RICHARD FOOT, CanWest News Service - Events provided 'makings of a perfect political thriller'
In a parking garage on a cold autumn day, four young men carrying guns and cradling fantasies of armed revolution, hustle a blindfolded victim into a waiting car with Quebec plates sporting the old 1960s logo, La Belle Province.
The scene - acted out last week on a Halifax film set - recreates one of the most chilling episodes in Canadian history when, on Oct. 5, 1970, members of the Front de Liberation du Quebec kidnapped British diplomat James Cross, introduced terrorism to modern Canada, and brought the weight of the War Measures Act crashing down on their province.
Thirty-five years after the FLQ's crimes, and the political storms they ignited, someone is finally making a movie about the October Crisis - what Nova Scotia filmmaker Wayne Grigsby, who used to live and work in Montreal, calls the first full "stem-to-stern re-telling" of the whole haunting affair.
"Nobody's ever tried to dramatize the entire thing before, in French or English Canada," he said. "And it's a big story."
It also remains a sensitive story, decades later.
October 1970 - being filmed in Halifax and Montreal this winter as an eight-hour miniseries for CBC Television - was originally pitched as a double project, to be simultaneously shot in English and French. But when Grigsby and fellow producer Laszlo Barna asked Radio-Canada executives in Montreal if they were interested in a French version, the pair was greeted with icy stares and ushered out the door.
"You could just tell from the looks on their faces," Grigsby said. "Two anglos show up and start pitching them this story - there was no way in hell they were going to let us do this on their network.
"And I'm not sure they'll ever do it themselves. There are so many myths and skeletons about it that Quebecers of a certain generation would be very nervous about going forward with this project."
Grigsby - whose recent filmmaking credits include the Trudeau and Trudeau II miniseries - says he had quite a different reaction from some of the convicted felons of the FLQ, several of whom he interviewed for his research on the film.
"People who were involved in it are keen to see this made," he said, among them Jacques Lanctot - leader of the cell that kidnapped Cross - who now runs a publishing firm in Quebec.
"Lanctot actually pitched me his own miniseries, with a different take on the crisis," Grigsby said. "His attitude is, if it hadn't been for his (FLQ) manifesto being broadcast during the kidnappings, the Parti Quebecois would never have been elected. In the broad political sense for him, the ends still justified the means."
Whatever emotions October 1970 stirs up - and whether it sparks a renewed debate about the FLQ's contribution to the independence movement in Quebec - is of less interest to Grigsby than the simple telling of an extraordinary tale.
Long before Baghdad and Beirut became synonymous with terrorist bombings, Montreal was beset by political violence all its own. In 1970 Canada watched as the city was shaken by two high-profile kidnappings, the murder of provincial labour minister Pierre Laporte, and the arbitrary arrest of hundreds of people following the imposition of martial law.
Such events, Grigsby said, are the makings of a perfect political thriller.
"Our idea is to try to tell all of the story in as much detail as we can," he said, "and to try to put it in context for people who don't remember Quebec and the separatist movement from 1963 to 1970 - the demonstrations, the shootings, the bombs in mailboxes."
Those without direct knowledge include most of Grigsby's cast, including Mathieu Grandin, the charismatic young Montreal actor who plays Lanctot.
Grandin, 25, is no stranger to rebellious protest; in 2001 he joined the anti-globalization demonstrations at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.
But Grandin says nothing in his generation's experience comes close to what unfolded in 1970.
"For people my age, not having lived through these events, it seems totally out of the ordinary. It's hard to imagine anything like this happening today. And it's a part of Quebec history that's partly been hidden - part of the population is a little ashamed about it."
Grigsby remembers the crisis. He was 23, living in Montreal, and working as a researcher for the CBC when violence erupted, civil liberties were suspended, and police began arbitrarily throwing their weight around the city, thanks to a draconian federal law that gave them the tools to track down the kidnappers but left a trail of fear and anger that still reverberates today.
"It makes for a rip-roaring good yarn, but there's a cautionary dimension to it," Grigsby said.
"Terrorists were behaving in a way that's foreign to the Canadian tradition. Politicians didn't know how to handle it, and cops certainly weren't trained to deal with it. We went to the brink as a country that year. We were staring over the edge of the abyss."