From London to Ottawa, State terrorism in the history of Quebec

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From London to Ottawa, State terrorism in the history of Quebec

Invited to testify of its misdeeds on several platforms, on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the War Measures Act, Andrée Ferretti, herself arrested and imprisoned during 51 days, prefered to deliver this analysis of the event and gave it to L'Action nationale for publication.

Andrée Ferretti, writer, former vice-president of the RIN

On October 16, 1970, at four O'Clock in the morning, Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada proclaimed the War Measures Act and even before sunrise, the Canadian Army, which the day before had surreptitiously started to invade Quebec, officially occupied it under the terms of this law. At the same hour and in virtue of the same law, 242 people, including several writers and artists, trade unionists, and PQ candidates at the preceding elections, were arrested and sent to prison. The day was not over that tens of others experienced the same fate. In a few days, 465 people had been imprisoned, their houses searched and sometimes ransacked, their family frightened and in certain cases, their children left alone. They were almost all released without even being questioned. On the 21st day of this demonstration of power, only 32 people were committed for trial, detained during several more weeks, and finally released without undergoing trial, the Court declaring that there were no grounds for prosecution (nolle prosequi).

The operation started under the pretext of an urgency to counter a sudden rise of illegal acts and political violence by the FLQ, while the members of the movement's cells exerting violence were already known and filed by the police force and could have been stopped by the sole means of usual police techniques, which is what in fact occurred a few weeks later, the evidence proves, after the passing of years, was a carefully planned undertaking. Its real purpose was to terrorize the Quebec people and indirectly to crush the independence movement which had raised to a level unequalled before their national conscience and their desire for self-determination.

Because it is indeed what it is about. The simultaneous promulgation and application of the War Measures Act in October 1970, which made it possible for the Canadian Army to invade Quebec and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Sûreté du Québec, and the various municipal police corps to arrest without warrant and to imprison without specific charges hundreds of partisans of the Independence of Quebec, are not a mishap, an exceptional act which would have been caused by the political violence of the FLQ. In the tens of books and the hundreds of articles devoted to the history and the analysis of the October Crisis published for thirty years1, it has been irrefutably demonstrated that the members of the various cells claiming membership to the FLQ were all, not only well-known to political and police authorities, but that they had been, for several months, and in certain cases even for a few years, the object of a constant shadowing and other forms of surveillance.

From where it clearly follows that the illegal actions of the FLQ, in particular the kidnapping of James Cross, commercial attaché to the High Commissioner of Great Britain in Montreal and of Pierre Laporte, Minister for Labour and Deputy Premier in the Quebec liberal government of Robert Bourassa, were only the occasion desired and awaited for by the Canadian government, then under the rule of Pierre Elliot-Trudeau, to move to action in order to strike, through the alleged necessity to combat an alleged clandestine movement, all of Quebec's independence forces. Those forces had just expressed their power of attraction in a brilliant manner, during the preceding election of April 29, in bringing 24% of voters to cast their vote for the Parti Québécois, in spite of a fear campaign carried out by the establishment which did not hesitate to resort to the most dishonest tactics, including the famous "Brinks coup", to make the electors believe that an election of the PQ would induce a vertiginous fall of their standard of living. René Lévesque rightly qualified this threat of "economic terrorism". Rightly also, on the evening of the election, he proudly claimed in front of thousands of militants who welcomed his remarks with enthusiasm: "This defeat resembles a victory". This comprehension of the event was entirely shared by all the political and economic community of Canada and federalist Quebec. A few months later, it gave signs of it by promulgating the War Measures Act, passing from economic terrorism to political and military terrorism, which is one of the constants of the internal logic of Canadian history since the English Conquest. This terrorism forms a part of the many processes of repression of the conquered nation. The State has recourse to it each time it catches this nation in the act of wanting to have an autonomous existence, and before she does become capable to assume her sovereignty, even when the rapport de force involved does not justify it at all. Terrorism which, already during the War of Conquest, marked the passage of the British army on the banks of the St. Lawrence. In the beginning was terrorism, could we say.


All indeed started at the end of the summer of 1759, when Wolfe's troops disembarked on the Côte de Beaupré, set fire to the villages under the dismayed eyes of their disarmed inhabitants, incapable to defend them. Across, on the Southern Coast, from Saint-Vallier to Lévis, other soldiers invaded villages from behind their cannons, placarded on the doors of churches the Proclamation issuing the fall of New France and hung in front of their house the few daring ones who protested, such as, Captain Nadeau of Saint-Michel2, "to have tried to raise his fellow-citizens against us", as recorded in the campaign log of a so-called Knox, captain of squadron in the army of His British Majesty, which carried out its War of Conquest of New France following the usual rules.

(Because there of course was a War of Conquest. All the denials à la Jacques Godbout and other hawkers on our big and small screens of a cession by France to Great Britain without any opposition from Canada won't do it. It took place and it lasted nearly four years. It started in 1757, with the arrival to power in London of William Pitt, an avowed francophobe. This statesman, determined to extend the hegemony of the British Empire, as well in America as in Asia, hastened to yield to the pressures of the Anglo-American colonies which hardly tolerated the vicinity of a French and Catholic Canada and were ready to engage battle against it, for it was considered an important and importunate competitor on the markets. It lasted more than two years during many confrontations won in hard battles by the French and Canadien forces, though considerably lower in numbers, until the British army, strong of 63,000 men, definitively got on top at the end of the summer of 1759, and after a long siege made them experience defeat on the Plains of Abraham. The War of Conquest nevertheless did not end until a year later, in September 1760, with the capitulation of Montreal and the surrender of all the country. It is only three years later, on February 10, 1763, that the Treaty of Paris ratified the de facto situation created by the defeat of Montcalm and Vaudreuil's soldiers and militiamen at the hands of the British invader).

The War of Conquest accomplished and the cession treaty ratified, the British and then later the Canadian Parliaments, were not constantly in need of deploying their military and police forces against the conquered and later annexed nation to subject it and alienate it. It was generally enough for them to have recourse to legislative measures and economic policies which were unfavourable to her, in order to maintain their domination, as well as constitutional coups: the Union of Upper and Lower Canada, in 1840; the patriation of the constitution in 1982, for example. However, under the British regime, the State, at least twice, in 1810 and 1837-1838, repressed through violence the attempts of the Canadiens - who will identify as Canadiens français only with the coming of the Union, obliged to identify as such, the conqueror having appropriated to the very name of the conquered people - to exercise their rights and to take their destiny in their own hands. Under the Canadian federal regime, three times the State had recourse to the army to subdue movements rebellious to its imperialists and centralizing policies, in 1870-1885, in 1918 and 1970.


Although from the 1800s, it formed a majority in the Legislative Assembly, the Canadien Members of Parliament remained powerless to really exert the power held, in fact, by the Executive Council and the Legislative Council, both in the hands of the English Party. The Canadien MPs could only make obstruction to the bills unfavourable to the interests of the majority of the people. In 1810, the MPs of the Parti canadien refused to vote the budget. In order to counter this opposition, Governor Craig dissolved the Legislative Assembly for a second consecutive year. Under the pressure of the English Party, he had the newspaper Le Canadien seized, the principal support of the Canadien MPs parliamentary action, and its editors were arrested and imprisoned. He held new elections to prevent the population from returning the same elected officials to the Parliament, and with the intention to terrorize, he deployed military contingents in the streets of Montreal and Quebec during election days.


Is it necessary to recall how, after having militarily crushed the active movements of rebellion in its colonies of Upper and Lower Canada which demanded a responsible government, the State carried out its war of repression only in Lower Canada, by setting fire to some villages of which those of Saint-Eustache and Saint-Benoît, while elsewhere plundering and setting fire to the farms of the inhabitants favourable to the movement, by confiscating the goods of the combatants, by raping many women found alone in their homes, not to mention the exiles, the deportations and hangings. Is it necessary to underline the cause of the difference in the treatment applied to the rebels of the two colonies. Who is unaware that the political demands of the Anglo-Saxon patriots of Upper Canada were mainly founded on objections that were of an economic nature, while those of the Canadien patriots were economic, social and as well as political and were all determined by the national question. It is because the main objective of the Canadien patriots was the independence of Lower Canada, considered the only means of freeing their nation from the political and economic domination of the English industrialists, merchants and financiers of the colony supported by all the authorities of the colonial State, that this State was devoted to terrorist acts useless to ensure its military victory, but necessary to break, in the conquered people, any will to keep up the fight.

(Still, although these rebellions failed and the Lower Canadian movement was completely crushed, the revolt of the Canadiens continued to frighten the British authorities who ordered a vast investigation into its causes and dispatched Lord Durham on the premises to carry it out. In his report published in January 1839, the investigator not only recognized the existence of the French Canadian nation, but alloted the responsibility of the disorders to her national conscience and her desire for self-determination. To prevent it from causing trouble again, he proposed the carrying into force of policies designed to make her into a minority and to assimilate her. Then came the coup de force: The Union of Upper and Lower Canada sanctioned by Queen Victoria on July 23, 1840. This was the inauguration of the process of annexation and confinement of the French Canadian nation in constitutional, legal, political, demographic, and economic gears which marginalized her, subjected her to foreign interests and alienated her. A prelude to the federative union of 1867 which, under the name of "Confederation" - abusive denomination since the purpose of it was never the association of politically sovereign communities -, presided to the destinies of the French Canadian nation which, today, in Quebec, constitutes the majority of the Quebec people, majority which aspires to independence and fight for its advent.)


The history which leads to the bloody repression of the second rebellion of the Whites and the Métis of the North West, and to the hanging of Louis Riel is a long one. It started in 1868, when Canada bought from the Hudson's Bay Company the vast territory which today comprises the three Western provinces and the North West territories, to make it a colony of Ottawa. The inhabitants who had not been consulted reacted badly to this annexation. The Métis and the Whites, in majority Catholic and French-speaking, united to request laws and powers which would guarantee them their territorial, linguistic and religious rights. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, they established at Red River a provisional government, drew up a "list of rights", requested the opening of negotiations with Ottawa. This first battle, after many violent adventures, lead to the creation of the province of Manitoba, in July 1870. The Quebec population had supported the movement and had requested the government of Ottawa that it negotiates with Riel clauses which would add to the list of rights the linguistic and school equality between French and English. The British of the region, supported by the Ontarians, did not understand things the same way. There was no question of letting a French-speaking and Catholic province develop in the heart of the Prairies and thus open the door of the West to French-Canadian emigration from Quebec. They were opposed to the amnesty of Louis Riel whom they accused of murder, put a price on his head, after he had been exiled. They ceaselessly attacked the Métis who, dispossessed of their lands and without a leader, left Manitoba to settle further West where they were victims of the same troubles and persecutions. In 1885, they requested the help of Louis Riel and the same story repeated. But vis-a-vis an army of 8,000 men supported by guns and machine-guns, the troops of Riel succumbed quickly, the villages and the farms of the Métis were plundered and set on fire and the inhabitants driven back even further West. Riel surrendered, underwent a trial in front of an English and Protestant jury who found him guilty of high treason and condemned him to death by hanging. All this operation once again, beyond its immediate causes, was carried out against French Canada. It was a question of making it clear to the population of Quebec that Westward expansion was to be the fact of English Canada and to serve its sole interests of any and all order.


When in 1917, returning from London where he had taken part to a meeting of the English War Cabinet, Robert Borden, then Prime Minister for the Canadian government, decided to impose Conscription, the French Canadians immediately made their fierce opposition to the adoption of such a measure be known. They certainly did not see why they should be used as cannon fodder in the army of Her British Majesty, certainly not because English Canada had committed itself to providing Her soldiers, whereas they had just lost two consecutive battles on the teaching of French in Ontario and the separate schools in Manitoba. Borden then tried to form a government of National Union and to have Laurier enter it. He refused. The Prime Minister nevertheless carried out his project and formed a cabinet made up of thirteen conservatives and ten liberals including two French Canadians who withdrew soon enough, then he launched elections which took place on December 17. Two weeks before this day, Borden, anxious of the growing opposition to the conscription, both in Canada and in Quebec, published a ministerial decree which exempted the sons of farmers from it. This operation enabled him to win in a clear victory, but not to conceal the opposition to the conscription which, in Quebec, was almost unanimous, very active and sometimes violent. The situation reached its climax in spring of 1918. Following the street arrest, on March 29, in Quebec, of a man who could not provide at once his certificate of exemption from the military service, the revolt of the witnesses spread like a trail of powder and riots which lasted until April 2 exploded. The police force called upon the army, an English-Canadian battalion based in Toronto was dispatched to Quebec, the martial law was applied. In the evening of April first, the soldiers shot on a disarmed crowd, caused five deaths and tens of casualties, in addition to imprisoning a great number of citizens without warrants and guarantees. The State, once more, tried to subdue by force the resistance of the people conquered to its imperialistic policies.


The immediate and official events which started the October Crisis go back lengthily but directly to the birth, at the end of 1950s, of the contemporary independence movement. It is a revolutionary movement which, like similar movements in operation everywhere in the world, since the end of the World War II, invited the people to fight against all forms of subjections: political domination, economic exploitation, social and cultural oppression. The Quebec independence forces of the time conceived independence not only as a political struggle having for essential objective the creation of a Sovereign state, but also as a project of national liberation, i.e. a total questioning of the Canadian colonial system and a taking in hand by the people of all the instruments of their collective development. The realization of such a project required the formation of a consciousness that would be truly national, rather than nationalist, which would bring the conquered then annexed nation to affirm and defend all the attributes of her identity, of her inalienable right to self-determination, as well as to believe in her capacity to assume it.

The stakes of the battle thus proved to be colossal. Indeed, the independence of Quebec as an essential precondition to a true national liberation objectively threatens the capitalist interests of the Canadian upper-middle class whose Canadian State is not only the representative but, more basically, their institutional core and their unconditional supporter3. Initially, it is therefore a question of fissuring this core. All the organizations which made up the independence movement, pursued this goal. In spite of the diversity of speeches which they held and the strategies they adopt, inspired by more or less different ideologies and social interests, they were thus attacking with the same determination the institutions, the symbols and the corporations of this dominant class which then owned almost the totality of the natural, financial and industrial resources of Quebec and was thus in control of its economic development and its political organization, in addition to imposing on the Quebec labour their language and their working conditions. Engaged in a fight to put and end to colonialism and its after-effects, the movements and parties engaged in the fight for independence based their action on the need for politicizing and mobilizing the people, conscious that their determination constituted the only force likely to reverse the established powers. All were animated by this same democratic concern, including the FLQ. However, only this movement acted in clandestinity and had recourse to violent actions (if one excludes ten members of the ALQ and the ARQ whose existence was of short duration and whose most visible actions were confused in the public opinion with those of the FLQ), all the others always had solely recourse to legal means, although non conventional, to convince the inhabitants of Quebec of the need for independence and the urgency to realize it.

Moreover, never, until the creation of the Sovereignty-Association Movement, did they try to occult the extent and the difficulty of the task of achieving it, by diluting the objective of freedom in that of equality, by diluting the claim for a full and complete self-determination to that of sharing the sovereignty of Quebec with the Canadian State, the dominant and enemy State.

However, in 1970, two years after the foundation of the Parti québécois, born out of the MSA, and the hegemonic ascendancy that it started exerting on the independence movement which ended up reducing it to marginality, the Canadian and Quebec bourgeoisies in power in Ottawa and in Quebec and whose interests are integrated, were as fiercely opposed to the levequist compromise of reorganizing the Constitution granting the Quebec State a political power equal to that of the Canadian State, as they were to the independence of Quebec. They considered inadmissible this proposal of a division of their centre of power and decision, even if the project did not at all involve the questioning of the ins and outs of the global development of North-American capitalism. And these powerful bourgeoisies were afraid. Despite all the means which they employed to take care of the election of April 29, the results proved more important than envisaged and made them fear that the Parti québécois could seize power in the following election. Thus warned and thrown into a panic, they summoned their governments and their media to use all their resources to prevent this possibility from becoming reality, ordering them to use any means necessary. They all felt threatened since the labour unrest did not cease to grow everywhere in Quebec and that it was supported by several pro-independence and socialist organizations and small groups and by the FLQ, on the one hand. In addition, a progressive party which espoused the majority of the popular demands of all these movements was born at the beginning of the summer, in Montreal. The Front d’action politique (FRAP) aimed on putting up the fight, in time for the elections scheduled for October 25, to the Drapeau-Saulnier administration which represented them on the Montreal municipal scene.

It is within this context that the Parties in power, particularly the Liberal Party of Canada by the voice of its leader, Pierre Elliot-Trudeau, sworn enemy of Quebec nationalism, a fortiori of independantism, savage opponent to all the national claims of the Quebec people requesting increased powers for Quebec, undertook to discredit the Parti québécois by associating sovereignism with terrorism. It acted, as René Lévesque put it "to condemn Quebec to powerlessness". The bringing into force of the War Measures Act in October 1970 had no other goal.

In 1970, as today, as always before, English Canada refused the national existence of the Quebec people and, today as before, it is ready to use all means to reduce it to nothing or, at worst to prevent it from harming the development of its national interests. English Canada is the conqueror who find his domination on the conquered people justified, who find it justified to deploy his army against them, each time they have the impudence to stand up. In 1970, to preserve the integrity of their badly acquired and badly preserved power, even though the rapport of the forces involved did not require it, they jumped on the occasion which the FLQ offered them to crush the eminently legitimate and democratic steps and the legal political action of the Parti québécois, then representing in their eyes the threat of independence.

Because, it is important to underline it, the means employed by the independence forces matter little to the Canadian State, only their real or apprehended effectiveness counts. And terrorism forms part of the weapons at its disposal to counter it.

As long as as a great majority we will not possess an acute awareness that we are at war and that as long as we will not be really determined to vanquish the enemy, we will be victims of its coups and its acts of terrorism. It should be hoped that we will develop these qualities before it is too late so that the fights of our parents and elders for the recognition of our rights and our sovereignty were not carried out in vain.

Author's Notes

1. To write this article, I have mainly referred to the work of Louis Fournier: FLQ histoire d’un mouvement clandestin, reedited in 1998 by Lanctôt éditeur, and, for general history, published by the same editor, in 1999, the 2 tomes of Robert Lahaise and Noël Vallarand: La Nouvelle France (1524-1760) and Le Québec sous le régime anglais (1760-1867), as well as Le Canada pourquoi l’impasse, by Kaye Holloway, published in Montréal, in 1984 by Les éditions Nouvelle-Optique.

2. Bulletin des Recherches Historiques, vol. III, p.64, cited in a monograph dedicated to the history of Saint-Michel de Bellechasse.

3. See on this topic the work of historian Stanley Bréhaut-Ryerson: Capitalisme et Confédération.

Editor's Note

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