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'A tragedy for Quebec': Pierre Laporte's death remembered 50 years later

MONTREAL — At age 91, Marc Lalonde still remembers the shock he felt on Oct. 17, 1970 when Pierre Laporte's body was discovered in the trunk of a car at an airport south of Montreal, a week after he had been kidnapped by a cell of the FLQ.

MONTREAL — At age 91, Marc Lalonde still remembers the shock he felt on Oct. 17, 1970 when Pierre Laporte's body was discovered in the trunk of a car at an airport south of Montreal, a week after he had been kidnapped by a cell of the FLQ.

Fifty years later, the events of the 1970 October Crisis, including the abductions of Laporte and British diplomat James Cross and the federal government's decision to suspend civil liberties by invoking the War Measures Act, remain a dark period in the country's history, with repercussions still being felt today.

"It was the most depressing time in my 20 years in federal politics," said Lalonde, who in 1970 was an adviser to then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and later ran for office and served in Trudeau's cabinet.

"The killing of a senior provincial minister was just so, so unbelievably negative for the province," he said in a phone interview. "It was a very, very depressing time. But we had to face it." 

Until Laporte's body was found, Lalonde said, Trudeau and other members of the federal government had still believed they would be able to negotiate with the FLQ, which Lalonde refers to as an "ultra-nationalist group."

The separatist, socialist Front de liberation du Quebec had begun setting off bombs in 1963, waging a campaign of terror that by 1970 had resulted in five deaths. But the group also gained some popular support for its political positions calling for an independent Quebec.

After Laporte's death, that changed.

Robert Comeau, then a young university professor, says he was seduced into helping the FLQ by the romantic ideals of revolution that were prevalent in countries such as Algeria and Cuba in the 1960s. He was also motivated by a sense of anger over the economic discrimination against francophone Quebecers, whom he saw as a nation needing to break free from colonial rule.

"It's hard for a young person today to imagine there was a time when a lot of young people, a lot of publications, believed a revolution was possible in North America," Comeau said in a phone interview.

He said his main role in the FLQ was providing material support and, eventually, writing press releases to be distributed to the media. He said he knew only a handful of people in the organization, which he believed to be much bigger than it really was.

Comeau says Laporte, as a progressive Quebec politician and a former journalist, should never have been a target, but at the time he felt it was part of the revolution. "At the moment it happened, we were convinced we were in a bit of a war," he said.

Now he feels differently. He has read the accounts of Laporte's family and long ago stopped believing in violent acts as a means to an end. He's happy that period in Quebec's history "didn't last long."

Laporte's death had political repercussions for Quebec, as well as tragic consequences for his family, who lost a beloved father, husband and uncle.

In a recent opinion piece in La Presse, Laporte's niece and nephew criticized what they said was a lingering "adhesion of certain Quebec nationalists to the actions of the felquistes," calling it "an apology for terror." 

"We fear that once again, we will ignore what Pierre Laporte was, his path as a man, his accomplishments as a journalist and politician, to present only . . . everything else," Lise and Claude Laporte wrote in the Oct. 5 article.

Comeau does not believe there is any attempt to justify the actions of the perpetrators. "As of the death of Pierre Laporte, the sympathy was completely dropped. There was no more sympathy," he said.

Two FLQ members -- Paul Rose and Francis Simard -- were eventually convicted of murder in Laporte's death and sentenced to life behind bars, although they were released in 1982.

Rose's son, Felix Rose, released a documentary about the family over the summer, born out of what he said was his attempt to reconcile how the "gentle" father he knew could have been involved in a man's death.

In his film, "Les Rose," he explores his father and uncle's upbringing in a poor suburb of Montreal, at a time when men were expected to work in "miserable" conditions in factories where they had few educational opportunities and were humiliated for speaking French.

Rose said that while he doesn't condone the actions of his father and uncle, he understands better why FLQ members would turn to violence, especially when faced with political and police repression, including a ban on protesting.

While he's faced criticism for portraying his family in too positive a light, he believes that the lesson of the film is that violence is a symptom of a deeper problem, and also largely avoidable.

"When the government doesn't respect youth, when it takes away an outstretched hand, when it stops them from demonstrating, it creates outbursts," he said in an interview.

While Lalonde describes the October Crisis as a "tragedy for Quebec," he believes some positive elements came from it.

Both he and Comeau say Laporte's death instantly ended any support for the FLQ, which disbanded almost immediately afterwards, and there have not been any political kidnappings since.

Lalonde says the crisis convinced Trudeau of the importance of creating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and contributed to the creation of new emergency measures legislation that was subject to it.

While he's glad the incident proved that Canadians have little tolerance for political violence, Comeau says some of the issues raised during the crisis remain unresolved. Quebec's "national question," as he calls it, still lingers, despite two referendums in 1980 and 1995.

While he doubts young Quebecers will resort to bombs and kidnappings, he says it's impossible to say another crisis could never happen. 

"In history, we can't predict, he said. "It always happens in a way you can't imagine, and never at the time you think."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct 16, 2020

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press