Ça Recommence: The October Crisis – Part 1

Ça Recommence: The October Crisis Part 1 / WKT4 #1

“Every day, the future looks a little bit darker. But the past… …even the grimy parts of it… …keep on getting brighter. “

Sally Jupiter

For a long time now I’ve wanted to tell the story of the Quebec October Crisis. For Canadians this will seem an old familiar trope. Yet the story of how a rag-tag band of separatists – some would say terrorists – kidnapped two government officials and murdered one of them – some would say killed accidentally – provides deep cultural context into the Quebec and Canadian psyche. Technically speaking, the October Crisis lasted just under twelve weeks. But the waters of Quebec dissent had been boiling for decades, with resentments and bickering continuing to this day. It’s a big story, and I am going to fail many of you in my telling of it. For some, it will lack nuance and political understanding. For others, the endless Canadian and Quebecois navel gazing will become tedious and snooze-worthy. Some might say, more cultural context? Oy oy! This may be folly, a fool’s errand… What a pitch, right?

Through nearly three decades of this tale of Canadian and Quebec identity politics there remained one constant. Jean Drapeau had been mayor of Montreal from 1954 to 1957, then again from 1960 to 1986. Think of him as a kinder, gentler Richard Daley or Fiorello La Guardia. The Drapeau administration oversaw some of Montreal’s greatest accomplishments: the construction of the city’s Metro mass transit system; the creation of the world class performing arts centre, Place Des Arts; and the hosting of the 1967 Worlds Fair, Expo 67 – rising out of the waters of the Saint Lawrence river on two man-made islands, the foundation provided by the Metro construction diggings.  In 1969 Drapeau was instrumental in securing a Major League Baseball franchise in the city, the Montreal Expos. Then later, in 1976 he convinced the International Olympic Committee to host the summer games in Montreal.

Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau

Our destination is The October Crisis. Getting there, we will need to navigate across all these milestones, through the lens of Mayor Jean Drapeau. This is Who Killed Theresa?

Part One: Origin Story – The Richard Riot

NFB film of Roch Carrier’s valentine to Maurice Richard, The Sweater

Midway through the magazine’s fifth anniversary Montreal Canadiens hockey legend Maurice Richard finally appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. By March 1960 he was already a hockey legend; first player in history to score 50 goals in one season, the first to amass 500 career goals. Richard lead his team to winning 8 Stanley Cups, and was within weeks of capturing his 9th. Those last five cups were all back-to-back. Five cups in a row, that feat has never been repeated to this day.

Maurice Richard – Sports Illustrated, March 1960

Richard retired that year. Along with Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr, he is considered one of the greatest hockey players of all time, maybe one of the greatest athletes; period, his name mentioned alongside Hank Arron and Johnny Unitas.

But something happened earlier in Richard’s career that may mean more to the Quebec people than all these great achievements.

Credit here to CBC News’ Kate McKenna, who recently ran an article on the Richard Riot.

The event that occurred at the Montreal Forum on Thursday, March 17th, 1955 came to be known as the “Richard Riot”, but it had its origins in Boston four days earlier. Opposing players had long tried to slow down the speedy Richard through intimidation and force. In the match, the Boston Bruins Hal Laycoe struck Richard in the head with his stick. Richard retaliated with an ugly slash at Laycoe, and then punched referee, Cliff Thompson in the head when the officiating linesman attempted to intervene. In the aftermath, after two days on deliberating, Hockey president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard -who had been leading the NHL scoring race at the time – for the remainder of the regular season, and the playoffs.

Maurice Richard never had a problem mixing it up.

In English Canada, Campbell’s actions were praised, many felt it was high time the fiery and erratic Richard should be tempered. In French Quebec, Campbell’s decision was viewed as an injustice, too high a price imposed on their Francophone idol by dominant and overbearing Anglophones.

NHL President Clarence Campbell

There had also been a history of personal bad-blood between Campbell and Richard. Maurice Richard penned a weekly column in the Quebec newspaper Samedi-Dimanche, where he often criticized the inequality between english and french hockey players:

“What did Campbell do when Jean Béliveau was deliberately injured twice by Bill Mosienko of Chicago and Jack Evans of the Rangers? No penalty, no fine, no suspension. Did he suspend Gordie Howe of Detroit when he almost knocked out Dollard St. Laurent‘s eye? No! … Strange that only Dick Irvin and I have the courage to risk our livelihood by defending our rights against such a dictator.”

For this, Campbell fined Richard $1,000 and forced him to abandon writing for the Quebec weekly.

Campbell received death threats. He was twice urged by the police not to attend the following game in Montreal. Campbell was defiant. On Saint Patrick’s Day, Thursday, March 17th he took his regular seat at the Montreal Forum.

The Richard Riot

The Detroit Red wings and Montreal Canadiens played through 10 minutes when finally a fan smeared Campbell’s face with a tomato. Next garbage rained down from the cheap seats, and someone set off a homemade tear gas bomb.

Tear Gas Explodes at The Montreal Forum

Fleeing from the eye-burning smoke, 20,000 fans spilled into the streets along Ste Catherine and Atwater. The riot had commenced; cars were overturned, shop windows smashed, scores were arrested.

Red Storey, a former NHL linesman who reffed the game that night, once said, ” [ In Quebec ] hockey was bigger than the Church, and Rocket Richard was bigger than the Pope”.

The streets of Montreal in the aftermath

The following day, in a role that would become familiar to him in the coming years, Mayor Jean Drapeau played the part of reconciliator; trying to calm the city, but he had strong words for Clarence Campbell:

“It would have been wiser for Mr. Campbell to have refrained from going to the Forum, and especially from announcing his intention in advance. His presence could, in effect, be accepted as an act of defiance.”

“It is true that, during the first ten minutes of play, everything went well,” he wrote, “and it was only when Campbell took his seat, accompanied by his secretary, that things began to develop in a regrettable manner.”

Drapeau, too, had tried to persuade Campbell to stay home that night. The mayor understood that Canadiens fans were on edge following Richard’s suspension.

“I was justified in trusting that the people would give evidence of their feelings in an orderly manner, as a matter of fact, it was only on the provocation of Mr. Clarence Campbell’s presence that protests assumed a different tone.”

Drapeau finished his statement by saying he would be staying home from the next Habs game, and he implored Campbell to do the same.

Source: Kate McKenna, CBC News

Richard didn’t win the scoring title that year, and the Canadiens lost the hockey championship to the Detroit Red Wings in seven games.


There are three events that every Montrealer swears they were at. They are: The Richard Riot, The Pink Floyd Animals tour at the Olympic stadium, and… I don’t know, maybe every freaking time Celine Dion played the Montreal Forum.

But my father, really was at The Forum the night of the Richard Riot. The tear gas erupted, he and his friend spilled out onto the street and they retreated to the dorm rooms at Loyola college. My father played varsity hockey at the time, he was the starting goalie for both the Loyola Warriors and the McGill Redmen. He would practice at The Forum in the early mornings. When the college kids were finished, then the Canadiens would come on the ice and practice. My father would devotedly skip classes to hang behind and watch the likes of Jean Beliveau, Butch Bouchard, Jaques Plante, Doug Harvey, Boom Boom Geoffrion, and, yes, even Maurice Richard. Better still, sometimes, Richard would step in and referee the games for those college kids.

The Richard Riot was a pivotal moment in Quebec history. Many consider it an antecedent event that would eventually give rise to a wave of French Quebec Nationalism that bloomed into a period of intense socio-political change, ironically known as the Quiet Revolution.

Part Two: La Révolution Tranquille

Gallons of ink have been spilled explaining the Quiet Revolution. For our purposes, you only have to understand a couple of things. As the name implies, the Quiet Revolution was a social revolution, much like the Velvet Revolution that would unfold decades later in Czechoslovakia. Where the Velvet Revolution took place very quickly, the Quiet Revolution evolved over many, many years. As well, the Quiet Revolution did not result in the immediate collapse and transfer of political power; that process would be discussed for decades, and is still evolving to this day.

With any revolution, there is always a leader to rebel against, and in Quebec’s case, that leader was Maurice Duplessis. Premier Duplessis was a social conservative who held virtually uninterrupted power in Quebec for nearly 25 years, from 1936 to 1959. In the words of one documentarian, Duplessis was, “an authoritarian, defender of the status-quo, a Quebec Nationalist, and determined friend of private industry, who sold Quebec’s natural resources to outside interests.” Most of these outside interests were english businesses. During the Duplessis reign, french speaking Quebecers mostly held low-wage, labour intensive jobs in the farming, mining and manufacturing industries. The professional class occupations – the doctors, lawyers, civil servants – were, for the most part, all filled up with the english. Describing this inequity, the singer Félix Leclerc stated, “Our people are the waterboys of their own country.”

If the french had a problem with any of this, they were expected to take their issues to their priest, the Roman Catholic church controlled Quebec with an iron hand, especially its social and educational institutions.

Maurice Duplessis

For these reasons, the Duplessis era came to be known as the  Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness). The party slogan of Duplessis’ Union Nationale was Le ciel est bleu, l’enfer est rouge (The sky – meaning Heaven – is blue, Hell is red). Red being the opposition Liberal party. And here we notice a flip from the political arena in the United States: in Canada; The Right is blue, The Left is red.

And there are further contradictions. Some – to this day – regard the Duplessis era in Quebec with a great deal of fondness and nostalgia. If nothing else, Duplessis kept the trains running on time. Though the Richard Riot is seen as a flashpoint that ignited the Quiet Revolution, Maurice Richard himself was a supporter of Duplessis and often campaigned for him.

Duplessis died in office in the fall of 1959, which gave rise to the Liberals, which gave way to social change in the province. There were obvious reforms that came to education and influence of the church, with a strong push coming from Vatican II in 1959. There was unionization, then strikes. The mini-skirt, pot, pop music…

There were more profound changes. Questions of identity: what does it mean to be from Quebec?

With any revolution there are always the intellectuals. Media outlets such as Radio-Canada, the newspaper Le Devoir and the political journal Cité Libre became the channels for criticism and promotion of change. Cite Libre had been started by Gerard Pelletier, Jean Marchand and Pierre Trudeau – Justin Trudeau’s father – with the express purpose to cripple Maurice Duplessis’ stranglehold on the province. The journal had no money, and often operated after hours out of the back of a restaurant. Editorial meetings amongst the three were often held in Pelletier’s kitchen. The journal was anti-clerical and pro-civil liberties. Soon Rene Lévesque joined the crowd. But Rene Lévesque – who would go on to become leader of the  sovereignist Parti-Quebecois – and Pierre Trudeau – who would become Prime Minister of Canada – often clashed over their values. To this day, Lévesque and Trudeau are often pitted against each other, even though they had much in common. Both were Jesuit educated.  Both studied law at Quebec universities; Rene at the Université Laval in Quebec City, Trudeau at the Université de Montréal. As if tracking these two diverse personalities, slowly Quebec’s identity became divided between Quebec nationalists and sovereigntists such as Lévesque and Canadian federalists like Trudeau. Soon a new word emerged to identify French-Canadians: ‘Québécois’ – a unique and separate identity from France, Canada, and England.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau And Quebec Premier Rene Lévesque attend the 1977 Grey Cup football championship

Places are characters in a story. Buildings are characters in a story. Events are characters…

Part Three: EXPO 67

The World’s Fair held in Montreal in 1967, known as Expo 67 forms some of my earliest childhood memories. I was about 3 1/2 years old at the time, and most of what are remember are impressions, colours, sounds, holding a parent’s hand…

Monorail and American pavilion at Expo 67

Expo is considered to be the most successful World’s Fair of the 20th century; it broke attendance records, and had one of the greatest number of nation participants (62) of any World Exhibition event. It had tremendous cultural impact on Quebec and Canada, and put Montreal on the map as a world-class city.

The 67 World’s Fair was originally awarded to the Soviet Union, and was meant to honour the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution ( now that was a revolution ). When the Soviets dropped out, newly elected Mayor Jean Drapeau urged the Canadian government to ask again to host the event to honour Canada’s centennial anniversary (they had already been turned down once). In 1962, the Fair governing body, the Bureau International des Expositions , changed the location to Montreal.

Mayor Jean Drapeau on the first Metro car

There was little time to prepare. Most wanted the fair grounds to be located in Mount Royal park, but Drapeau had another idea. Why not construct two man-made islands in the middle of the Saint Lawrence river, just beneath the Jacques Cartier bridge? Most scoffed, top planning committee members resigned, but Drapeau had become accustomed to the doubters and eventually got his way. 25 million tons of fill was needed to construct the islands, with 1/10th of it coming from the then under-construction Metro transit system – another Drapeau project.

Mayor Drapeau in front of the American geosphere

Some Stats-geek ran a computer program predicting that Expo 67 could not possibly be constructed in time. On April 27, 1967 the gates opened, on time. By its third day Expo set the single-day attendance record for any world’s fair, with 569,500 visitors crowding the island campuses.

I remember Expo for what every child of the 60s remembers it for: The monorail, the geospheric American pavilion with the Apollo space capsule ( Disney’s Epcot was heavily influenced by Expo), the amusement park, La Ronde. One child attendee remarked,

“It was like a dreamland of some sort — to see these things I’d never seen before… I didn’t know about India or Africa or the space exhibit at the U.S. pavilion. I’d never seen anything like that before, so it was like entering a fantasy world.”

Historian, and frequent Front Page Challenge panelist, Pierre Berton attributed the success of Expo to the pronounced and dogged cooperation between Canada’s French- and English-speaking communities, quote “the Québécois flair, the English-Canadian pragmatism.”

Burton later walked this back, acknowledging it was an over-simplification of national stereotypes.

Expo was not without problems. The Front de libération du Québec  – the FLQ – had threatened violence, but in the 6 months of the fair’s operation were largely silent. American President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s visit was greeted with Vietnam War protesters. Anti-Castro dissidents threatened to blow up the Cuban Pavilion. Then Charles De Gaulle showed up. On July 24th, the liberator of France in the Second World War, from the balcony of city hall, Mayor Jean Drapeau at his side, in front of 100,000 French Canadiens, uttered the words that would ignite most of the province into a state of rapture, and mortify the rest of Canada:

“Long live liberated Quebec.” These words caused an international incident. Prime Minister Lester Pearson condemned De Gaulle’s breach of protocol saying “Canadians do not need to be liberated.” But for members of the Quebec sovereignty movement – including future Quebec premier René Lévesque – Du Gaulle’s words were viewed as a watershed moment, lending credibility to the notion that Quebec was a distinct culture under the controlling influence of Canada, and needed to be set free.

The next evening, Mayor Jean Drapeau – trying to prevent further scandal – made a nationwide broadcast reiterating the province’s place within Canada. He had little choice. The federal government had bankrolled a sizable amount to pay for the $283 million dollar price tag for Expo.

Charles de Gaulle at Montreal’s city hall

Many Canadians – english and french – praised Drapeau. His archives – which have recently been made public by the City of Montreal, you can find them by clicking here – are filled with letters, postcards and telegrams from people all over the world expressing to the mayor their appreciation for trying to bring the Canadian nation together. One of those letters is from Canadian author, Hugh MacLennan, most famous for writing the novel, Two Solitudes; about a young man grappling with his contradictory English and French Canadian identities. MacLennan writes:

“I think it correct to say that every thinking Anglophone of good-will hopes that cultural ties with France and Quebec – and thereby with Canada and North America – will not suffer because of what happened last week.

As for yourself, Monsieur le Maire, English-Canada is not only grateful to you; it is proud of you. I spoke to many people in Nova Scotia and heard not a single word of criticism of the people of Quebec beyond, of course, the Separatists… Then you spoke… it was as if, when passions rage in a vast crowd, suddenly a man renowned for his wisdom and character rises among them…”

Hugh MacLennan’s letter to Mayor Jean Drapeau

Some didn’t want wisdom and character. Some wanted to LET passions rage. Many didn’t want slow change. They didn’t want small-steps, they wanted to leap. Some needed a job now, and they didn’t want to wait for it. Some wanted a rapid transition of power. They wanted chaos and anarchy. Some wanted a shock to the system.

Next time on Who Killed Theresa: Part Two of The October Crisis.


La Révolution Française – Québécois: Par François Guy

Que ce soit le Métro ou l’Expo, Maire Drapeau ou ses Expos
 N’oubliez pas la Citadelle, aussi belle que la tour Eiffel
 En devenant plus solidaire, on ne sera plus minoritaire
 Pourquoi faut-il se faire la guerre mes frères

Québécois, nous sommes Québécois
Le Québec sera fière s’il ne se laisse pas faire

Que l’on soit un bleu ou un rouge, capitaliste ou communiste
Moi je suis un idéaliste, je crois qu’il faudrait que ça bouge
En devenant plus solidaire, on ne sera plus minoritaire
 Pourquoi faut-il se faire la guerre mes frères?

La Révolution Française – Québécois – lyrics François Guy

Whether it’s the Metro or the e\Expo, Mayor Drapeau or his Expos
 Don’t forget the Citadel, as beautiful as the Eiffel Tower
 By becoming more united, we will no longer be a minority
 Why must we make war my brothers

Québécois, we are Québécois
Québec will be proud if it does not give in

 If you’re Blue or if you’re Red, capitalist or communist
 I’m an idealist, I think we should move
 By becoming more united, we will no longer be a minority
 Why must we go to war my brothers?


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