For some, FLQ member Pierre-Paul Geoffroy is an unrepentant terrorist, responsible for dozens of bomb attacks in Montreal. For others, he’s a political prisoner whose freedom is long overdue

By ROBERT SARNER, The Canadian*, November 1979

As the pistol pointed to the sky, 1,500 men and women stood almost motionless behind the starting line, bathed in the sunshine of a Quebec summer afternoon. In a flash, they took off like foxes pursuing a rabbit. For most, this marathon in June 1978 through the streets of St. Gabrielle, 50 miles north of Montreal, was another rite of the season. For Pierre-Paul Geoffroy, it was anything but.

In the minutes leading up to the race, he was already short of breath, unaccustomed to being with so many people in a place devoid of walls. Over the previous nine years, Geoffroy had run 10 miles a day alone. He was in superb shape but that didn’t explain why he was the first to cross the finish line, without winning the race.

About 15 minutes after starting, Geoffroy arrived where the race had begun and was to end. Along the route, he got his signals crossed, took a wrong turn and suddenly found himself alone. As this was his first-ever day-pass from prison, the solitude was unexpected and unsettling. His face awash in sweat, Geoffroy nervously back-tracked to where the crowd waited. He was disappointed not to have completed the race. After a brief picnic with family and friends – most of whom had not seen him since 1969 – Geoffroy returned to where nobody gets lost when going for a run.

For the past decade, home for Geoffroy, 35, has been a series of federal penitentiaries in Quebec where he’s serving the stiffest sentence (short of death) ever handed down in the history of the British Commonwealth: 124 life terms, plus 25 years. Outside Quebec, his name has long been forgotten since his arrest and sentencing in 1969 made headlines across the country.

Inside the province, Geoffrey is the focus of intense debate. He’s seen either as an incorrigible anarchist or a political prisoner, a sinister bomber ready to terrorize again or a reformed militant now a scapegoat for Ottawa and the National Parole Board, still being punished, in part, for crimes he never committed. In prison, he’s easily defined. At the minimum-security Ste. Anne des Plaines Institution, 35 miles north of Montreal, inmate SV-4716 is just another convict doing time, even if he’s no ordinary criminal. Before his arrest, Geoffroy had been on the noisy side of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. He was an activist in the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale while a student in Montreal. In 1968, he joined the Front de Libération du Québec, a radical group whose initials, FLQ, had spelt trouble for Quebecers since 1963 and were to be indelibly carved on the minds of all Canadians during the October Crisis in 1970.

Geoffroy’s arrest came at a time when Montreal was plagued by an increasingly prolific – and elusive – team of FLQ bombers. In the previous year, there had been some 60 incidents in which bombs either exploded or were dismantled by police. In the early hours of March 4, 1969 a special squad of RCMP, Quebec provincial and Montreal police stormed Geoffroy’s downtown apartment. They found their suspect alone with an arsenal of three bombs and 300 sticks of dynamite and a booby-trapped suitcase. According to police, had Geoffroy not been there to tell them about the luggage beneath his bed, it could well have been a deathly awakening for residents of the entire apartment block.

By 8 a.m., the Montreal police chief had convened a press conference to proclaim his men had made an important capture. It involved, he explained, “an extremely dangerous individual… a dynamiter (who) had in his possession at home a large quantity of communist literature from Russia, China and Cuba and large posters of Karl Marx, Lenin and Che Guevera…” Geoffroy was accused of all the bombings attributed to the FLQ since the previous spring.

Today, more than 10 years later, Montreal rests a lot easier, no longer in fear of things going bang in the night – or day. For Geoffroy, so bent on bringing about change, life came to an abrupt standstill in 1969. Quebec moved right along without him. In the fall of 1970 when the FLQ kidnapped British diplomat James Cross, abducted and assassinated Quebec provincial cabinet minister Pierre Laporte and Ottawa responded with the War Measures Act, Geoffroy had already been behind bars for a year and a half. He was one of 23 FLQ prisoners whose freedom the kidnappers demanded.

When Quebecers next vote in a provincial election in another year or two, chances are Geoffroy will still be in prison, a vestige of an era now seemingly remote. Much indeed has changed.

In contrast, the position of the National Parole Board (NPB) on Geoffroy has held steady, at least for the past six and a half years. The NPB has repeatedly rejected his attempts to win day parole, for which he became eligible in March 1973. Since 1976, when Geoffroy became eligible for full parole, the board has rejected his application four times, most recently last spring.

Criticism is nothing new to the NPB. It’s often scorned for putting criminals back on the street too soon. In this case, it’s the opposite.

“There’s a lot of confusion,” says Jean-Paul Gilbert, 59, senior member of the NPB in Montreal and director of its Quebec office. “It’s a misconception that just because an inmate becomes eligible for something (i.e. parole) that he or she automatically gets it. In fact, on average, parole is granted only to 40% of those eligible.”

Gilbert, who was the Montreal police chief at the time of Geoffroy’s arrest – an act for which Mayor Jean Drapeau personally and publically congratulated him at the time – dismisses any suggestion political factors have influenced Geoffroy’s case.

“In all cases, and I stress all,” he insists, “we apply the same criteria. The personal motive behind the crime doesn’t enter into it. Our real concern is the crime itself and how it was committed. And it’s the same thing for those identified as felquistes” (the term in Quebec for FLQ members).

Neither the inmate’s behaviour in prison nor his chances of rehabilitation are considered, according to Gilbert. Rather, it’s the severity of the sentence. Based on those criteria alone, Geoffroy could theoretically be kept in jail forever.

Forever is a sobering thought for someone who feels he’s already spent an eternity behind bars and whose conduct in prison has been excellent. Much to his frustration, his attempts to gain parole have been turned down by a mere one vote margin three times in a row.

“The parole board says we don’t treat any inmate differently, and that’s the way it should be,” says Stephan Cumas, a Montreal social worker whose five-year contract with the NPB ended last spring. “Yet despite the change in the individual, the changes in Quebec and all our clinical evaluations of Geoffroy telling us he’s no longer a threat to society, his parole is refused. The longer we persist in refusing to repatriate him, the more we are contradicting ourselves, the more we are saying this is a political offender who should stay in prison longer.”

Like many other activists of the day, Geoffroy comes from a comfortable middle-class home. His father, an active member of the Quebec Liberal Party, was a school board secretary in Berthierville, 35 miles northeast of Montreal. Geoffroy left home at age 12 to attend boarding school in Montreal before spending two years at an English-language high school in Ottawa. He returned to Montreal to study graphic arts and social sciences before dropping out in 1968 when his government bursary didn’t come through. He remained unemployed until his arrest the next year.

The Crown never had to prove its case against Geoffroy. By pleading guilty to all charges arising out of the 31 bombings for which he was accused, Geoffroy waved off a trial and effectively aborted any attempts by police to draw information out of him about his FLQ accomplices. At the arraignment three days after his arrest, it took the court clerk close to an hour and a half just to read to Geoffroy the 129 charges against him. He was charged with 31 counts of conspiracy to make bombs, 31 counts of making bombs, 31 counts of conspiracy to place bombs and 31 counts of placing bombs, not to mention five lesser charges of burglary, theft and possession of explosives.

Founded in 1963, the FLQ attacked symbols of what it took to be the federal and/capitalist “exploitation and oppression” of Quebec. In Montreal, it never lacked for targets, carrying out more than 200 bombings. Of the 31 buildings Geoffroy hit between May 1968 and March 1969, three were connected to the Canadian army, three to provincial political parties, six to municipal, provincial and federal governments, six to financial institutions and 13 to companies and executives embroiled in labour disputes. In all, about half resulted in explosions while the others involved bombs that were discovered and dismantled in time. One that did go off, and by far Geoffroy’s most notorious action, was the St. Valentine’s Day blast at the Montreal Stock Exchange which wounded 27 people, none seriously.

In late March 1969, after the Crown had requested life imprisonment, Geoffroy’s counsel made a lengthy plea for clemency before Judge André Fabien. André Daviault, a lawyer from Geoffory’s hometown, argued his client was not a common criminal.

“Geoffroy is guilty,” Daviault admitted, “but he should not be punished immoderately because all of our society is a least in part responsible for the injustices which he was fighting… a system which condones the exploitation of certain people of less privileged classes.” He said Geoffroy felt that in “order to live with dignity, one needs independence. The accused wanted to liberate society from the yoke of capitalism.”

Finally, the lawyer insisted, as bombers go, Geoffroy was not without compassion. He said he always took precautions not to endanger human life by planting 26 of the 31 bombs at night “when the chances of injuring someone were reduced,” and in the other cases – including, Geoffroy has always maintained, the MSE bombing – he telephoned his targets to warn them of the imminent blast.

It was all for naught. A week later, Judge Fabien slapped Geoffroy with the maximum sentence possible. As one Toronto newspaper headlined the next day, “Montreal Bomber Gets Life – 124 Times.” In addition, he received a total of 25 years for five lesser charges. It took Fabien 20 minutes to deliver a judicial jeremiad which tried to match in severity the sentence he had just imposed.

According to the judge, Geoffroy “coldly and deliberately endangered the lives of fellow citizens by planting murderous bombs in public places. For reasons often confused and in the name of anarchistic and destructive ideology… and clearly conscious of his Machiavellian mission, Pierre-Paul Geoffroy, by his conduct, desired the systematic destruction of the established order…” In closing, the judge stressed the importance of imposing an exemplary sentence saying, “It’s completely necessary that Geoffory’s associates (there were two other members in the FLQ cell to which Geoffroy belonged) and those who might be inclined to follow his sorry example should be discouraged by the thought of severe punishment.”

On that note, Geoffroy, goateed and bespectacled, was led out of court. As he made his exit, he raised his right hand in a defiant V for victoire salute to his brother seated in the audience.

To the public ever since, he’s been silent and invisible. He’s turned down all requests to meet journalists, on or off the record, until now. Since being granted his first day-pass to run in the marathon in 1978, he has kept a low profile on all subsequent sorties. Despite his reticence, Geoffroy is far from forgotten as many are speaking on his behalf. Indeed, his case has become a cause célèbre. Increasingly over the past year or two, letters to newspapers, petitions and editorials have upheld Geoffroy as Quebec’s preeminent ‘political prisoner.’ He’s been the subject of radio phone-in shows and magazine articles, university seminars and even lapel badges.

Last year, 40,000 Quebecers – including two PQ members of the National Assembly plus several prominent artists and entertainers – signed a petition calling for Geoffroy’s release. This past February, the Comité pour la Libération de Pierre-Paul Geoffroy was formed in Montreal by friends, family and sympathizers who have worked to publicize Geoffroy’s plight and gain his release. They produced a 60-page ‘dossier’ on the case which they distributed at meetings, press conferences and to other regional committees in Quebec.

Last spring, Le Devoir, the influential Montreal daily, published an editorial titled “An Unjustified Refusal” that criticized the NPB’s fourth rejection of Geoffroy’s parole application, saying he should already have been released “a few years ago… Not only are the grounds for keeping Geoffroy in prison invalid, but the particularly severe treatment to which he’s been subjected raises questions on the impartiality of decisions taken in his regard.”

At the same time, the Montreal chapter of the League of Human Right and Freedoms came out in favour of Geoffroy’s release as did several unions and student groups in Quebec. The London-based Amnesty International launched a preliminary investigation and is currently deciding whether Geoffroy’s continued incarceration warrants its involvement in the case.

“When I went on the radio, I was ready for people to phone in and scream that Pierre-Paul shouldn’t be released,” says Louise Savard, 31, a member of the Committee and Geoffroy’s girlfriend. “We expected things to really heat up once the lines were opened. We knew we’d have no problem in gaining the sympathy and support from students and unions but we thought ordinary people would be very reactionary, violently opposed to his freedom.”

On one such show last winter, according to Savard, of the 21 callers to the French-language station, 17 said they favoured Geoffroy’s release, three were opposed and one said he should be kicked out of Canada for good.

Robert Lemieux, 37, the firebrand lawyer who has defended most felquistes over the past decade, took on Geoffroy’s case just after he was sentenced. He appealed the sentence in 1970 and lost. Since 1973, he has worked for Geoffroy’s parole.

“The Parole Board is a tyrannical organization,” says Lemieux bitterly. “And when it comes to former felquistes, the board is unbelievable. They have a scapegoat attitude. They always need to have a heavy case. Since Francois Shirm (former felquiste and convicted murderer) was released last summer, that role has fallen on Geoffroy. It’s sort of an unconscious political revenge on their part.”

Sympathisers have suggested Geoffroy is guilty of less than half the crimes for which he was punished. Between 1970 and 1979, five felquistes were convicted of 19 of the 31 bombings attributed to Geoffroy and which accounted for 76 of his 124 life sentences. His former comrades drew sentences from 18 months suspended to 2½ years. All were eventually released on parole.

Whether or not Geoffroy is being punished for certain crimes he didn’t commit – and for which others have since been convicted – is of little interest to the NPB. “The court found Geoffory guilty,” says William Outerbridge, Chairman of the NPB in Ottawa. “And we can’t go back to second-guess what happened. It would be inappropriate for us to substitute our judgment for that of the court.”

According to Article 10 of the Parole Act – approved by Parliament in 1959 when the National Parole Board was created – three basic conditions must prevail before parole can be granted: 1) the inmate must have derived maximum benefit from imprisonment; 2) parole will aid the inmate’s reform and rehabilitation; 3) the release of the inmate won’t constitute an undue risk to society.

In cases such as Geoffroy’s, a committee – comprised of five board members – studies the case before voting. A simple majority is required for parole. Of the five who have voted in Geoffroy’s case, two – one male anglophone, one female francophone – have met and interviewed him. Three times both voted for Geoffroy’s release. Just as often, their three colleagues did not. This despite recommendations for parole from virtually all prison personnel, correctional officers and social workers who’ve had contact with Geoffroy over the past few years.

Stephen Cumas, who for the past 30 years has been professionally involved in the rehabilitation of criminals, was one of the two board members favourable to Geoffroy’s release. A warm, compassionate man, he becomes emotional when discussing this case.

“Everything in front of us tells us that this man will not revert back to his previous tactics,” argues Cumas. “I hate to waste people. And this is a waste of a sensitive, intelligent person. He’s already suffered enormously. He’s paid with the best years of his life. What more could the board want from him?”

Critics of the Parole Board insist one of the reasons it used to deny Geoffroy parole in late 1977 related to a report prepared by the Quebec Provincial Police (QPP). In the report, Geoffroy is accused of writing an article for a magazine months earlier in which he said that upon his release, he would return to terrorism. Once Geoffroy got wind of this and other allegations against him, he wrote Quebec’s Justice Minister, requesting an inquiry into what he called “a frame-up.” A subsequent investigation by Quebec justice authorities revealed that not only was there no article by Geoffroy, but the magazine in question never existed.

The board denies the false accusation affected its decision.

“It’s true to say there was something in Geoffroy’s file about that alleged article,” admits Serge Lavallèe, Executive Assistant in the board’s Montreal office, “but it’s untrue to say the refusal of parole was influenced by this matter. When, after having requested more information, we were told by police to disregard the original report, we did. I’d say this is a sign that we’re a healthy institution.”

On more than one occasion, Bora Laskin, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice, has voiced reservations over the NPB. “The plain fact is that the board claims a tyrannical authority that I believe is without precedent among administrative agencies empowered to deal with a person’s liberty,” Laskin has said. “It claims an unfettered power to deal with an inmate as if he were a mere puppet on a string.”

Last winter, the NPB released ex-RCMP agent Robert Samson who served only one-third of his sentence for a 1974 bombing of a Montreal executive’s home. Geoffroy’s sympathizers were aghast at the disproportionate leniency granted an ex-Mountie but denied to a felquiste. In the eyes of the NPB, they contended, some bombers are more equal than others.

“There’s something fundamentally pernicious,” Montreal journalist Marc Laurendeau wrote in La Presse in the wake of Samson’s parole, “in the attitude of a judicial organization that pretends to make no distinction in favour of political criminals, yet practices on the quiet a subtle discrimination toward them. As for declaring that a principle of equity is applied, it would be far better to abide by it.”

Such charges, not surprisingly, don’t wash with the NPB whose Montreal office has received 300 to 400 letters and telegrams in defense of Geoffroy’s release and 20 to 30 saluting its intransigence.

“In no way is there a political connotation to our decisions,” says Jean-Paul Gilbert. He argues there’s nothing unusual about Geoffroy’s imprisonment, citing the fact that the average incarceration for someone in his category (life sentence for crimes other than murder) is about 12 years. “The responsibility of the Parole Board when we study a case is not related to political factors. And it’s wrong to use the term ‘political prisoner’ for any inmate. We insist there are no political prisoners in federal institutions.”

In a letter to Geoffroy following its latest decision last spring to refuse parole, the NPB said it’s not convinced he “realizes fully the extent” of his crimes. (One such crime the letter cites is the bobby-trapped suitcase bomb Geoffroy allegedly had in his apartment at the time of arrest, the one charge he has repeatedly denied since entering prison.) Geoffroy, the NPB maintains, is “still susceptible to using any means to attain his ends.” Without elaborating, the letter concludes his release constitutes an “undue risk to society.”

“What do you want Pierre-Paul to do to prove he’s really changed?” Louise Savard asks plaintively. “He can only prove that once he’s released.” She claims Geoffroy has been told the board needs more “tangible evidence” that he changed. “It’s obvious,” she says, “they want him to get down on his knees and beg for forgiveness. But for him, this is no simple matter. The only things that have belonged to him, what nobody could take away from him for the past 10 years, are his thoughts and integrity.”

Last May, after weeks of struggling over whether to take the initiative, Geoffroy sent a letter to Gilbert asking him to reconsider the case. He explained that at the time of his FLQ involvement, he felt violence was the only way to instigate change in Quebec. Today, he said, there’s no danger of him getting involved again in similar activities if only because there’s been radical change in the political situation with a separatist party now in power. At the same time, he reaffirmed his intention to study physical education at Laval University. He didn’t express regret for what he had done in the past nor did he foreclose political activity in the future. The implication seemed clear; Geoffroy believes the bombings were justified to bring about change.

“I respect Geoffroy for not having renounced his actions in return for parole,” says Robert Lemieux, who has visited his client once a month for the past 10 years. “As far as I’m concerned, the FLQ were goddamn right. The community should be indebted to them. And I think that as the years go by, this will be perceived more and more.”

After more than a decade, society has to ask itself if Geoffroy has not paid his debt. It has to ask itself why dozens of other felquistes, including convicted murderers, have been released while Geoffroy languishes in prison. It has to ask itself what good is being served by refusing him parole. It has to ask itself when is a ‘political’ criminal rehabilitated. Is has to ask itself if Geoffroy represents the danger the NPB repeatedly claims but doesn’t substantiate. It has to ask itself if his incarceration isn’t a waste of time and resources for all concerned. It has to, above all, recognize the basic difference between the social and political climate of the late 60s and that of the late 70s.

“Geoffroy is a symbol of our youth, an isolated, exaggerated mirror of the discontent and revolt of our Quebec youth in the 60s,” says Stephen Cumas, disappointed at the NPB’s latest decision not to release Geoffroy. “Let’s remember that back then, more than anywhere else in the country, the revolt in Quebec was politically tinged, more activated. But they’re no longer in revolt. Why can’t we consider that Geoffroy has changed, too? Geoffroy is now a very gentle person. I believe he’s changed since his mistaken idealism led him to do what he did.”

A few weeks ago, for the first time, Geoffroy agreed to meet with a journalist, when he received me at a visitors room at his prison. His presence was unimposing. He’s a diminutive man, slimmer and smaller than his photos suggest. His curly brown hair and bushy beard are now spiked with grey. His smile is warm, his eyes intense. To my disappointment, he wouldn’t speak about his case. Our discussion was confined largely to small talk as he’s still afraid that anything he might say publicly will work against his release. Geoffroy was anything but strident. Just like Cumas found in his meeting with him, I too noticed a gentleness.

“I’d like to be able to talk to you,” Geoffory said in a subdued voice, the perfect tone for the anticlimax of the encounter, “but it’ll have to wait for a year or two when I hope to be free. I hope you understand.”

Time marches on while Geoffroy stays in the same place. Given the NPB’s last ruling, he won’t be eligible for day parole again until this spring, and for full parole until April 1981. Until then, he can only hope. And wait. And hope. And wait. And run 10 miles a day without going anywhere.

* Article written in November 1979 for The Canadian magazine. It wasn’t published due to a change in editors at the publication.

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