invoked the War Measures Act to quash an “apprehended insurrection,” the Front announced that it had executed Mr. Laporte and left his body in the trunk of a car near a Montreal-area airport.

Paul Rose went into hiding, but was soon discovered (in a tunnel beneath a farmhouse), tried and convicted for murder, and sentenced to life in prison, of which he served 13 years.

Mr. Rose gestures from a Montreal courtroom after being charged with offences related to his FLQ activities.The Canadian Press

The FLQ withered in the wake of the killing, as even many fellow travellers recoiled from their brutal extremism, and other separatists such as René Lévesque denounced the group in the starkest terms.

But the Rose clan stayed in the public eye, thanks to drawn-out trials and the efforts of their matriarch, Rose Rose (she married into the surname), who became a leading advocate for “political prisoners” such as her boys. In some people’s eyes, the passionate, ragtag Front managed to retain a romantic sheen for years to come; in the film, we see footage of Jacques Rose receiving a standing ovation from delegates at the 1981 Parti Québécois convention, while Mr. Lévesque looks on in disgust.

The details and aftermath of October, 1970, and the role played by the Roses, are still the stuff of passionate argument in Quebec. The province’s press and publishing industry have seen a steady stream of articles and books this year rehashing the period from every conceivable angle in the lead-up to its 50th anniversary.

Readers have been treated to a pair of memoirs by former FLQ members, the re-edition of two classic histories of the crisis, and a new retrospective by the author and filmmaker Jules Falardeau asking, in part, how the Front would be viewed today if Quebec had gained its independence.

The former leader of the PQ was given 2,500 words by the highbrow nationalist newspaper Le Devoir to pen a forensic analysis of how Pierre Laporte died. (His answer: strangulation, first as an attempt to quiet the hostage, and then to kill him.) One writer in Le Journal de Montréal, the veteran journalist Antoine Robitaille, even dared to ask if Quebeckers were talking too much about the events of October, 1970. (His answer: No.)

For some, the period is worth dwelling on because the province’s repudiation of FLQ violence marked a turn away from the kind of armed struggle that scarred places such as Northern Ireland for generations. In this argument, counterintuitively, it is a time Quebeckers can be proud of.

Mr. Laporte's coffin is carried down the steps of a Montreal courthouse on Oct. 20, 1970, before being taken to Notre Dame Basilica for the funeral.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

The historian Éric Bédard, who teaches at the distance-learning university TÉLUQ, sees a more melancholy explanation for the continued fascination. The 1960s in Quebec were a time of “Quiet Revolution,” when Anglo economic dominance and Catholic cultural power were being peacefully thrown off in a series of dramatic political reforms that nationalized electricity companies and made schooling secular, while homegrown artists reflected the change in an eruption of brilliant music and cinema. The October Crisis, with its abductions and heavy-handed government response, felt like a dark coda to a thrilling decade.

“The death of Laporte ended that period when we thought everything was possible,” said Prof. Bédard, whose history of Quebec youth during the crisis, Chronique d’une insurrection appréhendée, was recently re-issued. “For a whole generation of baby boomers, it was the end of an era of innocence.”

The response to Félix Rose’s film has illustrated the enduring power of this five-decade preoccupation, along with its capacity to divide the province along linguistic lines.

Although Les Rose was a minor box office hit in Quebec – for a National Film Board documentary released during a pandemic, anyway – it received much more favourable press in French than in English. Le Devoir gave the movie a rave review. Coverage by francophone journalists in general has tended to focus on the outrageous poverty of the Rose family and the overkill of the War Measures Act, when nearly 500 people were arrested without warrants.

In the anglophone Montreal Gazette, meanwhile, critics accused the film of being a glamorized account of FLQ crimes that serves as “propaganda” for a defunct terrorist group. Don Macpherson, a columnist for the paper, wrote angrily about the sovereigntist luminaries who attended screenings of the film and saved particular ire for a leftist member of the National Assembly, Catherine Dorion, who mimicked a famous photo of Paul Rose with his fist raised in the air.

What has united many viewers on both sides of the language divide in Quebec, however, is a visceral reaction to a documentary that has received little attention in the rest of Canada (although it has been free to watch on the NFB website since Sept. 27).

Journalist Lise Ravary says there's 'nothing romantic' to look back at in the FLQ's actions.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Lise Ravary, a bilingual boomer journalist who wrote a critical piece about the film in the Gazette, said she doesn’t think younger Quebeckers share her generation’s strong feelings about the crisis. But like many people of her era and background, Ms. Ravary has acute personal reasons for recoiling from the legacy of that long-ago month.

She was raised in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and admires Félix Rose’s evocation of francophone disadvantage in those years. Ms. Ravary also intimately knew members of the FLQ and experienced the devastation they sowed. One of her cousins was jailed for planting a mailbox bomb in the wealthy Anglo enclave of Westmount after marrying Georges Schoeters, one of the founders of the terrorist group.

Later, as a media executive, she worked alongside the “very dignified” Jean Laporte, Pierre Laporte’s only son, who this month gave a rare series of interviews describing the murder’s awful toll on his family. For Ms. Ravary, the crisis was an intimate affair, whose traumatic resonance Mr. Rose failed to capture.

“I felt, throughout the movie, there was some romanticizing of the FLQ and their goals,” she said. “I saw inside a family, the incredible damage that it did. … There’s nothing romantic about it up close, and there’s nothing romantic from afar.”

Félix Rose looked back at the intergenerational roots of his father's life and beliefs.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Few people have a more up-close perspective on the October Crisis than Félix Rose, and his documentary is unapologetically personal. It stems from a project of genealogical research he began as an adolescent, trying to understand how his father, who “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” could have turned to violent insurrection. The results taught him how the personal and political could be intertwined for Quebeckers of that era.

Mr. Rose learned that four generations of men in his family had worked at Montreal’s Redpath Sugar plant, for little pay, in brutally hot, rat-infested buildings, forced to speak English with the foremen – and had felt lucky for the privilege of having a job.

Paul and Jacques Rose were meant to be the fifth generation to shoulder that burden, but when they visited their father at work one day, they resolved never to join him there. Paul worked briefly as a teacher, but the Rose boys soon took up activism instead. Their first taste of notoriety came when they founded a kind of youth hostel and hangout for disaffected Quebeckers in the Gaspé region, which local authorities tried hard to shut down.

By that point they had decided the Quiet Revolution was too quiet for them – too slow and tentative in its progress. “That’s what my father said – ‘We wanted to accelerate history,’” Félix Rose recalled. “And that’s what some people reproached him for.”

The film shows what that acceleration looked like from one family’s perspective. The late Ms. Rose learned her sons were in the FLQ when they were declared wanted on TV during the hostage crisis. Soon a provincial police officer was in their home, holding a gun to her head.

Jacques Rose waves after the 1971 court appearance where he was charged.The Canadian Press

Interviews with the grim-faced Jacques Rose make up the spine of the documentary. He vacillates between taking responsibility for Mr. Laporte’s death and blaming others. “It was the Army that killed him,” Mr. Rose maintains at one point – because their overaggression forced the abductors' hand.

But in another conversation with his nephew, he expresses something close to contrition: “We never wanted a man to die, but it happened. We were all responsible for the situation. We were destroyed by it, but we owned it.”

The portrait of Paul Rose is most compelling of all. (He died of a stroke in Montreal in 2013 at the age of 69.) We see him through the lens of history, and then with the eyes of a son, as he morphs on screen from a fiery revolutionary in army fatigues to the perfect suburban dad, captured on home videos lounging in an Adirondack chair.

Félix Rose does not make excuses for his father’s crimes, or, equally, for presenting his papa poule in an affectionate light. “I would never say I’m proud of the events of October,” he said. “But I’m proud of the man he became. The father, the activist … that’s the man I wanted to present.”

It is a fittingly domestic perspective. For a handful of people, those autumn weeks in 1970 were a private drama, played out in kitchens and living rooms, with the lives of fathers and sons at stake. But for the rest of the province, something nearly as precious – the soul of their society – seemed to be in play.

“It was a family tragedy,” says Claire, one of Paul’s sisters, in the film. She was speaking about the Roses. But she might just as well have meant Quebec.

October Crisis at 50: More from The Globe and Mail

Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press

Simon Lewsen: Fifty years later, what’s the true story of the October Crisis?

D’Arcy Jenish: For the Bloc Québécois, the October Crisis is a modern-day political weapon

David Frank: The night that student journalists ran up against the War Measures Act

Editorial: What Pierre Trudeau got right, and wrong, in the October Crisis

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