Place des Arts, Montreal Normal and the October Crisis

Place-des-Arts. Green Line, opened 1966.

Much has been made of the student protests that have been taking place here in Montreal. Too much. They do not require the invoking of the (in any case defunct) War Measures Act to bring them to an end, as one commenter suggests here. Nor, indeed, do they need special legislation like Loi 78, which marks only the failure of politicians to address the concerns of their voters. But while draconian, useless and counter-productive, Loi 78 is not the War Measures Act by another name, as this article in Maclean’s argues.

For the most part, the protests are peaceful, friendly and have a carnival atmosphere. They follow a predictable pattern too. They begin at 8pm at Berri-UQÀM and are declared illegal by the SPVM on Twitter. Montrealers are then updated, again via the SPVM on Twitter about the route which the protesters – whoever they are now – failed to provide. As it is generally impossible on a summer street in Montreal to tell who is a protester and who is just out on the street enjoying the spectacles of which the protests are a now a part, no arrests are made unless things get seriously out of hand.

Perhaps it’s just because I’ve been away for so long, but however crazy the rest of Canada thinks Quebecers are, to me this is Montreal Normal. I am often working at Berri when the protests start, and apart from a bizarre addiction to the SPVM’s Twitter feed – it is often inadvertently quite funny – the gréve general indéterminé has caused little personal concern. No, the protests will continue possibly until the elections next year, the spectacles of summer will draw the tourists, the city will go about its business. Here, political and cultural edge go hand in hand. That’s one reason the tourists come. Properly done, both are slightly anarchic and so, Montreal Normal.

But for anyone who still confuses CLASSE with the FLQ or Loi 78 with the War Measures Act, here is a much less happy handgrip between spectacle and politics.

15 October 1970

Mr. Prime Minister,

The Chief of the Montreal Police has informed us that the means at his disposal are now insufficient and the assistance of the superior governments has become indispensable to protect society against a seditious plot and known insurrection of which the recent kidnappings mark the start.

We commicate in all urgency this report which describes the scale of the threat and the urgent need to reinforce the mechanisms to combat it.

We require, Prime Minister, all assistance that the Government of Canada judges useful and desirable to complete the protection of society and the life of its citizens in these difficult hours.

[Lucien Saulnier, President of the Executive Committee, and Jean Drapeau, Mayor of Montreal]

This short letter opens one of the darkest hours in modern Canadian history. The moment when confronted with the kidnappings, first of James Cross, a member of the British trade delegation, and then of Pierre Laporte, labour minister and vice-prime minister of Quebec, by the Front de libération du Quebec, the resources of Montreal’s police were exhausted and those of ‘the superior governments’ became necessary to address what had become a national and international crisis.

To meet the need, the prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, invoked the War Measures Act, which effectively placed Canada under martial law and suspended its Bill of Rights. The next day Montrealers woke to find their streets patrolled not by the police but the Canadian army.

The necessity of Trudeau’s action has been much debated since. The threat though of those ‘difficult hours’ cannot be disputed. Since the early sixties, the FLQ, a Marxist nationalist movement, had maintained a campaign of violence which included bombings of railway lines and Drapeau’s house, riots against McGill University and large scale thefts. The campaign escalated with the 1969 bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange, in which 27 people were seriously injured.

Invoking the War Measures Act changed the game. No longer was it a matter of for civilian authorities. The SPVM, Sûreté Québec and the RCMP took a back seat as did the protocols of arrest and detention. Now anyone judged by the military to be sympathetic to the cause of the enemy could be detained without warrant or other mandate. As a result, nearly 500 people were detained including university and college professors, artists and the managers of credit unions. Most were found to be absolutely innocent.

Both during the crisis and in the years leading to it, Place des Arts had a role to play. It’s opening night in 1963 was the scene of protests, against the predominance of English-speakers in the management team and the non-recognition of specific unions. At these protests, in the early years of the Quiet Revolution could be heard the chant “FLQ! FLQ!” Just over four years later, the crisis entered its endgame at Place des Arts when following an anonymous phone call the young CKAC journalist, Michel St-Louis, entered the complex to look for the note that would lead him to the body of Pierre Laporte.

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