I was in Grade 4 at Cartierville School in 1955 when one morning students told me about the previous night’s Montreal Forum Riot

In a previous post about Cartierville School in Montreal, I’ve noted that I remember that the Maurice Richard Riot at the Montreal Forum on March 17, 1955 might have occurred when I was at the school. I may have heard people talking about it in the hallway. There was talk about streetcars being overturned, as I recall. I heard vivid, animated descriptions of the riot. I was interested to learn, years later, that this was an important event in Quebec’s history.

An Illustrated History of Quebec: Tradition and Modernity (2012)

Because I like to read widely, especially when time permits, when I’m helping to organize events such as (in this case) a high school reunion, I recently borrowed a Toronto Public Library copy of An Illustrated History of Quebec: Tradition and Modernity (2012).

I’m pleased to share the following quote (pp. 229-231) from the book:

“As the fabric of society changed in these and many other important respects, signs of impatience with the traditionalist, authoritarian political regime were expressed at different times and in different ways. We have seen some of them in this chapter, including in the pages of Cité libre and Le Devoir, and in political and social manifestos published respectively by a group of rebellious artists in 1948 and by a pair of progressive priests in 1956. A different but not unrelated kind of impatience was expressed on St. Patrick’s Day in 1955, as hockey fans spilled out of the Montreal Forum and into the surrounding streets furious at league president Clarence Campbell’s decision to suspend their hero, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, for his role in a bloody fight in Boston days earlier. Richard was arguably the best hockey player in the world, playing to a largely French­ Canadian public, but on a team and in a league owned and controlled by wealthy anglophones. His story has often been presented, occasionally with some nuance, as the perfect allegory for that of the ordinary, French-speaking, working-class Quebecer. Many fans believed that the Rocket’s punishment was disproportionate to his role in the fracas; he had received a stick to the head from Boston player Hal Laycoe, retaliated in kind with several wild slashes of his own, and then punched an official who had intervened.

“It is impossible to say whether a Toronto Maple Leaf of Anglo-Celtic extraction would have been treated as harshly by the league president for a similar offence. But the sentiment on St. Catherine Street was that the Prairie-born Campbell, an Oxford-trained lawyer and former military officer living in Montreal, cracked down on Richard because he was French speaking and thereby deprived the Rocket of a scoring title and the Montreal Canadiens of a championship. The story, however, did not end with the ignominious Richard Riot of March 1955. The anger and frustration expressed on St. Patrick’s Day turned over the ensuing five years into pride, jubilation, and a new kind of confidence in what French Canadians could achieve when the team, led by Richard, ran off a never­ to-be-equalled string of five consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

“When Maurice Duplessis died suddenly in 1959, few could deny that the province had reached the end of an era. He had been an arch­ conservative, authoritarian leader who put his indelible stamp on the place and the people he governed for the better part of a quarter century. But no individual could have held back the tide of modernizing forces that had been transforming the province since the Second World War. With Duplessis’s defiant finger no longer plugging the dike, time was short indeed for ‘traditional’ Quebec. Strong new waves of social and cultural change and of political and institutional reform would breach all remaining barriers to modernization in the 1960s.”

[End of extract]

Comment (1)

In my view, this is a beautifully written overview. Another book that I have particularly enjoyed reading is Young Trudeau, 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada (2006).

The book makes for fascinating reading as it gives a glimpse of Quebec in the 1930s.

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library notes, among other things:

“This is astonishing material – and it’s all demonstrably true – based on personal papers of Trudeau that the authors were allowed to access after his death. What they have found has astounded and distressed them, but they both agree that the truth must be published.”

Comment (2)

The larger context to the narratives is the history of the British empire.

I became interested in the latter history when I learned that a log cabin, built in 1797 by a British colonel who had fought in the American Revolutionary War, used to be located a one-minute walk from the house in south Etobicoke, not far from Lake Ontario, near the Mississauga-Toronto border, that has been my home for the past 20 years. Not much is known, by way of primary sources, regarding the colonel, whose name was Colonel Samuel Smith, for which reason I began a project to read as widely as I can to learn about the times in which he lived.

 

2 replies
  1. Charles Tsiang
    Charles Tsiang says:

    I remember the riot at the Montreal Forum from the newspapers, radio and people talking about it. A couple of years ago I saw a movie about Rocket Richard and it showed the story behind the suspension of the Rocket and the intense feeling that ran thru the French Canadian public. I also remember my parents disapproving of the way the Rocket behaved and preferred the young fellow Jean Beliveau much more. There was a TV show called la Famille Plouffe and one of the characters was a son who played hockey…. and emulated the style of “le gros Bill”. There was even a segment showing the Plouffe son skating around his net and rushing end to end and scoring just like Beliveau. Was that Guillaume Plouffe? Would watch Canadiens hockey at 9:00pm saturday nights… after wrestling from 8-9pm.

    Reply
  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Your description adds much to the texture and depth of the story, Charles. I will, when time permits, see if I can find some online CBC Archives resources that deal with la Famille Plouffe. My memory of things is not particularly strong. Many details of life in the 1950s, that many other people remember, have not been retained in my memory. But events charged with particularly strong emotion, those I tend to remember. The memory of hearing about the Rocker Richard Riot while speaking with classmates early in the morning, before we went into the classroom, is one of those things that has stayed quite firmly entrenched in my memories of those years. I can still picture in my mind the hallway, and the sound of students’ voices, expressing amazement and wonder at the events that had occurred.

    I was in the category of 1950s students who did not grow up with television. My father, who had been trained as a forester in Estonia, and was what in the 1960s might have been described as a person who was “close to Nature,” initially had no use for television and adamantly refused to buy a TV set when people were starting to buy them in the 1950s. In general, he took a skeptical view of the “benefits” of industrialization and other standard features of Western civilization. Sometime in the 1960s he finally did buy a black and white TV set so that he could watch hockey.

    Anyway, because I didn’t grow up with television, I never got into the habit of watching it. I did watch “Rin Tin Tin,” or some similar dog show, and I think maybe “Have Gun, Will Travel,” at the home of my friend Stuart Clendenning, I think on Wednesday evenings, so I didn’t miss out entirely on the TV-watching experience. What stayed in mind most of all was how the stories were timed and structured, and the role that commercials played in establishing the rhythms and pacing for the storyline.

    These days, I do enjoy watching video in short doses. Again, I like to analyze how they are put together, how the sound track works, and how they seek to maintain the close attention of the viewer. As a university student, I attended the SFU Film Workshop, at which I made some animated films, at Simon Fraser University in B.C. One of the things I learned in the workshop stayed with me, perhaps more than anything I learned in my academic courses. I learned that in any project, what matters a great deal – among many other things – is the quality and strength of the underlying thought behind it, and the quality of the script – that is, the quality of the verbal framework that encapsulates the project and is used in the presentation and enactment of it.

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