Just watch me

Posing questions, wrestling with answers

Published: Oct 19 2015, 01:01:am

Friday, March 7, 1975.
ACTION: THE OCTOBER CRISIS OF 1970. Written and directed by Robin Spry. Running time: 87 minutes.
ON THE EVENING OF Monday, October 12, the armed forces descended upon Ottawa. From their base at Camp Petawawa, 500 battle-dressed, fully armed soldiers answered the call of the civil authority and took up positions in and around the federal capitol.
    There was no warmth in the prime minister's smile Tuesday morning as newsmen crowded around hlm on the steps of Parliament.  "Yes," he said curtly, "well, there are a lot of bleeding hearts who just don't like to see people with helmets and guns."
    Eight days earlier, a group calling itself the "Libération" cell of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) had kidnapped the British trade commissioner in Montreal, one James Richard "Jasper" Cross. Three days earlier, another group, the "Chenier" cell, made Québec labour minister Pierre Laporte its prisoner.
    "All I can say is 'go on and bleed,' " the prime minister told CBC television reporter Tim Ralfe. "But is it more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don't like the looks of a soldier's helmet . . ."
    "At any cost?" Ralfe broke in, an edge of outrage in his normally bland broadcaster's voice. "How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?"
    "Well," said Trudeau calmly, "just watch me."
    "At reducing civil liberties?" Ralfe persisted. "To what extent?"
    The prime minister threw the reporter's question back at him. "To what extent?"
    "Well, if you extend this," Ralfe said, defensively, "and you say, OK,  you're going to do anything to protect (government officials), does this include wire-tapping, reducing other civil liberties in some way?"
    "Yes," said Trudeau. "I  think the society must take every means at Its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected powers in this country, and I think that goes at any distance.
    "So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representatives of the people, I think that power must be stopped and I think it's only, I repeat, weak-kneed bleeding hearts who are afraid to take these measures."
    A few days later, at four o'clock in the morning of October 16, 1970, Trudeau's cabinet invoked the War Measures Act. The next day, the strangled body of Pierre Laporte was found stuffed la the trunk of a car parked at Montréal's St. Hubert airport.
    Despite the most extreme measures ever taken in a Canadian police investigation — more than 450 persons were arrested without warrants, and jailed without being charged — Jasper Cross would remain a prisoner of the FLQ for seven more weeks.
    With history in the making all around, the Montréal-based National Film Board of Canada went to work. In an interview with Cinema Canada magazine's Agi Ibranyi-Kiss, the NFB's Robin Spry recalled:
    "I was in the middle of preparing a feature when I heard on the radio that there were soldiers in the city. I went down and looked, and there were, indeed, soldiers in the city!"
       Toronto-born Spry was attuned to the clamour of crowds and the issue of civil liberties. His single previous feature film project had been 1969's Prologue, a drama examining the youth movement, built from documentary footage shot in Chicago during the infamous Democratic Party convention of 1968.
    In 1970, it looked as if an even bigger story was exploding on his own doorstep. "My feeling was that there was an obligation to cover that."
    The NFB put three crews on alert. The idea was to record people's responses to the events as they were happening. The result was the 1973 film, Reaction: A Portrait of a Society in Crisis.
    "We shot at the emotional peak of the whole thing. All the pent-up talk was suddenly released," Spry said. The immediacy of the film proved to be a problem. Spry decided that an overview of the events was necessary and began work on Action: The October Crisis of 1970, a film designed to explain what Reaction was all about.
    As he was doing this, the final chapters in the drama were being written In the courts. Canadians seemed happy to have it over with. Like a bad dream, It faded into memory.
    To those of us far removed from the main events, it was like a television series that had not been renewed. The Watergate scandal in the U.S. replaced it in the public eye. and Canadians consoled themselves by saying that that, at least, couldn't happen here.
    True, the drama had passed. But there were still questions. The prestigious Canadian Forum magazine produced a special issue, later published in book form as Power Corrupted: The October Crisis and the Repression of Quebec (1971).
    Civil libertarians Ron Haggart and Aubrey Golden collaborated on the scathing 1971 investigative report Rumours of War. Trudeau's own phrase turned up in the title of yet another probing book, Denis Smith's Bleeding Hearts . . . Bleeding Country: Canada and the Quebec Crisis (1971).
    Filmmakers, too, felt the need to worry this still-fresh national wound. NFB director Michel Brault received approval for a fictional treatment of "les événements" (the events), but the project was killed by Board chief Sidney Newman on the grounds that the subject matter was inappropriate for a government agency.
    Brault decided to make his film independently, and applied to the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) for funds. He was turned down.
    He persisted and, three years later, got his money. At approximately the same time, another French Canadian director, Jean-Claude Lord, received funding for another feature inspired by the same "événements."
    Neither Brault's Les Ordres nor Lord's Bingo (both 1974) excited much interest among the proprietors of Canada's foreign-dominated theatre chains. Right now [1975], they're looking forward to that new Robert Redford-Dustin Hoffman picture, All the President's Men.
    That movie is based on the Watergate scandal, you know. It's something the Canadian filmgoing public really is interested in, unlike those French-subtitled Québec movies.
    Fortunately, the NFB can always count on a ready market at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. A copy of Spry's documentary, Action: The October Crisis of 1970 was delivered to the network's executives last September.
    In the package was a tough but scrupulously fair-minded overview of the single most important political and social crisis in Canadian history, an incident that must be understood so it may never be relived.
    As a documentarist — he narrates his own film in almost annoyingly even tones — Spry is more interested in perspective than dramatic impact. His 87-minute film opens with a long, but thoroughly fascinating, look at recent Québec history, from the stifling rule of Union Nationale party leader Maurice Duplessis, through the "Quiet Revolution" brought about by Jean Lesage, to the rise of the separatist Parti Québécois.
    Through the use of historical footage, he introduces a cast of characters, among them young polemicists such as Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Michel Chartrand and René Lévesque, all of whom worked to give Québec a sense of self-awareness in the post-war period.
    Their paths diverged, with Trudeau becoming the standard bearer for federalism and Lévesque the leader of the non-violent sovereigntists. Spry's film suggests that a certain historic inevitability led to the events of October 1970.
    "The rights of the English minority in Québec," Spry points out with considerable understatement, "have always been better protected than those of the French minority in the rest of Canada."
    He indicates that the Front de libération du Québec manifesto was the key to the crisis. The kidnappers demanded that it be read over the radio.
    It was, but in French only. Few English-language newspapers carried it, and only an expurgated version was moved over the newswires of the Canadian Press.
    Spry's film contains the full 13-minute manifesto broadcast, with a voice-over translation. According to the FLQ, "we live in a society of terrorized slaves . . . a democracy of the rich."
    Its message to the workers of Québec: "Only you are able to build a free society . . . we will banish from our state all the professional robbers, the bankers, the businessmen, the judges and all the sold-out politicians."
    With the stage thus set, the drama is played out. Though refusing to take sides, Spry's film is at pains to take a dispassionate look at the FLQ's point of view. In the process, ha gives viewers enough information both to ask questions and wrestle with the answers.
    One example: It's now apparent that both Montréal mayor Jean Drapeau and Québec premier Robert Bourassa used the War Measures Act for their own political purposes. In deciding to proclaim it, was Trudeau their dupe or a willing accessory?  
    And another: Of the 450 political prisoners rounded up following the proclamation of the Act, not one was subsequently charged with aiding the terrorists. How can such Draconian measures be justified in a representative democracy that professes to respect the rule of law?
    Action: The October Crisis of 1970 is a film that should be seen by every Canadian who once thought that it couldn't happen here. But don't wait for the CBC to make up its mind.
      The public broadcaster has already spent five months sitting on the issue.
    Instead, see it tonight [March 7, 1975] or Saturday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Playhouse. These special screenings, arranged by the Pacific Cinémathèque, are at 8 p.m.
      Admission is free, something that Canada wasn't during those incredible days and weeks in which the War Measures Act was in force.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1975. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: On Monday, April 28, 1975, the CBC finally broadcast Action: The October Crisis of 1970. To its credit, the film was aired simultaneously on the French and English networks. In common with his Québécois colleagues, Robin Spry had a keen sense of social justice, one that he would express throughout his 35-year filmmaking career. Though he is best remembered for his 1974 Action documentary, his dramatic features One Man (1977) and Drying Up the Streets (1978) were solid explorations of such issues as corporate polluters and the drug underworld. In 1995, he produced the unsparing TV mini-series Hiroshima, a reconsideration of the history behind the development and use of the first atomic bomb. Spry died in 2005 at the age of 65. The National Film Board honours his memory by making available both Action: The October Crisis of 1970 and Reaction: A Portrait of a Society in Crisis for free viewing on the Robin Spry page of its website.

See also: Two other films from 1974 recalling the October Crisis were writer-director Jean-Claude Lord's youth-radicalization thriller Bingo, and Michel Brault's documentary-like Les Ordres. Putting a satiric spin on the issue of political separation was writer-director Paul Donovan's 1993 cod war comedy Buried on Sunday.