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In October, 1970, the Front de Libération du Québec issued an eight-page ransom note after abducting British diplomat James Cross. Its first page, shown here, includes a demand that their manifesto appear on the front page of Quebec's major newspapers.The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

David Frank is professor emeritus in history at the University of New Brunswick. In 1970, he was the editor-in-chief of The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper.

At 3 a.m. on Oct. 16, 1970, I was at a print shop finishing work on the Friday morning edition of The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto. Inside – a three-page section carrying an English translation of the manifesto of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), complete with explanatory notes.

But that was the night the federal government invoked the War Measures Act. One hour after presses started running, what we did became a possible crime against the Canadian state.

Eleven days earlier, on Oct. 5, British trade official James Cross had been kidnapped by FLQ terrorists in Montreal. The provincial government rejected all their demands except one – to allow a 13-minute CBC French-language broadcast of their manifesto. This was not enough for the FLQ. On Oct. 10, they took a second hostage: the provincial cabinet minister and deputy premier, Pierre Laporte.

Nobody in English Canada seemed to have run the manifesto, though it appeared in several Quebec papers. When we received the text from the Canadian University Press, the student-newspaper cooperative, we decided to publish it. Far from endorsing the kidnappings, we believed we were providing context for understanding the crisis. This was, after all, the Quebec of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. People such as René Lévesque and Mr. Laporte himself had introduced many needed reforms into Quebec society. Did the people of Quebec need terrorists? Just what was the FLQ offering?

Much about the manifesto was disturbing. The rhetoric was sneering and posturing, and there was no coherent explanation of how terrorism was going to improve things. But it also told us that many expectations raised by the Quiet Revolution had produced frustration.

For one, the FLQ argued, the parliamentary system was not working. The new separatist Parti Québécois, led by Mr. Lévesque, had won 23 per cent of the vote in that year’s provincial election, but this produced only the “electoral crumbs” of half a dozen seats in an assembly of more than 100 members.

And although the “Quebec problem” was often presented to the rest of Canada as a matter of language rights, much of the focus in the manifesto was on social and economic issues, especially the grievances of the working classes and the urban and rural poor.

A Quebec provincial policeman handcuffs a young man in Montreal on Oct. 16, 1970, in one of the first War Measures Act raids.The Canadian Press/CP

But at 4 a.m. on Oct. 16, just as our paper was coming off the presses, the War Measures Act went into effect. The FLQ was declared unlawful, and normal civil liberties were suspended. Thousands of troops were on the move, and several hundred people, few of them having anything to do with the FLQ, were rounded up and taken into custody.

Some 20,000 copies of the paper were taken up in short order, and when I reached campus later that morning, it was hard to find even one. The manifesto, however, did not seem to immediately prompt many strong reactions. We only heard that self-appointed censors at one of the colleges removed the centre pages, and that two students wearing copies of the manifesto clipped to their clothes at Queen’s Park were also briefly held by police.

Everything soon changed abruptly. On Oct. 17, the FLQ shocked the country by taking the life of Mr. Laporte and depositing his body in the trunk of a car. In Ottawa, a steely-eyed prime minister Pierre Trudeau addressed the country.

Back at our offices, someone went over to the library for a copy of the War Measures Act. The available justification for using it seemed to be “an insurrection, real or apprehended.” What did that mean? An actual uprising? An arrested one? An imagined one? And what might it mean for us at The Varsity?

Justice minister John Turner stated that no censorship was authorized under the Act, but that journalists could not publish statements “on behalf of” the FLQ. This convinced our printers that the intention was “to prevent certain information from being communicated.” They would not publish any more FLQ documents.

Still, on the Monday, we published an editorial denouncing the murder of Mr. Laporte and the futile, ruthless and suicidal strategy of the FLQ, and warned against treating the crisis as no more than a spectacular kidnapping drama. In the weeks that followed, we gave space to commentaries on Quebec and civil liberties. University president Claude Bissell told us he had doubts about our editorial policy, but appreciated that publishing the manifesto was not necessarily a declaration of support for the FLQ.

Pierre Laporte's casket is carried from a Montreal courthouse to Notre Dame Basilica for his funeral on Oct. 20, 1970.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

By December, the crisis was over. Mr. Cross was released; his kidnappers were allowed to leave the country. Mr. Laporte’s killers were captured and later tried and convicted.

After 1970, terrorism was dead as a political strategy in Quebec, but nationalism remained strong and democracy survived. Discontent continued to rise, culminating in the Common Front Strikes of 1972 and the election of the Parti Québécois government in 1976. Two referendums and one Constitution later, Quebec has achieved recognition of its status as a nation within Confederation. But at least some of the questions raised in the manifesto remain unresolved.

At the time of the October Crisis, few Canadians had reservations about the use of the War Measures Act. Today, the consensus is less certain. There are still questions whether Mr. Trudeau actually exacerbated the situation.

But when historians look closely at the role of the media in the October Crisis, they will want to consider the part played by the student press in providing alternative coverage. In our small way, the student newspapers helped to keep free and informed discussion alive in Canada during a difficult time.


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