A Look Back at Action: The October Crisis of 1970 | Curator’s Perspective
Early in the morning of Monday, October 5, 1970, four armed men, all of them members of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), rang the doorbell at the Westmount home of British Trade Commissioner James Richard Cross. One of the kidnappers ordered the maid, who’d opened the door, to take them to Mr. Cross. Within moments, the diplomat was handcuffed and whisked off in a car.
Thus began the series of dramatic, unprecedented events that would end in tragedy and mark the political history of Quebec and Canada forever. This was the October Crisis.
As it happened
That same day, the FLQ’s Libération cell, which was holding Cross, issued a communiqué laying out its demands to the federal government. In exchange for the release of their hostage, they wanted a manifesto published in the province’s newspapers and the release of some 20 inmates they referred to as “political prisoners.” The next day, the federal government announced that it would reject the FLQ’s demands but was open to negotiation; it also agreed to broadcast the manifesto on Radio-Canada.
On October 8, announcer Gaétan Montreuil read the manifesto on television. Two days later, Quebec justice minister Jérôme Choquette stated that the federal government was prepared to grant safe conduct to the kidnappers, but refused to release any prisoners. Less than an hour later, a number of Montreal media sources reported a second kidnapping by another FLQ chapter, the Chénier cell. This time the victim was Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte. The crisis had suddenly taken on an unforeseen magnitude.
On October 12, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, flanked by his ministers, sought refuge at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel under police surveillance in hopes of avoiding further abductions. Bourassa announced the start of negotiations with the FLQ and assigned lawyer Robert Demers to lead the process. Demers set up a first meeting with his colleague Robert Lemieux, who represented the FLQ. On October 13, the Canadian Army began to deploy in Ottawa around embassies and government buildings. The next day, troops arrived in Montreal to take over from the police, who had been guarding buildings deemed to be at risk.
Meanwhile, led by René Lévesque, 16 influential members of Quebec society proposed supporting the Bourassa government in its negotiations with the terrorists, which were already starting to falter.. On October 15, discussions between the government and the FLQ broke off. On October 16, the federal government, at the time led by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, invoked the War Measures Act at the request of the provincial and Montreal administrations. Made on the grounds that Quebec was in a state of “apprehended insurrection,” the decision resulted in the warrantless arrest and detention of some 500 civilians. The day after the law was enacted, Laporte’s body was found in the trunk of a car near the Saint-Hubert airport. With the discovery, the crisis took a tragic turn.
In early December, surrounded by police, who had discovered Cross’s whereabouts, the kidnappers agreed to release their hostage in exchange for safe conduct to Cuba. Cross was released unharmed. As for Laporte’s kidnappers and killers, they were arrested at the end of 1970 after several weeks on the run.
A film on the October Crisis
Fifty years later, the debate surrounding the October Crisis remains polarized, and opinions on the events are still strong. The release this week on NFB.ca of Félix Rose’s documentary The Rose Family (2020) and the reactions it has elicited have made this clear. It’s not a stretch to imagine that discussions in the years directly after the event were just as passionate. Could a film about the crisis have been made at that time—more importantly, could it have been by a federal organization like the NFB, mandated to promote national unity? The answer is yes! Completed in 1973 by Robin Spry, the film is called Action: The October Crisis of 1970.
Birth of a film
On the morning of October 16, 1970, filmmaker Robin Spry listened to the radio as he made breakfast. Like many of his fellow citizens, he was stunned to learn that the War Measures Act had come into force in Quebec the previous night at midnight. Seeing troops roaming the streets of Montreal convinced him of the urgent need to film what was going on. He immediately contacted the NFB to propose capturing the events on camera, without really knowing if there would be a film at the other end.
To his surprise, then-commissioner Sydney Newman agreed to the project—but only on condition that the shoot involve both a French and an English crew. This was all the more startling since, during roughly the same period, Newman would veto three French Program productions for being “too subversive” in the context of the crisis: On est au coton (1970) by Denys Arcand, Cap d’espoir (1969) by Jacques Leduc and 24 heures ou plus (1973) by Gilles Groulx. He also turned down Michel Brault’s proposed docufiction on the events, which would eventually become Les ordres (1974).
Three film crews
Whatever the case, that same evening saw three film crews assemble (two francophone and one anglophone), involving about 30 people in all. They set up headquarters in a downtown hotel. The crews were everywhere and filmed the events as they happened: at press conferences and Montreal radio stations (which generally received the FLQ’s communiqués), in press rooms, in Montreal’s French- and English-speaking communities, and on the steps of Canadian Parliament. One crew even beat the police to the location near the Saint-Hubert airport where the car containing Pierre Laporte’s body was found.
Film seeks filmmaker
After shooting was completed, the project was initially shelved. Rather than make any immediate decisions about the footage, NFB management thought it best to wait until the four FLQ members responsible for Laporte’s kidnapping and death had been tried. Spry, too, felt it was up to the French studio to make the film. However, after reviewing the footage, the French Program’s managers and its director, Jacques Godbout, felt it would be difficult to make something of it.
Still, the reactions of some English speakers to the crisis, captured on camera by Spry, had the makings of a good documentary. A few months later, the filmmaker obtained funding and began the editing process. But he quickly realized that a film on the reactions to the events of October would only make sense if there were also a film about the crisis itself. He decided to put the funds toward making two films. Action: The October Crisis of 1970 (Les événements d’octobre 1970 in French) and Reaction: A Portrait of a Society in Crisis, which was in English only, were both released in 1973.
I encourage you to watch Action: The October Crisis of 1970. Spry’s aim was to stick to the essentials and chronicle the events as they unfolded. A linear approach could have made for something boring and pedantic; happily, the result is quite the opposite. The combination of footage shot during the crisis by the French and English crews, archival images from the CBC/SRC, and an understated narration (read by Spry in the original English version), is masterful. Not only that, but the film begins with a 23-minute backgrounder that, in itself, is reason enough to watch!