The role of the media in the October Crisis
However, this version of the events is not without controversy. In his book “The assassination of Pierre Laporte”, Pierre Vallières, a member of the Parti Québécois famous for his dramatic departure from the FLQ and his repudiation of its violent methods, expressed doubts over the circumstances surrounding the death of Pierre Laporte, believing that it may have been an accident rather than an execution, and questioned the motives of the federal government in implementing the War Measures Act. He pointed out that Pierre Trudeau, in 1964, well before the founding of the PQ and only shortly after the activities of the FLQ started, had already identified the Quebec sovereignty movement as a threat to democracy and freedom, which Vallières believed to be “inseparable from 'Canadian Unity' in Trudeau's mind” (23).
Vallières was encouraged to write his book by Jacques Ferron, after having initially rejected his accusations formulated in his Historiettes published in the newspaper Le Canada Français. Ferron speculated that there was police infiltration of the FLQ, and that the October Crisis was manufactured or deliberately allowed to happen by the federal authorities to discredit the Quebec sovereignty movement and intimidate its supporters. The perspective of Ferron and Vallières was endorsed by historian Georges Langlois in his book “Octobre en question”, published in 1990 (Ó Gormaile, 12-17).
The documentary “La guerre secrète contre l'indépendance du Québec” also cited some of the facts exposed by Vallières, revealing that an effort to fight Quebec separatism predated the October Crisis. Richard Cléroux estimated that the secret war was launched in December 1969, during a meeting of ministers attended by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Those efforts were boosted by the gain of 23% of the votes of the Quebec electorate in the first election contested by the Parti Québécois in the spring of 1970. Shortly after the election, measures were taken to reinforce the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and the army to respond in the eventuality of the application of the War Measures Act. A special division in the RCMP called Section G was created specifically to deal with separatism, in particular the FLQ which was considered a threat the time (Deschênes and Gabriele).
Allegations of malicious intent have been consistently denied by Trudeau and the members of the federal government who participated in the crisis, who have maintained that they acted in the interest of public safety in response to what was perceived as a threat to democratic institutions (Leroux, 117). Vallières' suspicions that Laporte's death was accidental, as well as FLQ actions being the result of police infiltration, have been denied by FLQ members Paul Rose and Francis Simard, who contend that the FLQ bore responsibility for his death and acted on their own accord. However, Rose had previously claimed innocence to the death of Laporte (116).
Regardless, it remains undisputed today that there were RCMP attempts until 1975 to artificially extend the October Crisis in order to discredit the Quebec sovereignty movement. The documentary further revealed that RCMP Carole Devault had infiltrated the FLQ during the October Crisis, and after the crisis created fake FLQ cells. Manipulation included planting fake manifestos written by the head of the RCMP and bombs planted by a suspect who was injured by his own bomb, later caught at the hospital and revealed to be an RCMP agent. During the RCMP operations, the Parti Québécois attempted to dissociate itself from what were thought to be the terrorist actions of the FLQ, which also prompted Pierre Vallières to resign and join the PQ. Those events led to the MacDonald and Keable inquiries, which however, remained incomplete, as the RCMP refused to make public key classified documents (Deschênes and Gabriele).
Several social factors need to be understood in order to properly grasp the historical background of the crisis. Editor-in-chief of Point de Mire and ardent sovereignty proponent Pierre Bourgault identified several of them, namely the primacy of the English language in a province with a French-speaking majority, elections which he qualified as “truquées” (18), assimilation of immigrants to the anglophones instead of the French-speaking majority, and a slew of economic problems, such as pervasive foreign ownership of capital and control of the justice system by the rich. (18-19). Many of those grievances were found in the FLQ Manifesto, which lamented the mistreatment of workers, the repression of labour unions, and the control of society by the Anglo-Saxon elite (FLQ, 91-96).
The media was instrumental during and after the October Crisis in shaping public understanding of the events, and before it as a catalysing factor. The media reported statements made by contemporary politicians during the crisis which identified some of the economic root causes of the rise of the FLQ. Highlighting the economic disparity between Quebec and the rest of Canada, Senator Mrs. Thérèse Casgrain described Quebecers as “citoyens de seconde classe”, and “comprend le sentiment tragique qui règne dans le coeur du peuple québécois”. The senator noted the role of the media as a catalyst for the crisis, how it changed the attitudes and ideals of younger generations compared to older ones, and made them envious as they saw rich houses and clothes whilst living in lower life conditions. (“Mme Casgrain”). Earlier, Castonguay had given deeper insight into the social tensions resulting from the gap between the higher and lower classes, drawing a comparison with the United States, which he said had “poverty areas” which would be “unacceptable” in Canada (Castonguay). Such populations, he argued, being disempowered, in addition to be exposed to glorification of violence on television, would be more open to violence as a political solution. He further cites as root causes the sudden change from a socially conservative society to an open liberal society with advanced technology, as well as the vulnerability of Quebec culture towards North American culture and the lack of power of its community to make it evolve.
Quebec Federation of Labour leader Louis Laberge suggested social reforms as a remedy to the root causes of the initial support for terrorism, which would have included constitutional reforms, justice system reforms and social programs such as subsidised housing and minimum wage (Winter). On Decenber 15, 1970, The Gazette released the QFL's “Emergency Program”, whose demands, in addition to those in the previous article, included that “French becomes truly the normal and every day language of work at all levels of economic activity” (Laberge).
However, there was selective reporting in the press of the root causes of the October Crisis, most markedly in the anglophone press. While The Gazette consistently emphasised poverty as a root cause for the FLQ crisis, it paid little attention to other issues mentioned in the FLQ manifesto. Conspicuously underreported by The Gazette articles was the disaffectation of the voters towards an election system viewed as unrepresentative and undemocratic. In the 1970 election, the Liberal Party won 70% of the seats, despite having been rejected by 55% of the voters, and the Parti Québécois, despite having had 24% of the votes, only had 6% of the seats (Bourgault, 17). This problem was only covered in a small paragraph, as part of The Gazette's publication of the QFL's Emergency Program (Laberge).
By contrast, an editorial by Paul Sauriol in Le Devoir entitled “Pour instaurer une vraie démocratie dans notre vie”, taking a large part of a page, was dedicated to CSN president Marcel Pepin, who outlined the problems with the voting system and proposed several radical changes, including an electoral ID card and a permanent list of registered voters.
In all fairness, The Gazette did give significant coverage of the language issue in Quebec, and
carried an editorial that extensively acknowledged the “linguistic injustices” and “the disadvantages suffered by unilingual people at work and in the marketplace”. However, there were few attempts to link the frustration resulting from the dominance of the English language with the rise of the FLQ, other than citing Bourassa's statement that “the main source of resentment is that French Quebecers feel they cannot work in their own language” (“Premier”).
The Gazette was notable for its support of the authorities and the security measures taken by the federal and provincial governments during the crisis. The Gazette carried a large number of articles that defended the repressive measures, such as “Society's right to protect itself” and “The facts speak for the government”, the latter stating that critics must be countered by “spell[ing] out the extent of the danger to Quebec society”. Another article from The Gazette entitled “Dangerous but necessary” defended the newly-passed Public Order Act, arguing that while it is a 'dangerous law', it was justifiable in 'dangerous times'.
The Gazette, however, was not alone in calling the public to support the authorities. A particularly egregious article was carried by La Presse, entitled “Appel aux Québécois”, saying that “no society is possible without some form of authority”, that “chaque citoyen doit être sans réticence avec le gouvernement, car le gouvernement, c'est nous tous”, and compared civil libertarians with sex-obsessed people, exhorting people not to listen to intellectuals “qui discutent du sexe de la liberté [sic] et qui excitent les enfants”.(Desbiens) The Montreal Star also carried an article called “High Price for Freedom”, which stated that “there is no moral or ethical difficulty at all in defending the federal action” (Wilson).
By contrast, Le Devoir was far more concerned with civil liberties, and suspicious of the use of the War Measures Act and other extraordinary measures by the government. The Public Order Act, referred to as “La Loi Turner”, was condemned in an article whose title translates as “A law that reveals not the strength but the weakness of power”. Its stance towards civil liberties sharply contrasted with that of The Gazette, as shown by its statement that “aucun gouvernement n'a le droit d'adopter une politique qui aille au-delè de ce que la situation du moment exige raisonablement” (Justinien). An editorial by Claude Ryan argued that not only intellectuals, but also ordinary people were questioning the measures used by the authorities during the crisis (Ryan, “Les milieux intellectuels sont-ils les seuls à se poser des questions?”). Le Devoir also carried an article from Canadian Press which reported that the opposition was demanding proof that there was a threat of insurrection (“La menace d'insurrection”).
Furthermore, its publication of a speech by late Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier under the title “Toute rébellion n'est pas un crime”, which referred to the Low Canada rebellions of 1837-38, suggests that Le Devoir had a certain degree of sympathy towards the FLQ (Laurier). Another article, from Canadian Press, cited history professor Donald Creighton, who considered the actions of the FLQ as “la conclusion logique” of the need discovered by their ancestors to “s'affranchir de la confédération canadienne” (“Le crime du FLQ”). However, this is contradicted by Claude Ryan's editorial “La fin d'un long cauchemar”, where he decried “l'inanité de la violence comme moyen d'action politique dans une société comme la nôtre”, and called the actions of the FLQ “tragiquement irresponsables” (Ryan). His statement that “the principle of the superiority of a negotiated solution over resorting outright to brute force” suggests that the stance taken by Le Devoir was not partisan to the FLQ, but rather pleaded for a peaceful solution, while condemning the excesses of the government in dealing with the crisis (Ryan, “La fin d'un long cauchemar”).
Occasionally, even the Gazette expressed mild disapproval of police abuse; however, the condemnations were made less because of loss of civil liberties as out of concern that they would result in reduced popular support for the authorities. Such an example could be seen in the article “Arrests under War Act alienates academic community”; on one hand it notes that the massive arrests on the campuses alienated the intellectuals; however later noted that those raids “hurt the government's popularity even more” (Cleroux).
Overall, despite the support by 88.3% of the Quebec population for the measures taken by the federal government, there was alarm over their impact on freedom of information (“86.6 p.c des Canadiens”). This was especially a concern for the media as shown by the article in La Presse “La liberté de l'information est en danger”, which was given a large headline (Robitaille). Point de Mire also made a point of mentioning that several of their journalists were arrested in their attempts to gather information (La Direction). However, Marc Chatelle, deputy editor-in-chief of Point de Mire, argued that the threat to freedom of information was often used as a pretext for the use of sensationalism to increase ratings. “Sous le couvert du juste droit, de la démocratie en danger, chacun y va de ses petites rancoeurs” (46), reported Chatelle, as radio stations CKVI and CJMS struggled to recover their audiences from CKAC and CKLM, who became “les porte-parole des ravisseurs” (46). An escalation took place between the radio stations to compete for ratings where every tactic was permissible, including allowing open commentary from the audience and outright making up news in extreme cases (Chatelle, 46-47).
As in the radio, sensationalism manifested itself, with few exceptions, in the printed press regardless of targeted readers. On October 18, The Journal de Montréal carried the headlines “Le cadavre de Pierre Laporte retrouvé” in large characters that spread across almost the entirety of the front page. On the front page of the October 16, 1970 issue of The Gazette, a large headline read “Free only five says Bourassa; but FLQ's lawyer screams no!”. The October 19, 1970 issue of the McGill Daily carried a headline that read “Parliament Hill tense after Laporte death”. The Sunday Express of October 18, 1970, carried the large, bolded words “Laporte Killed” in a headline that took the half top of the page, with a photo underneath of the car where his body was found. Even in Le Devoir, coverage of the October Crisis was not always exempt from sensationalistic details: on the front page of the October 20, 1970 issue, a large headline went in details describing the funeral of Pierre Laporte as “sans apparat”, beneath a smaller headline that specified “à la requête même de Mme Pierre Laporte”.
As paradoxical as it may seem, Lysiane Gagnon argued that despite the sensationalism, the abundance of information prevented panic from overcoming the Quebec population. While she conceded that it was not always easy to determine the factual basis of the reports, she pointed out that retractions were quickly forthcoming, and that the spread of rumour increased exponentially following the self-censorship of radio stations when the War Measures Act was enforced. (Chatelle, 47)
Gagnon's theory on the role of the media was corroborated by Chatelle's analysis of the importance of the radio during the October Crisis. As reported in Le Devoir, the French-speaking Québécois relied more on television and radio than their anglophone counterparts, who mainly gathered their news from newspapers. However, during the October Crisis, radio overtook both television and the printed press, as it required fewer and cheaper equipment, allowing journalists to report developments on the spot and quickly correct them, which was even less feasible for the print press. Marc Chatelle concluded that the media “creates the events” (47). “Il aurait suffi”, he stated, “que la radio, la télévision, et les journaux ignorent l'affaire et le FLQ ne serait pas une réalité aussi criante” (47).
Chatelle's analysis of the role of the media had proponents both in the camp of the supporters and the opponents of the application of the War Measures Act. Vallières himself had questions over manipulation of the media during the October crisis. In his book, he asked whether foreknowledge of FLQ plans to kidnap Pierre Laporte led to “the management of certain Montreal radio stations” being “tipped off” to prepare a media campaign to play up the events for the public (52). He also implied that the “sensationalism, overdramatisation, public agitation and eventually collective fear” (52) was of benefit for the authorities to escalate the October crisis, and cast suspicion over the telephone conversations between Gérard Pelletier, then head of the CBC, and the heads of public and private media like CTV and Canadian Press. (52)
At least Vallières' assertions that the media overplayed the crisis can be verified by looking at some editorials written during the time of the crisis. The article “Coincidence in Conspiracy” of the November 20 issue of The Gazette compared the FLQ to Algerian resistance group OAS, implying ties between the groups based on reports that FLQ members had gone to Algeria, and that some members of the FLQ were from Algeria. The article stated that the FLQ “is estimated to have about a hundred active terrorists, backed by supporting units that may have between 2,000 and 3,000 participants” (Blakely). Later reports, however, revised the numbers downwards to 35 members, including 20 active members. Of the 497 arrests made under the War Measures Act, only 62 were charged (Ó Gormaile, 16). An article from La Presse claimed that the FLQ were inspired by a terrorist group called the “tupamaros” in Uruguay; comparing the kidnappings of politicians and the execution of Pierre Laporte to methods used by South American guerillas. The article, however, reported that Palestinian groups denied rumours that members of the FLQ had been trained in fedayin camps (Beauregard).
The authority figures who dealt with the crisis had a different interpretation of the media sensationalism. From Pierre Trudeau's perspective, it was the FLQ that manipulated the media, using French-speaking media such as CKLM and Journal de Montréal as mouthpieces, a role even admitted by former FLQ member Robert Comeau. Facing accusations of exerting pressure over the media, former Quebec minister of Justice Jérôme Choquette responded that he simply wanted to warn the journalists not to play the game of the FLQ (Leroux, 101; 115-118). Even the state-owned media, was not spared criticism. Federal Members of Parliament accused Radio-Canada of being “une tribune des révolutionnaires, séparatistes et anarchistes” (“De nombreux députés”). Vallière pointed out, however, that the police “showed a remarkable tolerance towards the exploitation of the FLQ activities by the media”, which “ended abruptly on October 17, 1970”. On the authorities' claims that the purpose was to stop the spread of rumours, Vallières had noted that during the night of the same day, the CBC had regardless falsely reported the death of James Cross (53).
In the foreign press, the October Crisis received significant coverage in a wide range of countries. The October 19, 1970 issue of Time Magazine had an FLQ message printed over the front page, with a black and white picture of Pierre Laporte in the background, and gave six pages of coverage to the October Crisis. An article about negotiations for the release of James Cross was featured on the front page of the New York Times issue of the same day (Cowen). Point de Mire dedicated two pages of its November 1st 1970 issue to front page articles from foreign newspapers, including Nouvel Observateur, The Economist, L'Express, Time and Paris-Match (“Ce qu'en pensent les autres”).
As opposed to the sensationalism of the Quebec press, he French press was notable for its extensive, yet neutral coverage of the October Crisis. An editorial by Marcel Adam in La Presse reported that “[L]a crise politique qui sévit au Canada domine l'actualité , ces jours-ci, en France”. Adam wrote that Le Monde “a toujours rendu compte de l'évolution de la situation depuis l'enlèvement de Mr. Cross, mais sans jamais formuler de commentaires”. Nonetheless, the French media treated the October Crisis as a dramatic political crisis, describing it with terms such as “psychose” and “panique” (Adam).
The importance of the role of the media during the October Crisis cannot be stressed enough. Although the sensationalism might arguably have resulted in undeserved support to the political authorities, the alternative of absence of information would likely have resulted in chaos. The media played up the crisis, both to give a justification for repression of the sovereigntist movement, and by giving national importance to a small group that would otherwise have been regarded as a criminal group unworthy of attention. Coverage of the root causes and solutions to the crisis, as well as their attempts to persuade people to side with or against the security measures, were essential in determining the support of people for the government and their votes in the next election. At the same time, the crisis itself influenced the media, resulting in the traditional media being overtaken by the radio.
Today, the October Crisis is a relevant case study, as it parallels a more recent event, the 9/11 attacks. In both events, there has been controversy surrounding the security measures taken in the aftermath of the events, both supporting them and criticising them for undermining civil liberties There has also been suspicion, in many cases supported by evidence, of government infiltration, deliberate prevarication, direct involvement, or manipulation of public fears to further a governmental agenda. Despite the current media taboos surrounding opinions questioning the official 9/11 story, it is important that they receive serious examination like the ones that surrounded the October Crisis.
“86.6 p.c. Des Canadiens appuyent la proclamation des mesures de guerre.” La Presse 17 Nov 1970: B14.
Adam, Marcel. “L'accélération des événements au Québec domine l'actualité française.” La Presse 17 Oct 1970: XX.
Beauregard, Fernand. “Le FLQ se serait inspiré des exploits des Tupamaros en Uruguay”. La Presse 19 Oct 1970: A13.
Blakely, Arthur. “Urban guerilla methods of the FLQ mimic tactics of Algerian French right.” The Gazette 20 Oct 1970: XX.
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Canadian press “La menace d'insurrection: l'opposition réclame les preuves.” Le Devoir 22 Oct 1970: 2.
--. “De nombreux députés fédéraux blâment Radio-Canada d'être une tribune des révolutionnaires, séparatistes et anarchistes.” La Presse 19 Oct 1970: C14.
--. “Le crime du FLQ aura été de tirer la conclusion logique de l'enseignement reçu (Donald Creighton).” Le Devoir 4 Dec 1970: 4.
--. “Mme Casgrain: “Les Québécois sont des citoyens de seconde classe””. Le Devoir 4 Dec 1970.
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