It could (and did) happen here - Keith Roulston editorial
When the FBI recently revealed they had arrested 13 men in a plot to kidnap and assassinate Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, many Americans probably wondered “can this be happening here?” That’s certainly how Canadians felt 50 years ago when a similar plot resulted in the October Crisis.
Unlike the Michigan right-wing militias who quietly prepared for their horrendous crime, the FLQ terrorists already had a high profile in Canada. For years they’d been blowing up mailboxes and conducting other attention-getting symbolic acts in their attempt to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada.
Things changed in a stunning way on Oct. 5, 1970 when the group kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross in Montreal. They demanded the release of 23 “political prisoners” who had been arrested for earlier crimes, $500,000 in gold, broadcast and publication of the FLQ Manifesto, and an aircraft to fly the kidnappers to Cuba or Algeria.
The federal government, under Pierre Trudeau, and the Quebec government of Premier Robert Bourassa agreed they’d jointly make decisions. They did go along with the demands as far at having the FLQ Manifesto published in several newspapers and broadcast on French-language radio stations.
If the two governments were trying to buy time, it didn’t work. On Oct. 10, 1970 a different FLQ cell kidnapped Quebec’s Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte.
After that, things began to move faster. Trudeau sent the army to guard Ottawa on Oct. 12. On Oct. 15, the Quebec government invited the Canadian army into Quebec to help local police.
On Oct. 16, came the still-controversial invoking of the War Measures Act by Prime Minister Trudeau, allowing search, arrest and imprisonment of anyone suspected of being part of the plot. Hundreds were arrested, nearly all later released. When a reporter asked how far Trudeau was willing to go to root out the FLQ he answered “just watch me”.
Even for Canadians outside Quebec, there was a sense of disbelief about the whole thing because it was happening, after all, in Quebec, where bizarre things had been happening for years. But on Oct. 17, we were jolted into reality when TV stations broadcast the discovery of the body of Laporte in the trunk of a car parked at the airport in Saint-Hubert, Quebec.
Like most Canadians, I was horrified by what was taking place across the Ottawa River from my home province. Any sense of distance, however, had already been erased.
As a very young editor of the Clinton News-Record, I visited Canadian Forces Base Clinton several days a week. Although the base’s closure had already been announced, winding things down would last several years. I was accustomed to wheeling up to the base guardhouse, waving a cheery hello to the guard, then driving on to the officers club or wherever the event I was covering was being held.
But one day in mid-October, I braked to a rapid halt when there was already a car stopped in front of me, being inspected by an armed guard. My own car got the same treatment after the other car was waved ahead. The October Crisis wasn’t something happening a province away, anymore.
On top of all this, on Oct. 13, our eldest daughter Christina was born. As a new parent, we had to wonder what kind of world we were bringing this innocent child into.
Fifty years later, it’s hard to realize how long the whole crisis dragged on as police hunted the terrorists. The hiding place where James Cross was held was finally discovered on Dec. 4. After two months in captivity he had lost weight but claimed he hadn’t been physically abused. The next day five FLQ terrorists were flown to exile in Cuba. On Dec. 28, several other FLQ members were arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder.
One thing that’s strikingly different between Canada’s October Crisis and the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer is the reaction of the two countries’ leadership.
Pierre Trudeau was accused of using the sledgehammer of the War Measures Act to crack a peanut. After all, 435 of the 497 arrested were released. Yet right or wrong, the back of violent terrorism in Quebec was broken.
Compare that to the strange leadership of U.S. President Donald Trump who has made light of the plot against Whitmer. Just last week in a speech in Michigan, he criticized her for COVID-19 restrictions to try to save lives. When his audience shouted “lock her up”, he simply smiled and said “lock them all up.” Rather than break the back of the Wolverine Watchmen and other right-wing militias, he seemed to give them attention and support.