This was the week that shook Canada 40 years ago -- one Americans have probably forgotten. Our normally peaceful and sedate northern neighbor experienced the kind of political terrorism Americans wouldn't see until 9-11. So this week was not the best time for a terrorist hoax, exactly 40 years to the day after the ugliness began.
"The October Crisis," as it's now known in Canada, was that country's first encounter with terrorism, and I witnessed it firsthand.
It started when a renegade francophone group called the FLQ (Front for the Liberation of Quebec) kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, at gunpoint from his home in a comfortable Montreal neighborhood on October 5, 1970.
Five days later, another FLQ cell snatched Quebec's Labor Minister, Pierre Laporte, while he was playing football in his front yard. Laporte was found dead two weeks later, dumped in a car trunk.
I'd just arrived in Montreal a few weeks before as a youthful immigrant to Canada, eager to use my fluency in Parisian (not, alas, Quebecois) French. I was one of the few Americans in Montreal, I later learned, who weren't there to beat the U.S. draft and avoid being shipped to Vietnam.
My very first day at work as a sportswriter at the Montreal Gazette, the English-speaking morning daily, I was amazed to find federal troops around the building. Then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, himself a Quebecker and also an ardent foe of the Quebec separatist movement, had just declared the War Measures Act, a virtual marshal law that suspended habeus corpus. He had sent federal troops into largely peaceful Quebec to maintain order.
It was probably the most atypical period in Canadian history, a worrisome time fraught with fear in a usually peaceful country and province. As my former Gazette colleague Brian Stewart, now a national CBC commentator, noted in his piece on the affair this week,
the FLQ had already killed and injured dozens of people and had bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange.
Huge tabloid-ish newspaper headlines about the kidnapped Cross and Laporte were a daily occurrence. On October 16, Trudeau declared the War Measures Act. The next day, Laporte's body was found. He'd been strangled to death. It took until December for diplomat Cross to finally be released -- in exchange for his captors' safe passage to Cuba.
The U.S. wouldn't experience this kind of terrorism and fear until 9-11, when we lost far more lives. Even today, those events, which led to years of political and economic instability in Quebec and Canada, still are a chilling thought to many Canadians.
That's why this week's arrest of a Quebec City resident, one Martin Levesque, for perpetrating a terrorist hoax on the very same day "La Crise d'Octobre" began with Cross' abduction, was especially ill-timed and opened old wounds and bad memories. (The reclusive Cross gave a rare interview from Britain last week to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation).
The 41-year-old Levesque, who's been released on bail, is charged with perpetrating a terrorist hoax on a Facebook page in posts touting the "benefits" of the FLQ and threatening to "make bombs explode" again -- just like the bombings the radical separatist group detonated in Quebec province in the 1960's.
One day, during that portentous Canadian autumn of 1970, I remember watching military helicopters circling above downtown Montreal as I looked out the windows of the Gazette newsroom. ( The big English-language newspaper was also a potential terrorist target, we'd been warned).
A courtly Canadian editor, a gentleman in his seventies, put a comforting hand on my shoulder and said, "You couldn't have come here at a more atypical time, Bill. This is the most un-Canadian thing you could possibly imagine, these troops, the kidnapping.
"This is a peaceful country."