By Jensen, Randy on October 29, 2020.
It has been 50 years since the circumstances surrounding the October Crisis in Montreal held the entire nation in its grip, but to Julie Johansson, who now lives in Lethbridge, it all still seems like yesterday.
“At Papineau and Sauriol on the corner of (those streets) is a high school,” recalls Johansson, who was 15 years old at the time. “That was my high school, Pius X. So I was walking to school, and as I was walking down the street, which was about 10 blocks from my house, I saw from a distance tanks going by. Huge, big tanks like you see in the movies. I am walking to school, and I am a little bit concerned as I am getting toward my school. And it became a little more frightening to see they were actually going down that street.”
“That is the memory I have of that day,” she says. “The tanks were going down the street, and I was going to my high school. It’s an imprint in my brain. It will never go away.”
Johansson’s powerful memory of tanks driving down her hometown streets is just one fleeting glimpse remembered by a teenage girl who, unbeknownst to herself at the time, was caught up in one of the most important national events in our history.
The October Crisis remains the only time in Canada’s history the War Measures Act was ever invoked in peace time. Leading up to the crisis, separatist pressure had been building in Quebec for nearly a decade during the early part of the period known as The Quiet Revolution. However, it was French president Charles de Gaulle who lit the match which took the movement from a slow burn to a boil in 1967 when he declared, while making a state visit to Canada, “Vivre Le Quebec Libre,” “Long live free Quebec.”
Responding in part to this call, the radical separatist group known as Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) set off its first bomb in February 1969. This was followed by a series of bombings and general civil unrest in the streets over the next year and a half until on Oct. 5, 1970 a chapter of the FLQ calling itself the Liberation Cell kidnapped British diplomat James Cross from his home and held him hostage, threatening to kill him if its sovereignty demands were not met.
This act tipped off what would come to be known as the October Crisis. And that event was soon followed on Oct. 10 when another sect of the FLQ, the infamous South Shore Gang led by Paul Rose, also known as the Chenier Cell, kidnapped Quebec deputy premier Pierre Laporte from the front lawn outside his home as he played football with his nephew.
On Oct. 13 then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sent in the army, including tanks, to protect federal properties in Quebec. He also brought tanks and soldiers into Ottawa to protect federal properties there.
It was during this defining moment of his leadership that Trudeau gave his oft-quoted interview to CBC’s Tim Ralphe, who expressed concerns about the military presence.
“Yes, well, there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns,” Trudeau said at the time. “All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people.”
Ralphe then asked Trudeau exactly how far he would go. To which Trudeau responded, “Well, just watch me.”
On Oct. 15 the government of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa formally requested the prime minister grant the province government extraordinary powers to deal with the crisis. Trudeau opted to invoke the War Measures Act instead on Oct. 16 to retain some federal control over the situation.
What followed was the arrest without warrant of 497 people with suspected ties to the FLQ, of whom 62 were eventually charged. These arrests were made by Quebec police officers, and the military played no role in them.
Pierre Laporte was strangled to death, and his body was stuffed into the trunk of a car on Oct. 17.
It was seeing a recent documentary featuring Laporte’s son, Jean, on television which prompted Johansson to want to tell her story after so many years. She remembers hearing about Paul Rose and the Chenier Cell, who were based in her neighbourhood of Ahuntsic-Cartierville, over the dinner table among her family members before the kidnapping of Laporte.
“Paul Rose was in that area not too far from where I lived,” Johansson remembers. “That name came up in conversation with my family at the dinner table and, of course, it was on the news. We knew it was not far from where we lived where all these things were happening.
“We were all very aware what was going on in our neighbourhood, I can’t deny that,” she adds, “but to actually see the tanks come down the street – that was a visual saying this is really not a good thing that is happening in our neighbourhood.”
Police raided the hiding place of the Chenier Cell on Nov. 6 arresting one member named Bernard Lortie on the scene, and later tracked down three other members of the sect in a farmhouse outside the city, including leader Paul Rose, who was eventually sentenced to life in prison for the murder and kidnapping of Laporte. The government was able to eventually negotiate the release of James Cross in return for allowing members of the Liberation Cell to leave the country and go into exile in Cuba. He was unharmed.
On Dec. 23 Trudeau ordered the withdrawal of soldiers from both Montreal and Ottawa, ending what later came to be known as the October Crisis.
While the majority of Canadians supported the actions of the prime minister at the time, the invocation of the War Measures Act remains more controversial in Quebec.
Johansson, who identifies as French Canadian, multicultural and largely non-political, says she feels Trudeau did what had to be done when faced with the circumstances of the day.
“Things settled after that,” she remembers. “It was a tough decision, and sometimes you have to make tough decisions to make a better future. It wasn’t up to the citizens to make that decision. It was up to the prime minister, and so he made it and he owned it for the rest of his life.”
In 1976 Rene Levesque, getting a boost in part from the October Crisis controversy and tapping into over a decade of nationalist sentiment in Quebec, would be elected as the province’s first separatist premier. He would be defeated by Trudeau in the province’s first referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1980, but Quebec continues to consider the sovereignty question from time to time even decades later leading to the national political landscape we continue to have in place today.
Johansson says however Canadians might feel about these events of 50 years ago, they certainly deserve to be remembered for their long-lasting impact on the nation as a whole.
“It was scary, especially for us as teenagers at that time,” Johansson remembers. “We didn’t have social media. We didn’t have Facebook or texting, or anything of that kind. We just went to school and there it was. So we had to absorb what was going on by the visuals we were seeing.”
“That was so unusual to see in Canada,” she adds. “It just doesn’t happen. I just think it needs to be remembered. We need to think about these things and do better. I always think there is a lesson to be learned.”
Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter