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Old Quebec separatist tensions die hard

The province's motto, "Je me souviens," rings true on the anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

Haitian-Canadian actor and singer Luck Mervil, known for his belief in Quebec independence, reads the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) manifesto during a 24-hour long series of public readings on the Plains of Abraham. The event in Quebec City on Sept. 13, 2009, was held to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the battle of the Plains of Abraham. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — There’s a sign on my central Toronto street that has me thinking of my childhood every time I walk by: “Ball and hockey playing prohibited.” That would have had us laughing when I was growing up in a French-speaking neighborhood of Montreal’s east end. City fathers might as well have tried to ban children.

A crowd of us would gather every day after school, place hockey nets in the middle of the road and stick handle our way to imaginary glory. When a car dared insist on its right of way, we’d take our sweet time removing the nets and then form a gauntlet with just enough room for the car to slowly proceed, glaring at the driver with all the menace 10 year olds could muster. One day, in October 1970, we gave one vehicle a wide berth. It was a big green army truck. In the back were a group of soldiers, their rifles pointing aimlessly at second floor balconies. We were mesmerized. We were just kids, but we had a sense of the times.

A group calling itself the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) had for years been waging a violent campaign to make the province an independent country. It regularly targeted symbols of Canada’s federal government and what it considered Quebec’s English “occupiers.” Everything from mailboxes to McGill University was bombed.

By the time the army truck disrupted our street hockey game, the FLQ had kidnapped Britain’s trade commissioner in Montreal, James Cross, and Quebec’s minister of labor, Pierre Laporte. Asked how far he would go to combat the FLQ, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously replied, “Just watch me.”

(It’s telling, in light of the way the word terrorist is readily used today, that Trudeau never uttered it during that interview 39 years ago, choosing instead to call the FLQ “bandits.”)

Three days later, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, which resulted in the army rolling into Quebec and police arresting hundreds of people without warrants. The FLQ killed Laporte the next day, strangling him with his own necklace and stuffing his body in the trunk of a car. Cross was released in December in exchange for his kidnappers’ safe passage to Cuba. Thus ended the tumultuous period known as the October Crisis.