MONTREAL - THE OCTOBER CRISIS - WE NEVER THOUGHT IT COULD HAPPEN HERE
One sunny fall day in 1970, my friend and I were walking back to school after lunch when up pulled a green military jeep, manned by two young soldiers who had apparently decided to jazz up their routine patrol assignment by impressing the hell out of two wide-eyed fourth-graders.
"You guys going to school?"
"Yeah," we replied in unison, spotting two awesome assault rifles behind the driver's seat.
We scrambled aboard and grabbed the sides as the jeep lurched forward. We were only two blocks from our school, so the whole ride lasted about 30 seconds — but what a thrilling 30 seconds!
Normally, of course, we knew better than to accept rides from strangers. But these were not normal times.
For all anyone knew, we were at war.
Montreal street scene during the October 1970 October Crisis.
MONTREAL GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
Five years ago, the Montreal Gazette marked the 40th anniversary of the October Crisis with an editorial warning young Quebecers against viewing history through the rosy filter of time and glorifying the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) as a virtuous band of misunderstood patriots whose crimes were somehow justified.
No matter how exciting it may sound today, the passage of time should not soften or trivialize the ugly events that jolted awake a sleepy Montreal that was still nursing a hangover from the long party of Expo 67.
But for my 9-year-old self and my friends, the October Crisis really was exciting — a great adventure that shook up the quiet routine of our drab suburban existence in east-end Anjou.
Best described as a cross between Leave it to Beaver and The Wonder Years with a predominantly French soundtrack, ours was a tightly knit middle-class enclave where everyone seemed reasonably bilingual and families socialized happily and effortlessly. Most of our parents had been young couples together, putting money down on split-levels and bungalows in the 1950s while the block was still a muddy real-estate development.
The news was something that happened elsewhere. Throughout the 1960s, when the FLQ was planting bombs in mailboxes — not to mention a failed attempt to blow up Westmount city hall — we were safe, insulated from the violence by a mountain and about 10 kilometres.
But that changed on Oct. 5, 1970, when the FLQ kidnapped British diplomat James Cross, followed a few days later by Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte. The abductions prompted Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau to utter those now-iconic words when a CBC reporter asked him how far he was prepared to go to stop the terrorists: "Well, just watch me."
Best described as a cross between Leave it to Beaver and The Wonder Years with a predominantly French soundtrack, ours was a tightly knit middle-class enclave where everyone seemed reasonably bilingual and families socialized happily and effortlessly.
And so the nation watched as Trudeau invoked the little-used War Measures Act and deployed the army in Montreal. Soon, our quiet world of shady old elms and station wagons was invaded by military jeeps and troop trucks, not to mention the jarring sight of a tank rumbling down one of the main boulevards.
We kids were jaded, or so we thought. Having been raised on a TV diet of 1960s war shows like Combat! and The Rat Patrol, not to mention a steady stream of real-life footage from Vietnam every night on the news, we were highly attuned to war as part of our culture.
But war was supposed to be something that happened in other countries, not in Canada, and certainly not on our street. What made it worse was that so little was known about the enemy. No one knew how many FLQ operatives were involved or where they would strike next.
My parents were worried; they kept the TV on in case there was a news bulletin, and my mother thrived on all the latest developments and gossip. Friends of a friend, who lived on the South Shore, were convinced that Laporte was being held in a nearby house, she said. Later, when Laporte was murdered and police swarmed the property where he had been kept, those friends had been right. Terrified, they promptly fled the province.
Part of this real-life drama played out dangerously close to home. Our next-door neighbours, an older francophone couple to whom we were very close, learned that their son, a gentle, bearded poet who smoked a pipe, had been jailed — one of hundreds of people rounded up and imprisoned by an ill-prepared and confused police force suddenly empowered by the War Measures Act.
We also heard that the parents of a family who lived at the end of our street were wholeheartedly behind the FLQ and had attended a rally in support of the terrorists. My father was not surprised. "They're beatniks," he said. "Plus, I think he works in television."
Fear and confusion reigned throughout the autumn, fuelled by rumours and distorted news reports. At school, Mrs. Williams tactfully explained to our Grade 4 class what was going on and why there were soldiers on our streets. Then, on Halloween, we had to do our trick-or-treating in the afternoon because most parents wouldn't allow their kids outside after dark in case the FLQ got them.
"Aren't you scared?" a neighbour asked my mother.
"Well the FLQ, of course — they're going after all the English people."
Needless to say, I was immediately confined to the house, except to go to school. If the FLQ could snatch Laporte while he tossed a football with his kids in front of their house, I was a sitting duck the minute I stepped outside.
But once everything was over — after Cross was released, most of the FLQ rounded up and the victims of the War Measures incarcerations safely home —things were never really the same in our neighbourhood. The soldiers were gone and all was quiet again, but there was a tacit awareness of division.
Suddenly, language mattered.
Coincidence or not, before the October Crisis, our local street hockey games had been an easy blend of English- and French-speaking kids playing together with no linguistic difficulty. When we chose up teams, players were picked for their ability, not language. Sure, there were occasional fights, just like on TV, but only because of a high stick or a vicious check, not because one was a bloke or a frog.
But once the slushy streets dried up and the makeshift nets came out in the spring of 1971, some kids vehemently insisted that we play French against English. This was especially hard for the vastly outnumbered English kids, who had to play the whole game while the French team always had plenty of spare players lounging on the opposite sidewalk.
It also presented a tough dilemma for my friend Paul, whose French father and English mother rendered him perfectly bilingual. He was claimed by both sides because he owned all the goalie equipment and refused to share, so it was agreed that he would be English for the first half of each game and French for the second.
But a sea change was in motion.
Until then, none of our neighbours had been especially political; a few Liberal posters featuring Robert Bourassa's beaming face appeared in windows during the 1970 provincial election campaign — I recall pressing my parents to explain the sudden popularity of Dennis the Menace's father — but the 1973 election was different.
The people across the street from us — good friends of my parents — erected a huge Parti Québécois sign on their lawn and suddenly stopped speaking English. They stopped speaking to us altogether, in fact. My parents were offended, unsure if the sign was a deliberate jab at us or merely an innocent declaration of political passion.
Around the same time, I was solemnly informed by my friend Luc, who lived down the block, that his father had forbidden him to socialize with English kids — something that infuriated my fluently bilingual father even further.
But the clouds passed. Soon after that landmark PQ victory in late 1976, the woman from across the street appeared at our door with fresh cookies, and she and my mother had a long, happy reunion over coffee, catching up and gossiping in both languages. The big election sign, she explained, had been the work of her husband's cousin, a PQ candidate in another riding.
My family was lucky; at most we endured some strained relationships and lost a few friends to Ontario. But for so many others, the October Crisis will always remain an ugly chapter in our history — a tragic and violent coming-of-age for Quebec, fraught with painful personal memories that can't be glorified, especially by those who were not here to experience any of the confusion, paranoia, anger and outright fear felt by Montrealers throughout that upside-down autumn 45 years ago.
Sure, that 30-second army jeep ride, courtesy of two irresponsible soldiers — kids themselves, really — was a great thrill for me and my friend, and it made us the coolest kids in school for a few days. But eventually the meaning of that ride completely changed: there's nothing cool about the army patrolling your neighbourhood, no matter where you live.