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Peter Black

The 50th anniversary of the October Crisis will soon be upon us.

There’s already been somewhat of an avant-goût of reflections on that scary time with the recent launch of a movie about the Rose family, who were prominent in the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) terrorist campaign that led to the murder of cabinet minister Pierre Laporte and the abduction of British diplomat James Cross.

Apart from another sympathetic look at the Rose clan, there’s likely little new material left to be uncovered to shed light on this stunning episode in what we generally consider bland Canadian history.

A shrinking few of the players in the political drama are still among the living. Pierre Trudeau, for example, died 20 years ago this month, and Robert Bourassa met his maker in October 1996. Paul Rose, one of the FLQ leaders convicted of Laporte’s kidnapping and murder, died in 2013.

It is the reality and the tragedy of the passage of time that people lose sight of the context of historical events, even in recent history. The FLQ’s seven-year rampage of dozens of robberies, over 200 bombings which left six dead, and ultimately direct attacks on people, did not happen in a void.

As obsessed as they were with communist dogma and loathing of the anglophone elite, the FLQ gave popular voice to a widespread, simmering anger and frustration among the francophone majority with the way things were in Quebec in the mid-1900s.

To be truly “maîtres chez nous” – the Liberal campaign slogan in 1960 – could not come fast enough for a significant portion of the Quebec population of the era.

Strangely enough, the October Crisis, as much as it was a test of how Canadian democractic institutions dealt with an “apprehended insurrection,” the words used to sanction the War Measures Act, led to a more peaceful and effective movement of change through the political process.

Fifty years after the October Crisis, very little tangible evidence remains of the spree of FLQ attacks. Interestingly, one of the few remaining vestiges of the era is in Quebec City.

In a scene reminiscent of the recent toppling of the Macdonald statue in Montreal, FLQ-inspired vandals unbolted, then used a chain attached to a van to bring down the Wolfe monument in front of the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec on the Plains of Abraham. That happened during the night of March 29, 1963.

Co-ordinated or not, the destruction of the Wolfe monument was the beginning of a spree of attacks as the FLQ escalated its terrorist campaign that spring.

What is remarkable is how news coverage of the levelled column was all but buried by stories about the blown-up railway tracks near Montreal, clearly targeting then prime minister John Diefenbaker’s train. Canada at the time was in the home stretch of an election campaign that would bring Lester Pearson’s Liberals to power – and the eventual recruitment of anti-separatist champion Pierre Trudeau.

The Wolfe monument was laden with the kind of history that made it an obvious target of political extremists. It commemorates, of course, the British military commander who, in an act of almost suicidal desperation, led the fateful attack on Quebec on Sept. 13, 1759, that ultimately put an end to French power in North America.

The Wolfe monument – there are four earlier versions – was rebuilt in 1965, the helmet, sword and laurel having been recovered from the scene. This time the plaque on the column was in both English and French, with the “victorious” description of Wolfe omitted on the inscription. (At the moment the helmet, sword and laurel are not atop the column, having been removed for cleaning and repair.)

Except for the occasional graffiti attack over the years, the Wolfe monument has survived intact since the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s. The only hint of its terrorist past is the note on a plaque on one side: “This fifth memorial was erected by the National Battlefields Commission in July 1965 in replacement of the column which was destroyed on March 29th, 1963.” By whom and why goes unstated.

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