Canada History Archive

Le Front de Libération du Québec

By Mitch Abidor

The moment of birth of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) was not accidental: it arrived at a moment of political awakening in both Quebec and the colonized world in general. In the early 1960’s Quebec was coming out of the great darkness that was the reign of the long-time Prime Minister Maurice Duplessis. Duplessis’s rule was ferociously anti-Communist, anti-labor, priest-ridden, and featured a brand of nationalism that closed Quebec in on itself. With Duplessis’s party’s departure from power progressive forces were unleashed throughout the province. Nationalism which, under the influence of the abbot and historian Lionel Groulx, had been strongly clerical in flavor, with occasional xenophobic (particularly anti -Semitic) characteristics, now had a modern face in the form of groups like the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale (RIN), Action Socialiste pour l’Indépendance du Quebec, and the Réseau de Résistance. This internal liberation from decades-long constraints, combined with the influence of liberation struggles in the Third World, established an atmosphere in which a group like the FLQ could come into existence.

Formed in 1963, its historic leaders included Georges Shoeters, a Belgian immigrant who, during World War II, had fought in the Resistance in his homeland. The group’s early actions concentrated in attacks with dynamite or Molotov cocktails against symbols of Canadian power, including mailboxes in the Anglo Westmount section of Montreal. In April 1963 a bomb planted in a Canadian Army recruiting office in the eastern Quebec city of Sherbrooke resulted in the death of a night watchman, which led to the arrest of 23 early FLQ members. Other actions aimed at procuring arms and funds resulted in the deaths of a passer-by and the owner of an gun shop. The net result of all this was the arrest of much of the FLQ membership by the end of 1963.

By 1966 a new group, led by Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon, had taken the baton and carried on the work. This group, some twenty strong, acting in solidarity with striking workers, placed a bomb in the Lagrenade shoe factory, killing a secretary; and a bomb placed at Dominion Textile exploded prematurely, killing an FLQ member; they also placed a bomb at the site of a Liberal Party rally in June 1966. Like the first group of felquistes, the second now found themselves either under arrest or on the run. Gagnon and Valliéres fled to the US, where they demonstrated in front of the UN in support of political prisoners in Quebec. They, too, were ultimately arrested, first in New York and then later deported to Canada, where they served time in the prisons of Quebec. The most lasting fruit of this period of FLQ history is one of the masterpieces of Québécois political writing, Vallières’ autobiography, Nègres Blancs d’Amérique (White Niggers of America), which he wrote while imprisoned in New York’s Tombs prison.

A second, lesser-known FLQ network, led by Pierre-Paul Geoffroy, carried out extensive and intense attacks, and the leader ultimately found himself sentenced to 124 life terms.

1970 was the last year in which the FLQ exercised any influence, and it was the year of their most notorious actions. On October 5, 1970 the Libération cell, led by Jacques Lanctot, kidnapped the British diplomat James Richard Cross, demanding, in exchange for his liberation, the freeing of 23 imprisoned felquistes, $500,000 in ransom, the re-hiring of the fired truck drivers of the Lapalme company , and a plane to take the kidnappers to either Cuba or Algeria.

Five days later the Chénier cell, made up of the brothers Jacques and Paul Rose, Francis Simard and Bernard Lortie, kidnapped Quebec’s minister of Labor and Immigration Pierre Laporte from in front of his house while he was playing football.

The FLQ didn’t lack support among the populace. Shortly after the second kidnapping 3,000 people gathered in Motreal’s Paul Sauvé Arena to applaud the FLQ’s lawyer Robert Lemieux, Vallières and Gagnon and to chant “FLQ! FLQ!” Three days later Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau imposed the War Measures Act, and the military rolled into Montreal, arresting without charges some 500 activists, unionists, writers, actors and singers known for their support for the cause of independence for Quebec.

And then, on October 17, Pierre Laporte was killed. The actual circumstances of his killing remain murky, though Paul Rose never denied his role in it, and controversy has continued to swirl around the question of who actually killed Laporte. Nevertheless, his death and funeral turned virtually all sympathy away from the FLQ. Cross remained in captivity, but the hide-out was discovered in December of 1970. His captors were able to negotiate their departure for Cuba, releasing Cross. Laporte’s captors were captured at the end of December 1970, and their trial began in January 1971. All were found guilty, but were released on parole within a few years.

This was the virtual end of the FLQ, though a small, limping version continued on for a couple of years. Their members continued, and some continue, to play a role in Quebec left-wing life: Paul Rose in various organizations, and currently with the group around the newspaper l’Aut’journal; Francis Simard through his memoir of the period: Pour en finir avec Octobre; Vallières – in the years until his death in 1998 – in various groups; Gagnon – who broke completely with his former comrade Vallières – spent a period at the head of a Marxist-Leninist group En Lutte; while Jacques Lanctot, after his return from Cuba and serving a term for his role in the kidnapping of Cross, started a publishing house.