POWER COMES FROM THE BARREL OF A GUN: THOUGHTS ON THE FLQ MANIFESTO, JAMES CROSS AND PIERRE LAPORTE.
Here in Canada we hear so much about how much we abhor violence and embrace dialogue, discussion and consensus. But let’s look at the real facts.
Mao Tse Tung, the former leader of Communist China, once said that ‘power comes from the barrel of a gun’. How true. The rule of law is backed up by the power of brute force. The state establishes its power and enforces it by the threat of legal and physical sanctions.
This can be good, but also bad, since the rule of law is first and foremost a system which protects the established interests of money, power, property, and prestige, and utilizes said power to, for all intents and purposes, to prevent others from usurping its power, unless it is in its enlightened self-interest to share power so as to conserve, or widen its base.
The nature of power is always to want to increase, and if it cannot do so, it will try to hold steady, and will fight to prevent from having to cede power willingly.
Such was the case in the years leading up to the October Crisis of 1970 here in Québec. The FLQ felt that the average French-Canadian’s relationship of power to their mostly English-speaking masters was at a chronic disadvantage, and that they were stuck in a permanent state of economic serfdom. In fact, according to the national Film Board’s documentary called ‘Action’, which deals with this period of Québec’s history, the average French-Canadian wage-earner still earned 20% less than his or her counterpart in Ontario in 1970.
Many contract negotiations were still conducted in English, if conducted at all. Strike-breakers were brought in to break strikes. People such as the members of the FLQ felt they had no choice but to take drastic measures. It is no wonder, therefore, that they kidnapped James Cross. Why him? Well, for one he was the British trade commissioner, and responsible for negotiating Britain’s trading arrangements with Canada, which directly affected the well-being, or lack thereof, of French-Canadians.
They also kidnapped, and went so far as killing Pierre Laporte. Who was he again? The Labour minister! He was responsible for supposedly maintaining just and fair relations between the unions, employers, and the government. Somebody must have felt he was leaning too far in one direction rather than another.
We all felt appalled at what happened when Laporte got killed. People were inconvenienced in Montréal and Québec city in their ability to go to work, at CN, for example, since they were protesting against Mr. Donald Gordon, the President, who said that he couldn’t find any qualified French-Canadians to fill top positions.
I felt disturbed as a Sillery boy driving home from Mass in the back seat of my Father’s 1972 AMC Ambassador, and seeing Canadian soldiers posted outside of judge’s homes in Sillery on the way home from St. Stephen’s Church.
That fall of 1970 I entered grade one in an all French-Canadian public Catholic school in Sillery, and literally had to fight my way out of the school yard on a regular basis just to go home and have lunch, then watch Ernie and Bert on Sesame street, or beat off two French guys off my back at recess, and run back into class, my face all red, gasping for breath, five minutes late, only to have the teacher scold me for being late.
I knew why I was being attacked, but I also knew that I was half French-Canadian myself, and that I was one of them just as much as I was a ‘tête carré’, so I had to earn their respect.
This is exactly what the FLQ crisis was all about. Respect. Some people got killed, they called out the army, but guess what happened two years later? The same people went on the so-called ‘Common Front’ strike in the public sector and managed to advance the cause of working people in our province like no other time in history.
As for me, that year, in grade two, I got two weeks off school in honour of the Common Front strike. I guess it was worth it, if it meant that the average Québecer got a fairer shake. I think that, despite the separatist tone of the September 13, 2009 commemoration, the reading of the FLQ manifesto had its place in our history. It reminds us that words, without deeds, are empty, and that deeds sometimes need to be drastic for people to take notice.
Otherwise, power would continue to accumulate and concentrate into the hands of a few, and the notion of justice, which is also fundamental to the rule of law, would be lost. Think of that the next time you see some angry young man wearing a gas mask, or a handkerchief over his face and carrying some sign denouncing climate change or globalization.
Sometimes if you violently stir up the pot, you can make some excellent stew, as long as you let it simmer a long time after you turn down the heat.