Old Quebec separatist tensions die hard

Updated on
The World

TORONTO, Canada — There’s a sign on my central Toronto street that has me thinking of my childhood every time I walk by: “Ball and hockey playing prohibited.” That would have had us laughing when I was growing up in a French-speaking neighborhood of Montreal’s east end. City fathers might as well have tried to ban children.

A crowd of us would gather every day after school, place hockey nets in the middle of the road and stick handle our way to imaginary glory. When a car dared insist on its right of way, we’d take our sweet time removing the nets and then form a gauntlet with just enough room for the car to slowly proceed, glaring at the driver with all the menace 10 year olds could muster. One day, in October 1970, we gave one vehicle a wide berth. It was a big green army truck. In the back were a group of soldiers, their rifles pointing aimlessly at second floor balconies. We were mesmerized. We were just kids, but we had a sense of the times.

A group calling itself the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) had for years been waging a violent campaign to make the province an independent country. It regularly targeted symbols of Canada’s federal government and what it considered Quebec’s English “occupiers.” Everything from mailboxes to McGill University was bombed.

By the time the army truck disrupted our street hockey game, the FLQ had kidnapped Britain’s trade commissioner in Montreal, James Cross, and Quebec’s minister of labor, Pierre Laporte. Asked how far he would go to combat the FLQ, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously replied, “Just watch me.”

(It’s telling, in light of the way the word terrorist is readily used today, that Trudeau never uttered it during that interview 39 years ago, choosing instead to call the FLQ “bandits.”)

Three days later, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, which resulted in the army rolling into Quebec and police arresting hundreds of people without warrants. The FLQ killed Laporte the next day, strangling him with his own necklace and stuffing his body in the trunk of a car. Cross was released in December in exchange for his kidnappers’ safe passage to Cuba. Thus ended the tumultuous period known as the October Crisis.

The movement to make Quebec an independent country has dominated Canadian politics for much of the last four decades. It’s mainstream manifestation is the Parti Quebecois, a political party that twice held referendums when in power provincially — one in 1980, when separatist forces were soundly defeated, and another in 1995, when 49.4 percent of Quebecers voted for independence and Canada came within a breath of breaking up.

The party has been out of power since 2003 and polls indicate that separatist aspirations have been placed on the back burner. But nationalism in Quebec runs deep. Much of it is fueled by a struggle to protect the French language and a sense of historical grievance and victimization. On every license plate in the province, like a subtle threat or remonstration, is written "Je me souviens" – "I remember."

And so, it surprised no one that on Sept. 12, an outdoor event was organized in Quebec City to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, when British forces routed the French army and turned the territory into a British colony. More surprising was the decision by organizers to include a reading of the FLQ manifesto in the event.

During the October Crisis, the manifesto was broadcast across the country on Radio Canada, the state’s French-language television network, to satisfy an FLQ condition. It railed against the “big bosses,” usually Anglophone, who turned Quebec into a “society of terrorized slaves.” It vowed to use all means, “including dynamite and weapons,” to achieve its goals.

Separatist politicians, who prefer the term “sovereignists,” defended using the manifesto in the commemoration, arguing it was part of the history that unfolded after the British conquest. They noted it was only one of many readings in the weekend-long event, including a passage by the late Mordecai Richler, the acclaimed novelist who lambasted the nationalist movement every chance he got. These same politicians remained curiously stoic about the cancellation of a proposed re-enactment of the 1759 battle. Hard-line nationalists deemed the re-enactment an offensive glorification of French Quebec’s defeat. They vowed to disrupt it, thereby forcing organizers to drop it from the schedule.

The reading of the FLQ manifesto resulted in Quebec’s Liberal government, which wants to keep the province within Canada, boycotting the commemoration. Some ministers described the diatribe as too upsetting to many Quebecers. Others accused organizers of being apologists for terrorist.

The event went off peacefully, attended mostly by nationalists and sovereignists, and largely boycotted by federalists. History in Quebec is contested territory — any kid paying street hockey could tell you that.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.