Canada Didn’t “Lose its Innocence” in Ottawa: How the Media Ignores History


In the wake of last week’s attacks on Canada’s Parliament Hill by a domestic self-radicalized terrorist, the media was quick to lament the nation’s “loss of innocence.” But that phrase fundamentally ignores the inherent strength of a nation that has known war and terrorism. It confuses the notion of innocence with a democratic people’s desire for peace. What the attacks demonstrated were the service and sacrifice of Corporal Nathan Cirillo as he stood guard at the National War Memorial and Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, a former officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), whose quick-thinking and expertise stopped further bloodshed.

The suggestion that Canada lost its innocence also ignores its own history of both war and terrorism. Canada lost more than 100,000 military personnel in two world wars. In the past 15 years, the nation, like many others, had to come to terms with the violence of domestic radical Islam. This included foreign-born terrorists who had moved to Canada, like Algerian-born Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted of planning to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve in 1999 after being stopped while trying to cross the border from Canada. In 2006, Canada foiled potential attacks by the so-called “Toronto 18.”

Aside from the continued Islamic terrorist threat, Canada also faced a years-long domestic terrorist organization in the form of a separatist group, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ).

During World War II, there was a strong anti-war, anti-Anglo, anti-conscription movement in Quebec. U.S. consulate reports to the State Department and Coordinator of Information (later Office of Strategic Services) noted that a group calling itself the Iron Guard distributed subversive pamphlets in 1942. The group denounced British bombing raids on French territory as massacres, regardless of the fact that the targets were the occupying German forces. One intelligence assessment stated that “It is not impossible to envisage outbreaks in Quebec City…there may be rioting, bloodshed and disunity.”

Early post-war separatist militants were largely benign, but in 1962, the Reseau de Resistance (Resistance Network) emerged and adopted more radical forms of action, such as theft and sabotage. The organization began targeting symbols of the Anglo-dominated economy and media. Trains of the Canadian National Railway (CNR) were burned and members began throwing Molotov cocktails at radio stations.

The Front de Liberation du Quebec was officially formed in February 1963 as a result of the new direction of the separatist movement. On March 7, 1963 they simultaneously attacked three Canadian Army barracks in Montreal with incendiary bombs. Between 1963 and 1970, the FLQ committed over 200 acts of violent crimes, including bombings and bank hold-ups. At least three people were killed by FLQ bombs and two by gunfire during FLQ assaults. Of the 200 incidents, nearly 50 percent were bombings. The most active members of the new FLQ were Raymond Villeneuve (aged 19), Gabriel Hudon (aged 21) and Georges Schoeters (the eldest at 33). Schoeters, a Belgian, had served in that country’s resistance before moving to Cuba and eventually meeting Che Guevara.

Shortly after attacking the Army barracks, terrorists destroyed the statue of General James Wolfe, hero of the victory over the French at the Battle of Quebec, on the Plains of Abraham. A few days later were three more bomb attacks against a federal tax building and Canadian National Railroad tracks. In the next two months the FLQ:

  • attempted to dynamite a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation transmitting tower;
  • bombed the RCMP headquarters;
  • killed a guard;
  • attacked a British Petroleum oil refinery;
  • detonated over a dozen bombs in Montreal mailboxes; and
  • attacked the headquarters of the 2nd Regiment of Army Technicians

The following year the FLQ stormed the barracks of the Fusileu Mont-Royal in the center of Montreal in broad daylight and captured 59 rifles, 34 submachine guns, four filed mortars, five pistols and radio sets from an arsenal. Three weeks later the FLQ repeated this action at another military site.

An FLQ commando unit was then uncovered near a North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) facility with over 200 detailed military maps and an outline for sabotaging electric and telephone lines. In 1969, the FLQ bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange.

Prior to Sept.11, few people heard of a terrorist plot against such symbols as the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument and the Liberty Bell in one fell swoop. The FLQ was involved in such a plot. In 1965, Michele Duclos, a French-Canadian radio and television hostess already affiliated with the FLQ, crossed the border into the United States with three male extremists of the “Black Liberation Front” and a load of 30 sticks of dynamite. They successfully transported the dynamite to New York City and hid the load in the Bronx until they were ready to carry out their operations. Their objective was to instill terror in the heart of America. An undercover New York City police officer in the Black Liberation Front uncovered the plot and the four were arrested.

The FLQ reached its apex in 1970. In February, the group planned to kidnap the Israeli consul but the plot failed. On June 24, the FLQ bombed the Canadian Defense Ministry and in July attempted to assassinate Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa. On October 5, British Trade Minister James Cross was kidnapped in front of his home. The FLQ immediately demanded the publication of their manifesto, the release of 23 political prisoners and an airplane to Cuba or Algeria. Five days later, Quebec Labor Minister and Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte was kidnapped.

The day after Laporte was kidnapped, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau discussed invoking the War Measures Act, which had been implemented only twice during Canadian history – during the two World Wars.

The War Measures Act had three primary functions:

  • permit the arrest and search of people without a warrant;
  • detain citizens for up to 21 days without a reason; and
  • suspend the Canadian Declaration of Rights and Freedoms

On October 13, reporters asked Trudeau about what action he would take. One asked, “How far would you go?” Trudeau replied in in a manner that would be heavily criticized: “Just watch me.” The prime minister ordered a secret Cabinet Committee on Security and Intelligence meeting on October 15, the minutes of which were only declassified 30 after the event.

Included in the War Measures Act was authorization for the RCMP to arrest individuals on its list of suspects belonging to the Front de Liberation du Quebec, associates suspected of aiding the FLQ and anyone connected specifically to senior FLQ figure Pierres Vallieres.

The War Measures Act took effect October 16, 1970. Trudeau, the target of civil libertarians who opposed the use of the act, responded to the criticism: “There are a lot of bleeding hearts around who can’t stand the sight of people with helmets and guns. All I can say is: Go on and bleed.”

If the civil libertarians opposed Trudeau’s final action, they were in the clear minority. According to one poll, some 85 percent of Canadians (both French- and English-speaking) supported the War Measures Act.

On October 17, Pierre Laporte was killed by his FLQ captors, who strangled him with the religious chain he wore around his neck. Ten days after his death, the Canadian Cabinet met to discuss the FLQ. They agreed that contrary to the belief that the FLQ was simply a bunch of young rabble-rousers that had gone over the edge, the FLQ had a clear strategy. As such, they concluded, the organization needed to be first contained and then pre-empted.

In the fall of 1970, the RCMP arrested 130 suspected members of the FLQ and over 2,000 sympathizers. By the RCMP’s estimates, this included 22 FLQ cells. On November 6, 1970, an FLQ member named Bernard Lortie was arrested when the police raided the hiding place of the Chénier cell. Although the other three members escaped the raid, they were captured in St. Luc, Quebec in late December. All four members were charged with the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte. Bernard Lortie was sentenced to 20 years in jail for kidnapping. Jacques Rose was acquitted of both the murder and kidnapping of Laporte. He was, however, later convicted of being an accessory after the fact and sentenced to eight years in jail. He was paroled in July 1978. Paul Rose and Francis Simard received life sentences for murder. In December 1982, Paul Rose was granted full parole after a report revealed that he was not present when Laporte was murdered.

With the safe release of James Cross in December 1970, five FLQ members received passage to Cuba, although they were exiled from Canada for life. They were later found to be living in Paris, France. All five eventually returned to Canada to face trial. They were all convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to jail terms ranging from 20 months to two years. In July 1980, police arrested and charged a sixth person in connection with the Cross kidnapping. Nigel Barry Hamer pled guilty and was sentenced to 12 months in jail.

Incidentally, the issue of the FLQ was a subject of consideration by the U.S. Department of Defense as early as 1965. At the time, the Pentagon’s Special Offices of Research Operations managed the short-lived Project Camelot, designed to investigate revolutionary activities and the internal war potential of certain countries. The Pentagon included the issue of Quebec and the FLQ in Camelot before the project was canceled in 1965.

Unfortunately, Canada is no stranger to violent acts, whether they be acts of war, Islamic terrorism, or domestic separatist terrorism. But in each case, the nation responded, stood tall and demonstrated the resolve it always has. The tragedy in Ottawa wasn’t a loss of innocence. It was a reminder of the incredible constitution of the Canadian people.


Claude Berube is a contributor to War on the Rocks. He has taught courses on Terrorism and Intelligence & National Security at the United States Naval Academy.


Photo credit: The Speaker