Oct. 10, 2022

Canada's October Crisis

Canada's October Crisis

October 10, 1970. In their fight for Quebec’s independence from Canada, members of a radical separatist group spark national panic when they kidnap a government official in Montreal.


Cold Open

It’s 8:15 AM on October 5th, 1970 near downtown Montreal, Canada.

A taxi drives up the road to a stately mansion. Inside the car are four men. As the vehicle rolls to a stop, two get out dressed as delivery men. One reaches back in the car and procures a large, wrapped package.

As the car idles, the two men head to a gap in the mansion’s stone wall where they easily unlatch a small metal gate. Then, they head up the steps to the door of British trade commissioner James Cross.

Soon, the door swings open, revealing a maid.

Without waiting for a greeting, the men tell her that they have a birthday present for Mr. Cross, and push past her. But as they look around the first floor, they find it empty. Over the maid’s protestations, the two men head up the stairs to the second floor, and toward the master bedroom.

There, they find the British diplomat half-dressed for the workday. Quickly, one of the men unwraps the package in his hands and reveals a machine gun.

The diplomat’s mouth falls open. His wife also in the room screams. A maid nearby scuttles to a telephone to call the police. But it’s no use.

Quickly, the two men seize the diplomat. They force him downstairs, push him out the front door, and toss him into the waiting taxi.

With a squeal, the car peels away,  and out of sight.

In the 1960s, a small, anti-government resistance group began to take form called the Front de Liberation du Quebec, or the FLQ. The organization called for the predominantly-French speaking Quebec to become an independent, socialist state. The FLQ frequently turned to violence to further its political goals. And for years, the separatist group engaged in bombing campaigns across Quebec to advocate for the province’s independence. The attacks left one person dead, 20 injured, and most of the FLQ’s 35 members in prison.

But on October 5th, 1970, the group adopted a new tactic. After abducting British trade commissioner James Cross, the FLQ will take him to a house in the north end of Montreal, and they will hold him, hostage, for the next 59 days. The kidnapping will plunge Canada into chaos, setting into motion a chain of events now known as the October Crisis. For five days, Quebec and Canadian authorities will negotiate for the safe release of James Cross. But soon enough, negotiations will fail, shattered by the kidnapping of Quebec labor minister Pierre Laporte on October 10th, 1970.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is October 10th, 1970:Canada’s October Crisis.

Act One: The Kidnapping of Pierre Laporte

It’s just after 6 PM on October 10th, 1970 in a southern suburb of Montreal, five days after the kidnapping of James Cross.

On the front lawn of his home, Quebec’s labor minister, Pierre Laporte, smiles as he plays ball with his nephew. He’s happy to take his mind off work for the evening.

For the past five days, the Quebec government has been preoccupied with the kidnapping of James Cross. Negotiations for the diplomat’s release have been ongoing, and seem promising.

At first, the FLQ members who had kidnapped Cross, had seven demands, including a $500,000 ransom, the release of 23 FLQ members currently in prison, and their safe conduct to Cuba or Algeria. The FLQ also demanded the media publish their manifesto. But over the past several days, their demands have changed. Two days ago, the government fulfilled one by airing the FLQ manifesto across media outlets. After that, the kidnappers reduced their conditions to just two: the release of the 23 prisoners and the suspension of police action targeting the FLQ.

An hour ago, Quebec’s justice minister broadcast the government’s counteroffer to parole prisoners and grant them clemency. Laporte had hoped that that would be enough to appease the kidnappers. But as he throws the ball back to his nephew, an approaching vehicle interrupts their play. The green Chevrolet sedan stops next to his lawn. Laporte doesn’t recognize the car, nor is he anticipating visitors.

He motions for his nephew to stay put while he walks over to investigate. And as he draws near, he spots four figures inside. They are all wearing masks. Laporte stops in his tracks.

He yells at his nephew to run inside. Then, Laporte turns to escape himself. But he freezes as two of the masked men step out of the car with guns pointed right at him. Frantically, Laporte searches the street for any passerby. But there are none.

Laporte slowly puts his hands up in surrender. The men grab hold of him and force him into the backseat of their car. As soon as the doors are shut, the driver steps on the gas. Laporte’s stomach sinks, as his home disappears from the view.

Within moments all across Montreal, the abduction of Pierre Laporte instills a new level of panic within the public and the Quebec government. For the past week, negotiations for Cross’s release have been a cool and collected affair, largely because his kidnapping was seen as an isolated criminal incident. But the kidnapping of Laporte shatters this illusion. Now, the threat of a third kidnapping hangs in the air. And no one knows who the FLQ might target next.

Immediately, guards are assigned to the homes of all cabinet members and other public figures as the government awaits communication from the FLQ. Quebec’s Premier, Robert Bourassa moves from his normal residence into heavily guarded quarters inside Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

As the city scrambles to increase security, the FLQ plans its demands. Early the next morning, the organization leaves an envelope near a subway station. Inside it is Laporte’s National Assembly identification card, and a communique threatening to kill the labor minister, unless all seven of the FLQ’s original demands are met by 10 PM. Soon, the envelope is discovered by an employee of a local radio station and relayed to the authorities.

For hours, Premier Bourassa meets with his cabinet and consults with federal officials in Ottawa. But their talks are interrupted by a second communique from Laporte’s kidnappers, repeating their demands. And at 5 PM, a third is released with Laporte’s credit cards and a letter from the labor minister to Premier Bourassa.

With a heavy heart, the Premier reads Laporte’s plea for him to take action and release the FLQ prisoners to avoid further kidnappings and his own execution. Bourassa sighs as he reads the hostage’s appeals.

Even after hours of consultations with other officials, he’s still unsure what the correct response is. He’s terrified of getting Laporte killed and allowing the situation to spiral even further out of control, but he also doesn’t want to succumb to these terrorists’ demands. As he sets down the letter, he glances at a nearby clock, anxiously watching the hour hand creep closer to 10. With the FLQ’s deadline fast approaching, Bourassa knows he needs to make a decision now.

At 9:55 PM, Bourassa announces on the radio that he will not meet the FLQ’s demands. But he concedes that he will consider releasing the imprisoned FLQ members and that he is open to further negotiations.

It’s enough of a concession to appease at least a portion of the FLQ. A few hours after Bourassa’s address, the FLQ members who abducted British diplomat James Cross repeat their demands for the release of FLQ prisoners and their safe conduct to Cuba or Algeria but admit they too are open to further negotiation. But the FLQ members holding Laporte captive, though postponing his execution, refuse to budge on their original demands: Laporte will only be freed after all seven of their conditions are met.

Desperate for guidance and assistance, Bourassa will turn to the federal government. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau will take a harder line on negotiation than Bourassa. And for the next two days, the Canadian government will refuse to consider the FLQ’s demands until the safety of both hostages is assured. At the federal government’s request, troops from the Canadian Army will station themselves around Montreal’s government buildings.

And though intended to protect the city, the arrival of soldiers will add anger to the already simmering terror, fueling claims of government overreach. But the Canadian government will pay the criticism no heed, and soon it will take an unprecedented step to crush any chance of insurrection.

Act Two: The Government Responds

It’s midday on October 13th, 1970 in Ottawa; three days after the kidnapping of Quebec labor minister Pierre Laporte.

Reporter Tim Ralfe sits on the steps of Parliament, waiting for Canada’s Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, to arrive. Tim is determined to finally get an interview with the elusive Trudeau.

For the past week, Prime Minister has stayed quiet on the crisis unfolding in Montreal, leaving most media communication to other ministers. But the increasing military presence in the city has upset many Quebec citizens sympathetic to the FLQ’s cause. Many also see the response as antithetical to the Prime Minister's historical defense of civil liberties. They worry how far Trudeau will take the city’s militarization.

Rumors are circulating that the government is on the brink of invoking the War Measures Act to help locate Cross and Laporte. This act would suspend basic civil liberties, allow media censorship, permit police to conduct searches and arrests without warrants, and allow them to extend detentions without charges and without the right to see a lawyer. Never before has this act been used in peacetime.

So there are plenty of questions for Tim to ask the Prime Minister, and for days, he has been trying to get Trudeau on record. Today, Tim hopes to be able to catch the Prime Minister off-guard as he returns from lunch.

Watching carefully and hoping to time everything just right, Tim rushes ahead of other reporters on the steps of parliament to spot right where the Prime Minister’s car is pulling up.

As Trudeau steps out, Tim hits him with his first question.

"RALFE: Sir, what is it with all these men with guns around here?

TRUDEAU: Haven't you noticed?

RALFE: Yes, I've noticed them. I wondered why you people decided to have them.

TRUDEAU: What's your worry?

RALFE: I'm not worried, but you seem to be.

TRUDEAU: So if you're not worried, what's your ... I'm not worried.

RALFE: I'm worried about living in a town that's full of people with guns running around."

Trudeau puts on a wry grin as he debates with Tim over the government’s response for several more minutes. But, slowly, his smile drops.

"RALFE: I explained it badly I think, but what you're talking about to me is choices, and my choice is to live in a society that is free and democratic, which means that you don't have people with guns running around in it.

TRUDEAU: Correct.

RALFE: And one of the things I have to give up for that choice is the fact that people like you may be kidnapped.

TRUDEAU: Yes, well there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a soldier’s helmet.

RALFE: At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?

TRUDEAU: Well, just watch me."

Quickly, Tim’s interview with Trudeau sends shockwaves across the nation. The next day, the FLQ issues a communique questioning the goodwill of the authorities. In Montreal, FLQ sympathizers gather to protest further military intervention. And on October 15th, 3,000 students, activists, radicals, and other FLQ supporters convene in one of the city’s arenas to cheer for the FLQ and the liberation of Quebec.

The rally intensifies fears of a wide spreading insurrection. Both Quebec’s Premier and Montreal’s mayor urge the federal government to invoke the War Measures Act. For Trudeau, it’s enough of an invitation to warrant the act’s use in peacetime. So early the following morning, Prime Minister declares martial law.

Immediately, tanks, helicopters, and thousands of armed troops will flood Quebec. Together, the soldiers and police will search 3,000 homes and buildings and detaining almost 500 suspected FLQ sympathizers.

But the entire day will go by without a word from the FLQ. But the next day, the FLQ will make its statements. That evening, a communique from Pierre Laporte’s captors will direct police to an abandoned car in south Montreal. Just after midnight, officers will arrive on the scene and pry open the trunk of a green Chevrolet sedan. Inside, they will find the remains of Pierre Laporte.

Act Three: The Death of Pierre Laporte

It’s the morning of October 18th at Pierre Laporte’s home in Montreal; just hours after police found his body.

Inside, Pierre’s 11-year-old son, Jean, wakes up and walks into the living room. Jean reaches for the remote and turns on the TV, ready to hear the latest update on his father’s abduction.

For Jean, this is been a daily ritual. Since his dad was kidnapped, he and his family have relied on media coverage to stay informed on the ongoing crisis. Listening to the FLQ’s almost daily execution threats has been endlessly frustrating and heartbreaking for his family.

The Laportes don’t understand why the FLQ chose to kidnap Pierre of all officials. The organization has branded him the “Minister of Unemployment and Assimilation.” But despite not supporting Quebec’s independence, Pierre has long worked to defend the French language and improve the position of French Canadians. He was one of the last people they expected the FLQ to target.

But none of this is a consolation for Jean. The 11-year-old isn’t interested in the politics of the situation. He doesn’t care who or why his dad was kidnapped. He only wants his father back home. And Jean is starting to worry that that day will never come.

And today, as Jean scans the news channels for updates, his worst fears are confirmed. He drops the remote as the image of a green Chevrolet comes on screen. Inside its open trunk is a dead body. And tears fill Jean’s eyes as he realizes it’s his father. He can barely listen as the reporter onscreen states that Pierre Laporte was strangled to death last night with the gold chain he always wore around his neck. Jean’s knees go weak, and he sinks to the floor.

The murder of Pierre Laporte will be the first political assassination in Canada in 102 years. In the two months after Laporte’s murder, police will capture and jail all of his known captors. James Cross will also be located and safely released on the condition that his kidnappers are given safe passage to Cuba. Shortly after, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau will announce the imminent withdrawal of all troops stationed in Quebec. Ultimately, the death of Laporte will also be the end of the FLQ. Though many Quebecers will continue to advocate for increased sovereignty, support and sympathy for the FLQ will quickly wane.

The government’s response to the FLQ’s kidnappings, however, will remain a subject of contention. At the time of the October Crisis, as this series of events will be known, public opinion polls showed the immense popular support for the government’s handling of the crisis and the use of the War Measures Act. But the extreme suspension of civil liberties and seemingly unjustified detentions of hundreds of citizens will leave behind lingering resentment. Given the small size of the FLQ, many will question the necessity of invoking the act, with one Canadian politician famously comparing it to “using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut.”

In October 2020, fifty years after the October Crisis, members of Parliament will even introduce a motion in the House of Commons demanding an official apology from the federal government, now led by Pierre Trudeau’s own son, Justin Trudeau. Though the motion will fail, it will reignite the debate surrounding the crisis once again, demonstrating the enduring controversy sparked by the government’s response to the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte on October 10th, 1970.


Next on History Daily. October 11th, 1987. During the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, demonstrators unveil the AIDS Memorial Quilt, drawing national attention to the epidemic’s growing death toll.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.