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We Didn’t Start The Fire:

The Quebec Rebellion, 1970-74



By Chris Oakley


Part 1



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



The long-simmering cultural and linguistic tensions between English-Canadians and French-Canadians finally exploded into open war in the fall of 1970 when the Front de Libération du Québec, a radical left-wing separatist group which had been operating in Quebec since 1963, launched a guerrilla war against the Canadian federal government whose ultimate goal was to win Quebec’s independence from the rest of Canada. Even by the turbulent standards of the Vietnam War era, the Quebec Rebellion was an exceptionally bloody affair; it was such a savage conflict that at its height there was speculation the United Nations might have to intervene to halt the bloodshed. In the United States, which had itself experienced considerable domestic turmoil during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the Quebec Rebellion was seen as an uncomfortable reminder of the gruesome heights to which internal political discord could escalate under the right conditions-- and a dangerous replay of the American Civil War.

For generations English-Canadians and French-Canadians had had a tense and highly complicated relationship with one another; since the days of the French & Indian War there had been an undercurrent of hostility in some of the interactions between these two groups. This undercurrent came to the surface full blast in the late 1960s as the social turmoil which had already roiled Canada’s giant neighbor to the south found its way into the streets and universities of Quebec. The Front de Liberation du Québec(FLQ), a radical separatist organization dedicated to severing political ties between la belle province and the rest of Canada, was the most visible symptom of this social upheaval. It blended the old dream of an independent Quebec with a new militant leftism influenced by groups like the US Black Panther Party and the Viet Cong.

It also drew inspiration from the Algerian independence movement of the late 1950s and early ‘60s-- particularly that movement’s use of guerrilla tactics in its long struggle to end French colonial rule in Algeria. But unlike the Algerian war for independence, the FLQ’s war to make Quebec a separate nation would end in failure and disaster and leave the Quebecois separatist movement in such disrepute that for the past three-plus decades it has been tantamount to political suicide for any prominent political figure in Quebec to suggest independence from Canada. Today, even the most die-hard leftist radical prefers to avoid so much as a vague whisper of any connection between themselves and a Quebeçois separatist movement.

When the Quebec Rebellion broke out in late September of 1970, the prevailing attitude of French-Canadian leftists towards the notion of an independent Quebec was a good deal more positive. In fact, many of the most prominent left wing leaders in the French-Canadian community enthusiastically embraced the idea; barely six weeks before the first skirmishes between FLQ insurgents and Canadian government troops, two major leftist French-Canadian newspapers had published editorials that staunchly advocated Quebec’s separation from the rest of Canada. There was even a cartoon strip titled "Monsieur Separate"(Mister Separate) which used sarcastic humor and R. Crumb-like exaggerated drawings to drive home its creator’s message that Quebec would be better off going it alone than trying to maintain ties with English-speaking Canada.

Not everyone in the Quebec independence movement felt that armed revolution would be necessary to make Quebec a sovereign nation; there were those in the movement’s ranks who sought to attain this goal via the passage of a Quebeçois independence referendum by the provincial legislature. The question of whether this effort would have eventually borne fruit is destined to remain forever unanswered, largely because of an incident that happened near Sherbrooke on September 20th, 1970...


Even after multiple investigations, it still isn’t entirely clear what started the barroom gunfight between FLQ supporters and Canadian Defense Forces enlisted men that mainstream history usually cites as the starting point of the Quebec Rebellion. The lone CDF survivor of the bloody showdown has repeatedly asserted in interviews, and in his autobiography, that the FLQ men specifically came there that evening with homicidal intent; a friend of one of the FLQ supporters killed in the gun battle vehemently disputes this, saying the guns were strictly for self-defense and that it was actually the CDF men who were out for blood.

Some conspiracy theorists have even broached the idea that the CDF troopers deliberately provoked the FLQ men on orders from Ottawa to give the Canadian federal government an excuse to violently crush the Quebeçois separatist movement. Multiple investigations of this claim have yet to turn up any substantive evidence to back it up, but the legend still persists. Questionable as its veracity may be, it reflects the bitterness and anguish many French-Canadian radicals felt in the wake of the Quebec Rebellion’s final collapse.

This much is indisputable: prior to the gun battle, harsh words passed between the FLQ stalwarts and the CDF soldiers. Even before the shooting started, the bar owner had already called local police in an attempt to restore order-- but things had already gotten to the point of no return. Before the carnage was over twenty-seven people had died and twelve others gone to local hospitals for emergency treatment. Any hope of avoiding civil war in Quebec was now effectively shattered.

Within hours after the gun battle in Sherbrooke, FLQ cells in Fredericton and Montreal were preparing to mount attacks on Canadian federal government installations in those cities and Quebec City’s mayor had been seriously wounded in an assassination attempt by one particularly fanatic FLQ splinter branch. At 1:30 AM on the morning of September 21st, Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau called an emergency session of his cabinet to discuss whether his government should invoke the War Measures Act. The meeting lasted more than two hours, and in the midst of it Trudeau received a grim telephone call informing him that FLQ insurgents had firebombed the Bank of Canada’s branch offices in Fredericton.1 The news of the firebombing would be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Trudeau government; by the time the cabinet session adjourned Trudeau’s cabinet had given him a unanimous recommendation to implement the War Measures Act without further delay.

After a brief rest, Trudeau went on television at 7:00 to inform his fellow countrymen of his decision. The news ran through Canada’s people like an electric shock; no matter what one’s ethnic affiliation might be, the idea of a civil war being fought on Canadian soil had to be extremely chilling. And not all French-Canadians were on board with the FLQ’s plans for armed insurrection-- in fact, Montreal’s Catholic Archbishop issued a furious condemnation of the attacks in Sherbrooke and Fredericton.


The United States first learned of the outbreak of hostilities in Quebec by way of a telex to the State Department from the Canadian embassy in Washington sent just after 4:30 AM U.S. Eastern Daylight Time. President Nixon met with Canadian ambassador Marcel Cadieux for a debriefing on the violence in Quebec, then phoned US Secretary of State William P. Rogers to get Rogers’ assessment of the situation. Rogers came straight to the point: the violence in Quebec was likely to escalate out of control very quickly and any Americans who were in Quebec needed to be evacuated to safety at once.

Nixon’s national security advisor at the time, former Harvard political scientist Henry Kissinger, seconded Rogers’ warnings and puncutuated them with the grim observation that the longer the FLQ uprising went on, the greater the chance was that the violence might spill over Canada’s borders onto American soil. As if to underline Kissinger’s concerns, just after 8:30 AM Washington time an Associated Press bulletin reported that one of the men involved in the Bank of Canada firebombing in Fredericton had crossed the New Hampshire state line and gunned down a highway patrolman. The shooting prompted the FBI’s Boston office to dispatch a team of thirty agents to track down the gunman; it also moved state police authorities in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Main to set up a dragnet to catch any other potential FLQ fugitives.

Meanwhile, at air bases throughout New England and in New York State, Air National Guard transport planes were lining up on the tarmac to fulfill President Nixon’s directive to evacuate Americans from the war zone Quebec was becoming. Some of those civilians weren’t even waiting for the ANG planes to arrive; before Trudeau had finished his televised speech, tourists were besieging ticket desks at Dorval Airport in Montreal trying to book seats on the next plane out...


To Be Continued


[1] Further details about the firebombing can be found in Canadian journalist Edo van Belkom’s excellent book The September Crisis: The First Days Of The Quebec Rebellion(copyright 1995 York University Press).

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