The October Crisis, 50 years later

A W5 report on one of the most talked-about moments of Canadian history, and one that certainly reverberates still through the memories not only of those involved, but a whole country.

When the seeds of the FLQ began to take root, I was not yet born. I was only 3 years old when the events in this video went down. Too young to remember the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte (and his subsequent murder), or the other kidnapping — of British diplomat James Cross, who was eventually freed. Too young to remember the bombings, or the drama of the handover of James Cross and the subsequent flight to Cuba of a handful of FLQ members.

But I do remember, with increasing vividity, the rise of René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois, who came to prominence as a democratic counterweight to not only British imperialism, but also separatist terrorism. The intricacies of the PQ’s policy-formation and its back-and-forth shuffle with the federal government were far beyond me at the time, since I was still very much a kid, with a kid’s impatience for such endless blather. But I remember the two referenda that followed, and how narrowly separatist motions were defeated — particularly in 1995, when I was a graduate student in journalism at Ryerson University. Everyone in the Ryersonian newsroom was watching with crossed fingers and bated breath.

Then came the final word on separation: NO. I remember the huge sigh of relief I let out, along with the rest of the country, when the final result was announced. It was like 25 years of unspoken tension melting away in an instant. Canada was finally, unequivocally whole again.

Pierre Trudeau, Robert Bourassa, James Cross, and René Lévesque are now all in their graves. Jean Chrétien is retired from politics, and has recently been widowed with the passing of his wife, Aline. Trudeau’s eldest son, Justin, is now walking in his father’s shoes, and at times they look too big for him.

But political gains have been made, and not only by Péquistes. Socialism, for instance, as implemented in Tommy Douglas’s Saskatchewan, gave us universal single-payer medicare during my early years. The October Crisis was not the only thing that dissipated the FLQ’s support in Québec; the nonviolent revolution of socialist democracy, in fact, was well under way even before the FLQ’s inception, and its incremental gains would render the FLQ ultimately irrelevant. Even the PQ is not the force that it once was, as the 1995 referendum marked not only its climax, but the beginning of its decline. The party is still very much present, but its fangs have worn down. Separatism has lost its cachet, and that loss appears to be permanent.

We still have far to go, and there are now different terrorists (of a distinctly fascist bent) on the horizon. But ballots can still do today (and tomorrow) what bullets then could not. Democracy may be slow-moving and often tedious, but it still beats violence from either fringe of the political margins.

And that’s the biggest takeaway we have from the events of 50 years ago.

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