Didn’t Start The Fire:
The Quebec Rebellion, 1970-74
By Chris Oakley
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 the first two episodes of this series, we examined the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Quebec Rebellion and the Trudeau government’s initial efforts to suppress the FLQ uprising. In this chapter we’ll recall the Waskaganish firefight and the surprise FLQ hit-and-run attack on the Ontario border town of Kearns.
The Quebec Rebellion was just over six months old when the FLQ decided to lay an ambush for a CDF convoy that was set to pass near the village of Waskaganish on the last Saturday in March, 1971. The immediate goal of the ambush was to interdict supplies intended to be delivered to CDF troops trying to flush out a suspected nest of FLQ guerrillas on the northern shores of James Bay; the longer-term aim was to deal a blow to government forces’ morale strong enough to make the Trudeau government rethink its counterinsurgency campaign against the FLQ rebels.
Waskaganish’s population was made up primarily of First Nations citizens, and they were perched on the horns of a serious moral and cultural dilemma regarding the Quebec Rebellion. Although relations between native peoples and the Canadian government had always been permeated with a certain degree of tension and at times even outright hostility, there was hardly much enthusiasm in Waskaganish or other First Nations communities in Quebec for the FLQ insurgency-- indeed, native activists trying to secure greater rights for their peoples under Canadian law were downright hostile toward the insurgency, being sure it would undermine or even destroy their cultures if it succeeded in detaching Quebec from the rest of Canada.
Nonetheless the FLQ were convinced Waskaganish would make the ideal spot to begin turning the tide of the Quebec Rebellion against the Ottawa government permanently. Late on the evening of March 25th, 1971 two teams of FLQ insurgents began taking up firing positions in a row of abandoned buildings situated along the halfway point of the CDF convoy’s scheduled travel route. A third team was assigned to join them but never made it due to communications problems.
At 5:32 AM on the morning of March 26th the first trucks of the CDF convoy passed over the Waskaganish town line; about four minutes later, the first FLQ ambush team opened fire on the lead trucks in the convoy. The trucks immediately screeched to a halt and the CDF troops disembarked to return fire, and after that the town would spend more than two and a half hours sweating through what amounted to a virtual state of siege. "It was like something out of World War I." a resident would remember twenty years after the fact,1 and this view wasn’t too far off the mark; the FLQ guerrilla who led the first ambush team was an amateur World War I scholar who’d been working towards a doctorate in history before the Quebec Rebellion started and had memorized some of the infantry tactics used in the First World War’s key battles in order that he might put them to use in the service of the insurgency’s fight for an independent Quebec. And for a while, at least, it seemed as if this expertise would give the FLQ ambush teams the upper hand in their skirmish with the CDF regulars.
But just before 7:00 AM the FLQ ambush teams’ fortunes would turn abruptly and horrifically sour; the highest-ranking CDF officer at the scene of the ambush put in a call to a flight of Canadian Forces Air Command attack jets operating out of bases in nearby Ontario and asked for tactical air support to knock out the insurgent ambush positions in Waskaganish. The attack jets hastened to comply with the request, and within a matter of minutes Waskangish’s residents were watching in astonishment as the abandoned buildings where the FLQ guerrillas had been staging their ambush from went up in flames as they were hit by a succession of CDF bombs. All but a handful of the insurgents died in the air strike. That handful, anxious to avoid their comrades’ rather gruesome fate, fled the town never to return.
It’s been suggested in the post-Quebec Rebellion years by many Canadian historians that the brutal surprise attack launched by FLQ insurgents on the Ontario border village of Kearns in early April of 1971 may have been partly meant as retaliation for what happened to the guerrillas at Waskaganish. While it’s easy to understand why some people might draw that conclusion, this theory doesn’t necessarily explain everything about the Kearns raid; many ex-FLQ members say the town might have come under attack even if nothing had ever happened at Waskaganish, and at least one retired Canadian Defense Forces counter-terrorism expert has said that there is evidence to indicate some type of combat operation against Kearns was in the works months before the Waskaganish firefight.
In any case, the Kearns attack did a great deal to further inflame already bitter anti-FLQ sentiment throughout English-speaking Canada and turned many French-Canadians against the group as well. Few acts of violence on Canadian soil either before or since that day have inspired more hatred against their perpetrators; in the 1980s, one candidate for a seat in the Quebeçois provincial legislature would win his electoral bid decisively after he successfully fought against a petition to gain clemency for some of the insurgents involved in the Kearns raid.
Whatever the motive for the Kearns attack, it left a host of dead bodies on both sides and scores of houses destroyed. Given how brutal the attack was, it can be considered a genuine miracle that the entire town wasn’t leveled. As late as 1985, fragments of debris were still being cleaned up from the aftermath of the FLQ raid; even now one can still find bullet holes here and there from where FLQ insurgents fired on Kearns residents. There are also at least eight ongoing investigations by provincial and federal authorities of so-called "cold cases" involving Kearns citizens who disappeared during the attack and whose fates remain unknown to this day.
It was just past 4:30 AM local time on the morning of April 5th, 1971 when the FLQ launched its first wave of attacks on Kearns, firing homemade rockets at the outer neighborhoods of the town. The people of Kearns barely had time to wonder what was happening before two vans loaded with squads of FLQ guerrillas disgorged their lethal cargo into the heart of the town; once disembarked, the guerrillas went around with machine guns and automatic pistols killing every English-Canadian they could get in their gunsights. Grenades were also extensively used in the initial phase of the assault-- to name just one particularly lethal example, Kearns’ local police station went up in flames as the result of multiple grenade explosions.
The second wave of the attack focused its wrath against Kearns’ town hall. The police detail assigned to guard the building did what they could to defend it against the FLQ guerrillas, but they were no match for the sheer firepower of the attackers; within minutes after the first shots were fired at the town hall the mayor of Kearns and half the town council were all dead. The town’s chief of police, who had barely managed to get out of his burning station alive and was at the town hall seeking to establish a temporary headquarters in its vicinity, was paralyzed when a bullet caught him in the spine and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital to avoid dying from excessive loss of blood.
By 6:15 AM at least a hundred Kearns residents had been killed and another fifty or sixty severely injured. But the guerrillas were not entirely unscathed themselves; ten FLQ insurgents had been shot dead by local police, with an eleventh a victim of a friendly fire mishap when one of his fellow insurgents hit him with a rifle shot intended for a Kearns police officer. Around 6:42 AM, having left a trail of carnage behind them, the attackers fled town as fast as they could, pursued by a CDF infantry detachment. In the course of that pursuit, three more guerrillas were killed and two severely wounded.
Not since the My Lai massacre had a series of images so shocked and horrified a nation. As news footage of the Kearns attack and its aftermath was broadcast on TV screens throughout Canada, the primary reactions among Canadians regardless of ethnic stripe were disgust at the cold-blooded annihilation of so many innocent civilians and a new surge of hate towards the FLQ for perpetrating such brutality. Among French-Canadians, these emotions were mixed with a creeping fear that the anti-FLQ sentiment among their fellow countrymen might soon morph into a more generalized bigotry against anybody who had so much as one drop of French blood in their veins or the slightest tinge of a French accent in their voice. Even some of those who supported the FLQ’s goal of an independent Quebec feared the insurgent faction might well have finally gone too far.
South of the 49th parallel, the Kearns massacre brought new heat to a debate that had been going on more or less constantly since the Quebec Rebellion started. The matter of whether the United States should send troops across the US-Canadian border to help its northern allies quash the FLQ uprising had been debated for months both in the halls of government and around countless kitchen tables. With the war in Vietnam still raging and the controversies surrounding it still shaking the moral and cultural foundations of American society, there were no easy answers to the question of intervention vs. staying out of the fight. The wrong decision on that score could have devastating consequences, and not just for Canada...
To Be Continued
 Quoted from the CBC-TV news special Waskaganish: 30 Years Later, copyright 1991 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.