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The 1970 October Crisis: Unanswered questions remain 45 years later

John Meagher

Nestled at the foot of Mount Royal and located on a cul-de-sac, the classic stone manor remains a landmark of the October Crisis of 1970, a turbulent chapter in the history of Quebec and Canada that still stirs political passions and jars our collective memory nearly a half-century later.

Then, more so than now, Quebec’s place in Canada was unsettled.

But the events of October 1970, which culminated in two high-profile kidnappings and the grisly murder of provincial cabinet minister Pierre Laporte by Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) terrorists shocked Quebecers of all political leanings at the time, and contributed to the loss of support for violent means to attain the political goal of Quebec independence.

It also led to increased support for René Lévesque’s fledgling Parti Québécois, which took power in the watershed election of 1976 promising to take Quebec out of Canada and avenge the wrongs of the past for the economically underprivileged francophone majority.

But the seminal event that triggered the Quiet Revolution’s darkest hour took place Oct. 5, 1970.

On that fateful autumn day, British diplomat James (Jasper) Cross was abducted from his residence at gunpoint by members of the Liberation cell of the FLQ, a Marxist terrorist organization that saw armed struggle as the only way to achieve Quebec independence and emancipate francophone workers from the anglo-dominated business establishment.

Dr. Murdoch Laing, then a 24-year-old medical student, lived next door to the Cross family and recalls the chaos that ensued on the normally quiet street as police raced to the scene and initially went to the wrong address amid the confusion.

“I have recollections of stepping out the door to find quite a lot of police around,” said Laing, whose father Peter Laing, a lawyer who’d been educated in Britain, was “chummy” with Cross, a veteran of the Second World War.

“I don’t think anyone was terrified,” added Laing. “It was a bit late to be terrified. The horse had bolted. We were a bit bemused and deeply sympathetic to the predicament of the Cross family and certainly the state of mind for Mrs. Cross who kept a (stiff) upper lip to a great extent.”

The Cross kidnapping was followed five days later by the kidnapping of Laporte, plunging the province into crisis.

As the FLQ upped the ante, federal troops began patrolling the streets of Montreal, then Canada’s largest city.

Growing fear of an impending nationalist insurrection prompted Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa to request the federal government in Ottawa, led by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, to invoke the only peacetime usage of the War Measures Act. It empowered authorities to suspend civil liberties and led to the detention of hundreds of innocent people who were later released without charge.

“Most Quebecers were in favour of the War Measures Act in 1970,” noted Damien-Claude Bélanger, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who’s taught courses on Quebec nationalism and FLQ terrorism.

“People were scared. There was a debate about how much government knew but the FLQ looked more powerful and threatening in 1970 than it was. We know now it was massive overreaction but in 1970 that was not clear. ”

On Oct. 17, a day after the War Measures Act was invoked, Laporte was murdered at the hands of his Chenier cell captors who’ve remained unrepentant for the murder to this day.

Chenier leader Paul Rose died in 2013 and accomplice Francis Simard, who died in January, went to their graves without so much as a whisper of remorse for their role in killing Laporte, who was abducted in front of his Robitaille St. home in St-Lambert while tossing a football with his nephew, who adroitly jotted down the license plate number of the kidnappers’ green Chevrolet.

A week later, Laporte’s lifeless body was found stuffed in the trunk of the same 1968 Chevy Biscayne at St-Hubert airport.

In the intervening decades, various nationalist elements in Quebec have all but cleansed the reputation of the FLQ as hardened criminals, and floated the theory that Laporte’s death by strangulation was somehow the accidental result of a struggle that ensued while he was attempting to escape out a window of a bungalow at 5630 Armstrong St. in St-Hubert.

But the FLQ members themselves always claimed full responsibility for “executing” the “minister of unemployment and assimilation.”

“We killed him, it was not an accident,” Simard wrote in his autobiography.

“I regret nothing: 1970, the abductions, the prison, the suffering, nothing,” Rose once said of Laporte’s death.

“I did what I had to do. Placed before the same set of circumstances today, I would do exactly the same thing. I will not deny what I did and what happened. It was not a youthful indiscretion.”

Radio-Canada journalist Marc Laurendeau wrote a book on the FLQ titled Les Québécois violents. He said it has since been established that Paul Rose, who served 11 years in prison for murder, was not present for Laporte’s death — only Simard and Jacques Rose, Paul’s younger brother, were.

” ‘We executed (Laporte)’ was always the term they used,” Laurendeau said in an interview.

Jacques Rose and fellow Chenier terrorist Bernard Lortie are still alive, but their collective oath of silence as to who actually strangled Laporte with his religious neck chain, and their subsequent lack of remorse, presents a precarious challenge for historians wishing to portray the FLQ as anything but hardened criminals who resorted to murder to achieve their political goals, said Bélanger.

“When it comes to expressing remorse, the mainstream independence movement, over time, was quite complacent towards the FLQ and treated them as misguided idealists,” he said.

“The FLQ Manifesto begins with, ‘We are not Robin Hoods’ but that’s how they’ve been treated by Quebec’s nationalist and intellectual elites, since the 1970s. (They’ve been portrayed) as misguided young people who meant well, but went astray a bit.”

“For members of the FLQ, being arrested during the October Crisis is a badge of honour in contemporary Quebec,” Bélanger said.

Will we ever know who actually strangled Laporte?

“They were all in on it, morally speaking,” Bélanger said.

As for Cross, he was held hostage in an apartment at 10945 des Récollets St. in Montreal North for two months before his captors, surrounded by authorities, gave him up in exchange for safe passage to communist Cuba on Dec. 3.

Cross lost 22 pounds during his captivity but was otherwise unharmed.

Dr. Laing is not surprised Cross survived the ordeal. “He was a pretty cool customer … If they were trying to get someone who’d spill the beans or cause a great fuss, they chose the wrong man.”

Cross, who turned 94 last month, resides in England. He rarely gives interviews on the October Crisis, but his account of the kidnapping posted on a University of Cambridge website offers a glimpse into the harrowing moments he and his family lived through.

On the morning of Oct. 5, Louise Cossette-Trudel of the FLQ had staked out Redpath Crescent to make sure Cross had not left his home.

A gardener raking leaves across the street from the Cross residence notices a black LaSalle taxi cruising the street. Dominico Lasource later tells the Montreal Gazette the cab passed by three times.

Around 8:15 a.m. the taxi containing the kidnappers pulls up in front of the Cross residence.

A half-dressed Cross is shaving in an upstairs bathroom when he hears the doorbell ring, followed by a second ring.

Cross would later recall that he was “surprised that anybody would arrive that early in the morning. My wife (Barbara) suggested that it was probably Hydro-Québec come to read the meter so I took no further notice.”

When maid Anila Santos answered the front door, she was met by Nigel Hamer, who would later be identified as the mysterious “sixth man” involved in the abduction.

Hamer was a British-born anglophone who’d graduated from McGill in electrical engineering earlier that year. While at McGill, he’d become an FLQ sympathizer.

Hamer, who was disguised, held a package in his hands and said: “A birthday gift for Mr. Cross.”

Hamer asked the maid to sign for it, but when she went to get a pen, Hamer and Jacques Lanctôt, who’d been waiting at the side of the house with Yves Langlois, drew firearms and forced their way into the home.

Lanctôt then headed to the second floor where he found Cross in the bathroom.

Recounted Cross: “The next thing I knew I was walking back towards the bathroom dressed only in a shirt and underpants, a man came through from the opposite side holding a gun and said, ‘Get down on the floor or you’ll be fucking dead’.

“I backed into the bedroom, lay on the floor and he then made me turn over onto my face and put handcuffs on me.”

“Our Dalmatian dog (Brolly) was sitting on the bed beside my wife and started to growl and he told her that if she let the dog move he would shoot it.

“He then called out another man (Hamer) who came up the stairs into the bedroom carrying a sub-machine gun and shepherding the maid and her daughter in front of them. The first man (Lanctôt) then took me into the dressing room beyond the bathroom, put my trousers on and shoes and slipped a jacket over my shoulders. He then led me back through the bedroom. My wife said ‘You must let me say goodbye to my husband’ and came over and kissed me goodbye.”

The kidnappers then tore the phones out of the sockets and told Mrs. Cross not to phone anybody for an hour.

“We went out through the front door and there was a taxi (driven by Marc Carbonneau) sitting outside the house,” recalled Cross. “I was pushed into the taxi and shoved down between the front and back seats and a rug thrown over my head:.

Forty-five years later, we are still left with unanswered questions about who actually killed Laporte and the role of Hamer, the lone anglophone who participated in the Cross kidnapping but was never brought to justice until his identity emerged publicly almost a decade later. (He was arrested in 1980, and sentenced the next year to 12 months in jail after pleading guilty for his role in the kidnapping.)

But given the lay of Quebec politics, we may never find out the truth.

“As long as there is an independent, federalist divide in Quebec, as long as Quebec politics is structured around this, you’re not going to have an honest reckoning of what happened,” Bélanger said.

“The entire political class in Quebec has a stake in the October Crisis.”

The former Cross residence at 1297 Redpath is currently up for sale for $4 million, but neither real estate agent nor the owner were open to discussing the property’s place in history.

Like so much else about the October Crisis, people still have a hard time acknowledging it.

You won’t find anyone living at 5630 Armstrong St. in St-Hubert, either.

The street name was changed to Bachand St. in 1971, in an apparent attempt to cleanse the memory of its bloody past.

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