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We Didn’t Start The Fire:

The Quebec Rebellion, 1970-74


By Chris Oakley

Part 2



Inspired by the essay "Another Savage War Of Peace" by Sean M. Maloney, the short story "The October Crisis" by Edo van Belkom, and the novel Killing Ground:The Canadian Civil War by Ellis Powe



Summary: In Part 1 of this series, we recalled the circumstances that triggered the outbreak of the Quebec Rebellion and the first hours of the FLQ’s uprising against the Canadian government. In this chapter, we’ll review the Canadian Defense Forces’ initial efforts to stamp out the rebellion and discuss the anxiety that the FLQ insurgency sparked among English-Canadians.


Within minutes after Prime Minister Trudeau finished his televised speech announcing the invocation of the War Measures Act, the Canadian Defense Forces were deploying troops to Fredericton, Quebec City, and Montreal in an effort to nip the FLQ insurgency in the bud. That task, however, would prove easier said than done. The FLQ rebels were highly resourceful at finding ways to elude the CDF units pursuing them-- and very aggressive in defending themselves if said units managed to catch up with them1. All across Canada millions of TV viewers gaped at their sets in horror as news cameras showed one clip after another of CDF troops and FLQ rebels shooting each other to ribbons. By 12:30 PM U.S. Eastern Daylight Time on September 23rd, 1970, hardly even three days after the Sherbrooke bar gunfight that started the FLQ uprising, the combined body count for both sides in the Quebec Rebellion had already passed the 1000 mark and showed every sign of climbing even higher by the time the rebellion was a week old.

Understandably fearful for his own safely, the mayor of Montreal spent the first 48 hours of the Quebec Rebellion barricaded inside his own office with a .44 revolver in one hand and his desk phone in the other. He was trying desperately to get help from the police only to find out half the time this phone line was busy or that line had been cut by the FLQ insurgents. It took until late afternoon on September 22nd for a Montreal police emergency squad to be deployed to rescue him from the besieged city hall....and even then it took a fair amount of coaxing on the squad leader’s part to reassure the nervous mayor that he wouldn’t be gunned down the second he stepped outside his office.

He was considerably luckier, however, than the mayor of Trois Rivieres, who had his head blown off by a shotgun-toting FLQ extremist in full view of his horrified aides. And he was definitely much more fortunate than Gatineau’s chief of police, who had to be hospitalized after suffering third-degree burns when FLQ insurgents firebombed his car.

In short, la belle province seemed be tearing itself apart-- and there were many people in Canada, Anglophone and Francophone alike, who feared it might not ever be possible to put her together again.


By the beginning of October, it was abundantly clear that the civil war between the Trudeau government and the FLQ rebels wasn’t going to end quickly. This was especially evident to Quebec’s English-speaking community, many of whom now made up their minds to flee the province rather than take a chance on falling victim to the FLQ’s vengeance as it escalated its campaign to bring about an independent Quebec. Nearly every major highway in the province was jammed with English-Canadians trying to get themselves out of harm’s way before the already bitter fighting between the FLQ insurgents and the Trudeau government became even worse.

The fact that Trudeau had dispatched additional troops to Quebec to hunt down the guerrillas didn’t do much to dissuade these refugees from trying to get out any way they could. Some of them, in fact, saw the troop deployments as a sign that things were spinning hopelessly out of control. One irreverent and highly popular T-shirt on sale at the time summed up the attitudes of the more pessimistic spirits among the refugees: WILL THE LAST ENGLISH-CANADIAN TO LEAVE QUEBEC PLEASE REMEMBER TO PACK UP THE MAPLE LEAF? Newspaper editorials on both sides of the 49th parallel fretted about the cultural and economic effects of this exodus; it was around this time that a now all-too-familiar term, "ethnic cleansing", first came into vogue.

Indeed, the refugee problem was of sufficiently serious magnitude to prompt the United Nations General Assembly to convene an emergency meeting on the subject two weeks after the Quebec Rebellion began. It was one of the most contentious such events in the General Assembly’s history-- no small feat given some of the thorny issues that have been debated at its tables. The argument over the refugees’ situation fell along predictable geopolitical lines; the United States and its NATO allies tended to back the Trudeau government’s position on the matter, while the Soviet Union and its Communist bloc partners favored the FLQ insurgents. At one point the Canadian ambassador to the UN broke into a tirade in which he all but accused Moscow of instigating the Quebec Rebellion.

Moscow in turn charged the Trudeau government of what it called "cultural and linguistic genocide" in its efforts to stamp out the radical separatist movement in Quebec. No objective observer of the situation could have possibly given any credence to this accusation; even Trudeau’s harshest critics never believed that he was purposely trying to exterminate all French-Canadians. Nonetheless, the Soviet allegation did put Ottawa on the defensive for a short time, giving FLQ partisans a much-needed morale boost.

The Canadian Defense Forces weren’t finding things any easier. The FLQ insurgency had learned a thing or two from the Viet Cong, and was putting those lessons to good use. Every time the CDF regulars thought they had the FLQ rebels cornered, the guerrillas fought their way out of that corner with a fanaticism and ingenuity that left even the most battle-hardened veteran troops amazed. Although the CDF troops had the advantage in terms of numbers and weaponry, the FLQ rebels enjoyed the benefit of being more familiar with the territory in which the battles were being waged.

In early November of 1970 the CDF mounted its first major offensive against an FLQ base, targeting a suspected insurgent munitions complex west of Sherbrooke. Code-named Operation Evening Thunder2, it involved three regular CDF divisions and a special operations detachment along with a helicopter unit. Thanks to faulty intelligence, the attack was an unmitigated disaster; nearly half of the government forces involved in Evening Thunder were killed in the first three hours of fighting. A modern-day Canadian military historian has described it as "one of the worst defeats sustained by a professional army on North American soil since the Battle of the Plains of Abraham."3 It was also the end for some Canadian military officers’ careers: three were fired and six others resigned their commissions in the aftermath of Evening Thunder.

The week after the botched attack, Pierre Trudeau found himself being summoned by the Canadian Senate to answer for his handling of the Evening Thunder fiasco. If it was a serious attempt to exercise power, it violated Canada’s constitution-- by law, Canadian Senate committees are not granted the kind of summoning power enjoyed for so long by their American brethren. If it was simply a theatrical gesture to shame Trudeau into taking the blame for the Evening Thunder fiasco, it backfired enormously: Trudeau, as a serving member of the Canadian House of Representatives, was legally exempted from having to comply with the Senate’s demand and answered the summons first by literally spitting on it, then firing off a harshly worded letter to his Senate critics which basically told them to drop dead.


Montreal’s celebrated Forum would become an oasis of joy in the blood-filled chaos of the Quebec Rebellion as time went on. Canadians have long been passionate about ice hockey, and the outbreak of civil war in la belle province had done little to diminish this passion. A tacit truce was in effect between the FLQ insurgents and the Trudeau government where the Forum was concerned; while some other sections of Montreal might be fair game for the rebels or the CDF forces trying to crush them, the Forum was to be held inviolate, with neither side firing so much as a pistol shot in its direction. Anyone who violated this unwritten rule could be expected to pay a steep price for it-- a lesson one CDF corporal learned the hard way in early December of 1970 when he was court-martialed for insubordination after firing on an FLQ partisan near the Forum’s main door even though he’d been warned twice by his sergeant not to draw his weapon anywhere near the Forum. He was busted down to the rank of private and sentenced to six months in the stockade; the incident effectively ruined his military career.4

However, said corporal was, it should be noted, somewhat luckier than the FLQ fighter who was standing on a street corner near the Forum a month later and threw a grenade at a passing supply truck. The grenade was a dud, but that made little difference to the unlucky FLQ man’s comrades-in-arms: he was summarily executed and his body thrown in the St. Lawrence River, where it drifted for a week before being swept out to sea by the river’s currents and carried down the North Atlantic to Cape Cod to wash up at the feet of two astonished American (not to mention unnerved) lobstermen.


Following the failure of Operation Evening Thunder both the CDF and the FLQ shied away from large-scale offensive operations, choosing instead in the short term to focus on smaller-level tactical assaults that could be mounted with fewer personnel and thus pose less risk of high body counts. But it was clear another major battle between the government forces and the FLQ guerrillas was bound to happen sooner or later, and accordingly both sides used the winter of 1970-71 to build up their respective troop strengths for the next key showdown in the Quebec Rebellion. On the other side of Quebec’s provincial borders, lawmakers in the predominantly English-speaking provinces of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland tried to sort out the growing problem of how to handle the deluge of English-Canadian refugees pouring out of Quebec and into cities like Toronto and Moncton...


To Be Continued



[1] In fact, it’s estimated by modern Canadian military historians that Canadian Army losses in the first weeks of the Quebec Rebellion were the highest it suffered in any combat operation since the end of the Second World War.

[2] The name was inspired by the US “Rolling Thunder” bombing offensive of the early days of the Vietnam War.

[3] Quoted from the book Divided Against Itself: The Quebec Rebellion 30 Years Later(copyright 2000 McGill University Press).

[4] Not to mention his life; shortly after he was released from the stockade, he was dishonorably discharged and lapsed into chronic alcoholism; he died of cirrhosis in 1978.


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