'I wasn't afraid of death,' kidnapped British diplomat James Cross said upon release
Published Sunday, October 4, 2020 1:54PM EDT
OTTAWA -- Just two days after he was freed, a British diplomat kidnapped by Quebec nationalists told Canadian officials he did not fear being killed in captivity.
Rather, James Cross worried what would become of his wife should he be murdered by members of the Front de liberation du Quebec.
Cross, a trade commissioner based in Montreal, was abducted by an FLQ cell 50 years ago Monday, one of the key events in the episode known as the October Crisis.
A little-noticed transcript of remarks Cross made in response to questions on a Dec. 5, 1970, flight back to England provides a candid glimpse into his mindset.
Steve Hewitt, a Canadian-born lecturer at the University of Birmingham, came across the transcript in the U.K. National Archives during research for a book on the history of terrorism in Canada.
"This is as close as we will get to Cross's private thoughts literally 48 hours after he was freed from his nearly two-month ordeal," Hewitt said.
Cross and his daughter Susan were accompanied on the flight by Canadian foreign-affairs officials, an RCMP security service officer and Jim Davey, an aide to Pierre Trudeau, prime minister at the time.
In a 1998 recorded memoir, part of a Cambridge University diplomatic history project, Cross mentioned the transatlantic interview, but said Davey had neglected to turn his tape recorder on.
It turns out the conversation was recorded, though the quality is poor due to noise from the aircraft.
"An attempt has been made to transcribe, as faithfully as possible, the recorded remarks, but in one or two cases it has been necessary to make an interpretation of what was actually said," says an accompanying note.
Cross was seized at gunpoint in his home on Oct. 5, 1970, as wife Barbara and their Dalmatian looked on. He was bundled into a car and taken to a house where he spent his days in handcuffs, allowed to read and watch TV but not see the faces of his captors.
The FLQ made several demands, including the release of "political prisoners" and publication of the group's manifesto.
Within days, another cell kidnapped Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte. Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, which suspended civil liberties and led to the arrests of more than 250 people.
Soon after, Laporte's body was found in the trunk of a car.
Cross "rationalized and thought out" the consequences of death, he told Davey, who asked most of the questions on the airplane.
"And funnily enough came to the conclusion I wasn't afraid of death. I was worried later on that they might strangle me, I didn't want to be strangled. I didn't seem to mind being shot. But I didn't really want to have a bit of wire around my neck and have it pulled tight," Cross said.
"But what I was worried all the time was about my wife because what I was then particularly worried about was her financial situation. And I composed two letters, in my mind only, one was a final testament to my wife saying you know, how much I loved her and everything, the other was a letter to Mr. Trudeau appealing to him to do something for her."
Cross said the abductors had told him from the beginning that "they weren't going to kill me but I didn't believe them."
The diplomat thought he would be murdered if he ceased to be of value to the cell "because it was much easier to dispose of a dead body than a live one." He also surmised he might get killed in the crossfire of a police raid on the house.
Hewitt notes that despite the harrowing experience, Cross did not seem bitter toward his captors and said most of them had been "very kind to me."
Humorous moments with the kidnappers helped keep Cross sane.
"I made jokes about meeting them when they were ministers and receiving them in London and giving them diplomatic banquets, because I know very well the British government would shake hands with anybody. All we need is time."
After Laporte's death, Cross didn't really want to talk to his captors. And in the 1998 memoir, he made it clear he had no sympathy for the FLQ members.
"I hated the lot of them and would have cheerfully killed them if the opportunity arose. This does not mean that I could not maintain friendly relations on the surface. I was operating on two levels. One, my real thoughts and two, a superficial correspondence with them."
Early in December, authorities found out where Cross was being held. He was released and some FLQ members were allowed passage to Cuba.
Hewitt notes that Cross offered a sophisticated take on the motivation of the FLQ upon his release, recognizing the role of the English domination of Quebec but also the inspiration drawn from anti-colonial movements in places such as Algeria.
Cross found the Quebec radicals "absolutely dedicated."
"And in some ways I think they would have been happy to have been killed in the cause of being sort of martyrs of the revolution."
The FLQ members had not anticipated imposition of the War Measures Act, Cross said.
"Their response to almost every reaction of the government in a legal sense, every police action, was fascinating.
"It was to claim that this was contrary to British justice. And I found this the most amazing statement and I kept on pointing it out to them. But they were most indignant about what they regarded as retroactive legislation which they regarded as contrary to British justice."
Cross, now in his late 90s, has spoken to the media over the years and attended a memorial mass at the invitation of Laporte's family.
The key to surviving a kidnapping? Co-operate, Cross told Davey.
"Write whatever the kidnappers want you to write and never think that it will be held against you because I think the first duty of the kidnappee is to stay alive. He can only do this by co-operation because his only value is as a co-operating hostage."
-- this report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2020.