Fifty years ago today marked the start of the October Crisis, a pivotal moment in Canadian history. Half a century later, we’re no closer to the story of what really led to the kidnapping of James Cross, the imposition of the War Measures Act and the truth surrounding Pierre Laporte’s murder.
The following is one of my contributions to Fish Wrapped, David Sherman’s anthology of Canadian journalism published by Guernica Editions this past spring. The usual public events that would have accompanied its publication were drowned in the chaos of the COVID pandemic.
By day, I was a sociology sophomore at Loyola College. At night, I was a Montreal Gazette police reporter. I spent most of my shift working the phones, asking cops whether they had anything going on. Usually the answer was nothing. Occasionally I’d write a filler on a holdup. Once in a while I’d get a tip on a big story, usually ending up reassigned to a general reporter. We had a term for it: bigfooted.
The Gazette police desk competed fiercely with our opponents at the Montreal Star. Usually, we beat them because we worked our butts off. The police desk was the newsroom’s go-to Rolodex. We knew how to get the names of owners, and occupants, neighbours, addresses and phone numbers. We called next of kin. We had an ancient bell wired to the fire department’s alert system. We chased sirens with our Bearcat police scanners cranked up.
We were three of us on the Gazette police desk — Eddie Collister, Albert Noël and me, the rookie. Collister was terrific at talking to people. He could reach police brass and mob lawyers. His contacts were everywhere. He would meet a Station 10 detective in the privacy of a X-rated film house near Atwater and a Mafia mouthpiece above a drug den. Albert and I had worked together at the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, where I spent a summer learning Quebec’s official language from its glorious women. When he quit the Chronicle to join the Gazette, Albert didn’t drive and I was still picking up québécois French, so we’d double team — Albert because the cops took to him like a brother, and me because I had a fast car and a camera.
I was between classes on that Monday when my Pagette beeped. I ran for the closest pay phone and called the desk. Eddie answered. “A British diplomat (James Cross) has been kidnapped from his house on Redpath Crescent. How fast can you get over there?”
“Twenty minutes, tops.”
The poor man’s Maserati, my burgundy Volvo 123GT with the whip antenna poking out of the centre of the roof, was illegally parked nearby. I shot around the foot of the mountain, then past the Montreal General as I headed for the ritzy enclave of brick half-timbered homes a brisk walk from downtown. The street outside 1297 Redpath Crescent was packed with reporters, photographers and cameramen. The high point of the stakeout was watching the cops apprehend two men engaged in a personal activity on the mountain. By then it had gotten too cold to sleep in the car so I headed back to the newsroom.
Gazette photographer Garth Pritchard was asleep on my desk, a Montreal phone book as his pillow. He’d turned down the police radio; I turned it back up. He woke up spouting threats and grabbing for his photo gear. We jumped into the Volvo. I cranked up the Bearcat and we headed across the Jacques Cartier Bridge to Montreal’s South Shore.
We had no clue what we were looking for. We drove streets we didn’t know, looking for police activity, something, anything.
It was past midnight when Garth put his hand on the gearshift. “Duffer, this is stupid. We don’t know what we’re looking for. Let’s go get Dilallo burgers.”
As it turned out, we didn’t have to go looking for news. For that first week we ran — to the SQ’s brutalist bunker on Parthenais, to RCMP headquarters in Westmount, to CBC studios in the old Ford Hotel where an announcer read the FLQ manifesto, to Canadian Army command at Longue Pointe. By the end of that long first week, we came to realize the cops had no more idea of what they should be looking for than we did. I didn’t return to university for the rest of 1970.
On the 10th, four Chenier cell members snatched Quebec’s deputy premier, labour and immigration minister Pierre Laporte while he was tossing a football with his nephew. A week into the crisis, the Gazette police desk was a 24/7 operation; we napped and ate on the fly as Ottawa and Quebec fought over how far society should go in appeasing terrorists to free Cross and Laporte. By now, the newsroom was spread so thin that I was assigned to cover pro-negotiation rallies and demonstrations at Centre Paul-Sauvé and Université de Montréal. I saw for myself the groundswell of support for the FLQ, for negotiating the release of 23 convicted terrorists in exchange for the lives of Cross and Laporte, for a provisional government to replace Trudeau and Bourassa.
Oct. 15 was a Thursday; at around 10 p.m., I got a call from a usually reliable source — Claudia, the gun-toting wife of SQ tactical squad’s Albert Lisacek: get my ass down to the entrance to the underground garage at the SQ’s Parthenais bunker.
Others got similar tips. When I got to the garage, reporters and photogs were gathering. The word in the crowd was that we could expect a huge police operation. We huddled for warmth in the shelter of warehouse loading docks until 5 a.m. Friday, when an armada of police cruisers roared up the ramp to mark the official start of the War Measures Act’s imposition. By noon on Oct. 16, 1,200 police officers had arrested approximately 450 individuals and carried out 170 searches.
That Saturday I was taking a few hours off with my date. We were watching Love Story at Place Bonaventure when my Pagette went off. I called the desk. No answer. I called the newsroom. They’d found Laporte’s body in the trunk of a car near the St. Hubert airport on the South Shore. Pritchard was there. He had photos of Laporte’s body.
The next night we received another call from Mrs. Albert. Drive to St. Hubert’s Armstrong Blvd. Investigators had found the house where Laporte had been executed. We jumped in the Volvo. Garth was riding shotgun. TorStar photog Graham Bezant was in the back seat. I saw an SQ cruiser and pulled in behind it as men in plainclothes swarmed us. I rolled down the window and was digging for my driver’s licence when the cop on Garth’s side told us to freeze. Bezant, who didn’t speak French, reached into his jacket. The passenger-side cop cocked his .38 and put it to Garth’s head.
Suddenly, we heard Lisacek’s familiar voice: “What the fuck are you boys doing here? Good thing my guys were feeling relaxed. You could be dead.” He told us a Volvo like mine had been posted to the SQ watch list after a patrol saw one cruising through Longueuil the night Cross was kidnapped.
I asked Garth if he was okay.
“I will be once I get my hands around your throat. You were laughing, you moron. You thought it was funny.”
— from Fish Wrapped: True Confessions from Newsrooms Past, Guernica Editions, May 2020