October 1970, first hand

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McGill Reporter
March 8, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 12
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > March 8, 2001 > October 1970, first hand

October 1970, first hand

More than 30 years after the fact, the October Crisis remains a hot topic. To this day, many people who were central to the events of October 1970 are reluctant to discuss it.

Photo Soldiers patrolled the streets during the October Crisis

"Some are fed up with it, some people don't want to talk about it," said law professor William Tetley.

Tetley is not shy about sharing his interpretation of what went on, and he was remarkably well placed to observe the crisis first hand.

When the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped James Cross and Pierre Laporte, Tetley was a minister in Robert Bourassa's provincial cabinet. He quickly grasped the import of the situation.

"The cabinet was meeting in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, and we were getting all of these memos and reports from the police. I all of a sudden realized we were a part of history," said Tetley, a specialist in marine law at McGill. He started keeping documents, as well as recording his own recollections in a diary, which eventually grew to encompass 32 volumes.

Tetley is compiling this material into a book, but last Monday he gave a group assembled in New Chancellor Day Hall a sneak peek at some of his conclusions.

Tetley made no bones about his assessment of the FLQ as a criminal organization. He pointed out that between 1963 and 1970, they committed over 250 violent crimes, including bombings, bank holdups and murder. The kidnapping of British Trade Commissioner Cross on October 5, 1970, came about after their previous actions failed to produce an insurrection.

The timing of the kidnapping, according to Tetley, coincided nicely with a strike by Quebec's medical specialists. A general feeling of crisis pervaded. Nonetheless, decision-making in government circles was rapid, and political consensus was broad.

"We agreed immediately that Quebec and the federal government had to act together," said Tetley.

Deciding how to act, however, was not made easy. Even after Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte was kidnapped there remained support for the kidnappers in certain segments of society. Students at Université de Montréal and UQAM went on strike, and a group of prominent French Canadians, including Jacques Parizeau and René Lévesque, signed a petition urging the provincial government to negotiate with the FLQ.

"I'm very hard on the PQ leadership. I think they acted abominably," said Tetley.

"Lévesque was in Montreal going off and he really should have just shut up."

Tetley concedes that he was shaken enough by the abduction of his cabinet colleague that even he wanted to negotiate with the terrorists.

"I remember I stood up in the cabinet meeting and addressed them in English, which was never done, and I said, 'We have two peoples' lives in our hands. We must negotiate,'" he recounted.

Within days he changed his mind.

While 3,000 students filled the Sauvé Arena with their chants of "FLQ! FLQ!" the National Assembly invoked the War Measures Act, which effectively suspended civil rights in Quebec. Almost 500 citizens, many of whom were innocent, were subsequently rounded up and thrown in jail.

Though many vehemently disagreed with the War Measures Act, Tetley believes the imposition of the act was a necessity.

He pointed out that the threat was real; certain separatists had moved to set up a parallel government during the crisis, and the police claimed to have evidence of a widespread conspiracy. However, Tetley doesn't believe that the imposition of the act ended the crisis.

"More important than the War Measures Act for ending the problem was the terrible killing of Pierre Laporte," he said.

Once the FLQ did that, any sympathy for their aims was replaced by revulsion for the October 17 murder that Tetley calls "senseless, cruel and evil." The act was universally condemned. In the end, the FLQ's actions were counterproductive. James Cross was freed and his abductors exiled to Cuba. Laporte's killers were all eventually arrested and convicted. The FLQ eventually dissolved, and almost all of its members renounced violence.

Though a friend and colleague died, Tetley believes that in the end, the course followed was the proper one. To negotiate, or show weakness, he concluded, would have had dire consequences.

"[It would] permit terror to replace the judicial system and legislative authority of a democratic society."

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