For those who lived through it, the October Crisis of 1970 is a disturbing memory. The federal government’s imposition of the War Measures Act that saw close to 500 citizens arrested and held without charge still bitterly divides Quebecers. When Front de libération du Québec leader Paul Rose died last March, he was praised as a hero by some, while others called him a murderer for his part in the death of cabinet minister Pierre Laporte.
Film director Alain Chartrand was marked by those events, as his father, union activist Michel Chartrand, was arrested and held in prison for four months.
“Overnight, no one had any civil rights—unacceptable in a democratic society,” recalled Chartrand, whose recently released film La maison du pecheur recounts events that took place 14 months before the kidnapping of Laporte. “It was a shock, a trauma for Quebec society. That’s why no one wants to hear about it.”
The film, set in the panoramic village of Percé, recounts the meeting of the future FLQ members who kidnapped Laporte: Bernard Lortie, a young uneducated and naive fisherman desperately searching for employment, and Paul and Jacques Rose and Francis Simard, who came to Percé to set up a space in which to politicize the townspeople.
“The events unfolding in the film are not commonly known even by Quebec historians. They are not taught in school,” Chartrand said during an interview conducted in French. Two previous films on the October Crisis, Les Ordres by Michel Brault on the arrests and Octobre by Pierre Falardeau on Laporte’s ordeal, did not explain who these people were, Chartrand said. “They were 22-to-24 years old, idealists, independantists, pacifists who were against placing bombs and terrorist acts. They became terrorists because there was a breakdown at Percé and they found themselves outside the law when the relationship between them and the townspeople degenerated. They were refused a permit to operate, were attacked physically and told to leave.” The events in the film happened exactly as they are shown, Chartrand said, with only the romantic relationships in the story being fictionalized.
The film, told through Lortie’s eyes, ends with the four abandoning their plans for social animation and Lortie making a decision to follow the Roses and Simard. “He does not know what he is getting into,” Chartrand said.
Except for the beginning, the film is shot in black and white, not to evoke the past but to convey what Chartrand calls the “black misery” of poverty that existed among the villagers, with a reminder that among the 13 ethnic groups in Quebec at the time, only aboriginal people were poorer than the French Canadians.
The film has received mixed reviews, but Chartrand is not surprised. “When you touch upon important moments in history, you have to expect criticism.” The Vietnam War, draft dodgers, Woodstock, the hippie free love culture were all happening during this time, and the challenge was to re-create the atmosphere while remaining true to the facts, Chartrand said.
He sees a parallel between the angry youth then and protesters wearing red squares today. “Most of those who placed bombs during the crisis were uneducated, angry, they were unemployed and poor with families to support. The Carre Rouges did not place bombs, they don’t have the same behaviour, or use the same tools. But many among them are like Paul Rose: they want to communicate and express their values. Their protest was not just about tuition hikes, it was also about taking their place in society, about not having corporations paying universities.”
Chartrand says that with Bill 101 and the existence of the Parti Québécois, things have evolved to a degree. But like his father, he sees the PQ as capitalist whereas he leans toward socialism. “Before it was the English who wanted money in their pockets, now it is the French. It reflects a certain mentality.”