0

Turmoil in Quebec

This is how the October Crisis seemed to Toronto writer William Cameron who was there in Old Montreal the day it happened.


 

Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.
Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

IT IS MONDAY, October 19. Pierre Laporte has been dead since Saturday; his body lies in a Montreal courthouse. James Cross may be dead by now.

I went to Montreal on Thursday morning, when it was all more innocent. Nobody had died. The armed forces had not yet been arranged around public buildings. And when Robert Lemieux, the FLQ negotiator, gave a press conference at the Nelson Hotel in Old Montreal, the feeling that had come from the television screen had been one of intense joy: now, at last, they are paying attention, Quebec has become important, we have become important, we shall win.

It was easy to feel, from that press conference, that a secret part of the passion of Quebec had become available at the Nelson Hotel; that an English Canadian from Toronto, who had felt that a third of his country was incomprehensible to him, could now find ways to understand it. Lemieux. Michel Chartrand, who screamed at the Prime Minister. The Mouvement de Libération du Taxi, which had leveled a small part of Montreal a year before. At that moment, at the Nelson, they were winning, and they were insanely happy about it.

“Mouvement de Libération du Taxi,” said the cab driver at the airport. He passed me a mimeographed notice: Demonstration Against Drapeau, October 20, 1.30 p.m., Lafontaine Park, MLT. “The Federals are on the run now. And we’ll keep on hitting them. Go down Ste-Catherine Street, you’ll see the students have signs in the windows, Support the Aims of the FLQ . . .” Again that expression of joy, of sudden power.

The Nelson Hotel, where Robert Lemieux lives, is in the Place Jacques-Cartier, near the City Hall and the waterfront. The streets are cobblestone, and for the last five years smart businessmen have been opening restaurants and carefully furnished little bars in the area: the new Old Montreal. But the bar of the Nelson is a large room, paneled in dull wood, where you drink beer out of quart bottles and listen to the jukebox.

Remi Lapalme — not his real name — is about 19, a student, with a corona of wiry brown hair shooting out around his head. He is three-quarters drunk in celebration. “It’s as though I were breathing different air, as though the atmosphere had changed. When I heard the news about the Cross kidnapping, I thought — well, at last, something concrete, at last we’re striking back . . .

“It’s not a question of the deaths of two men, even if they die, and they won’t die. It’s a feeling that at last the people of Quebec have assumed sovereignty, that the strongest of us are negotiating with the government on an equal level."

“Listen, these guys in the FLQ are simply the most senior, the most advanced, the most trained people in revolutionary Quebec. They are the ones who have said, all right, that’s it, I am dedicating my life to this, I’ll die for it, I’ll do anything to free the country. I can sympathize with that — I feel that in time I’ll do that as well, because there is no alternative for a young man in Quebec but to become a revolutionary.

“All right, it’s easy for you to say use other means, go slow, kidnapping is criminal, bombing is criminal. If you were a French-Canadian nigger in Quebec, and you saw your people getting screwed by the law and the system every other day, maybe you’d do the same thing.”

The bar is full. The old men have their own seats by the wall near the cash register, undisturbed, impervious to bombs and police and the young: foolishness. Students and brave tourists, who suspect that this is the centre of something splendidly dangerous.

An English-Canadian girl, a friend, married to a French-Canadian artist in Montreal, and subtly unhappy: “We’ve argued about this ever since the reports came in about Cross’ kidnapping. We both worked for the Parti Québécois in the election, but he’s going toward the FLQ.

“In some ways I still haven’t made it here. I’m still a foreigner. We’ll be sitting with friends, in our living room. We start talking politics, and then suddenly the whole conversation slows down and everybody looks at me . . .”

On Ste-Catherine Street, the signs are up in the windows. The students move behind the glass. Young girls on the street, the perfectly beautiful girls of Montreal, look up and wave. Middle-aged men in overcoats look up sourly: the bastards are taking the city away from us and there is nothing we can do.

On Friday morning, Robert Lemieux is suddenly no longer at the Nelson Hotel. The police came for him before the sun was up.

At City Hall, above the Place Jacques-Cartier, two young men in khaki stand back from the sidewalk, holding their rifles in loose parade rest. They are surrounded by young men taking pictures.

The Montreal Star, Friday, October 16: “Police . . . this morning detained 163 persons in the Montreal and Quebec City area and in Rimouski.” They have picked up Michel Garneau, a poet, a friendly and articulate man I knew last year, when I worked with him at the CBC. Garneau is a terrorist?

The troops have been around City Hall since Thursday afternoon: now, in the morning, they are conspicuous. One of them brings his rifle up, just a little, as I approach him: “Do you have business here? If you’re not expected, I’ll have to ask you to move along, sir.”

Suddenly, on the street, the faces are guarded. The War Measures Act: as one lawyer says, “If you are a member of the FLQ, you woke up this morning a felon.” And there is something more about giving support — is it dangerous to talk? To have talked?

At the Nelson, Remi Lapalme has vanished. No, the waiter does not know where he is. No, the waiter does not think anything about anything. He has no politics, like the waiters in Hemingway’s stories about wartime Madrid.

The tone of Montreal has changed, irretrievably; it is the sense that the government has finally jumped, will use its full powers, and that if you get in the way of those powers you will be in serious, incalculable trouble.

The Parti Québécois will be phoning around all weekend, to find out which of its members are in jail.

It feels like a war. It is no longer possible to find people to explain, to make sense out of the nonsensical. The brief — perhaps false — sense of openness has gone.

An airport billboard: “Buy your Super-Loto ticket!” “You should buy one,” says the cab driver. “It’s a good deal.”

A newspaper public-opinion analyst, waiting for a plane: “Forty percent of the people I talk to won’t say anything. Forty percent refusal. It’s incredible.”

That night, the death of Pierre Laporte. There had never been a chance to understand it.

Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.


 
Filed under:

Sign in to comment.