The Night of the Long Knives refers to a series of political executions conducted in the summer of 1934 by Hitler and his Brownshirts, Nazi propaganda argued to prevent a coup d’etat. In Canadian history, the NOTLK was a 1980 event where then Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau was trying to bring home the adoption of a Canadian constitution. Trudeau had rallied a “Gang of Eight” provinces to his cause, but Quebec was a holdout, as Quebec always is. Talks were heated at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel. Unanimous adoption would have been preferred. But when Quebec Premiere René Lévesque went back to his hotel across the border in Hull, Trudeau went ahead and ratified the deal without Quebec:
“We had been betrayed, in secret, by men who hadn’t hesitated to tear up their own signatures, and without their even taking the trouble to warn us,”René Lévesque
In both cases, the events signify a moment of betrayal, and so it was with Sherbrooke’s Night of the Long Knives. On Friday, March 15, 1974 two Atomes gang members were shot and killed by Gitans in a four hour battled that started in a tavern parking lot, continued at the local hospital, and ended in the downtown streets of Sherbrooke. Any high schooler can tell you the leader of the Roman Empire was betrayed and assassinated on March 15, the Ides of March in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
The Night of the Long Knives is by far not the only moment of gang conflict in the Eastern Townships region in the 1970s, but it is the most well known event, in Sherbrooke. It’s a story that many locals would just as soon forget. But it can’t and shouldn’t be forgotten because in many ways it speaks to the heart of the character of Sherbrooke.
Sherbrooke is a hard-scrabble town carved from granite and metamorphic rocks. I remember once arriving at my hotel on a winter’s evening, the next morning opening the shades and being greeted with a grey overcast sky, and the barren face of Mont Bellevue covered in snow and spindly trees. It was bleak and it made my heart sink. The Wellington – King corridor in downtown Sherbrooke reminds me of East Boston or Queens. Wellington and King was party-central back in the day, as it is now. The two or three times I’ve been there out on an evening bender I got totally wasted. Blackout drunk. I have no memory of how I made it back to my hotel. Up until the mid-1970s, as the name suggests, Sherbrooke was predominantly English. It transitioned to French with the election of René Lévesque and the rise of the Parti Québécois beginning in 1976.
Sherbrooke – like all of the Eastern Townships – is also very old. It’s not like the suburbs where I grew up in Montreal. There, people left their pasts behind and started with a clean slate in a new living experiment in the 1960s. We didn’t know anything about peoples’ histories, and no one seemed particularly curious to learn. Suburban lives revolved around your commute, your job and the local shopping mall. Sherbrooke is quite different. The same families have lived in the area for hundreds of years. Consequently, you are always running into the past in a place like Sherbrooke. The past exists in the present.
Nowhere is this more evident to me than a trip to the St. Michel Cemetery located across the St. Francois River. Practically everyone I have ever talked about in the last 20 years who died in Sherbrooke is buried there; the Gregoires, Jacques Turcotte, the boy found frozen on the Lennoxville golf course, the murdered masseuse, Diane Couture. If you’re standing at the gravesite of Louise Camriand and look over your right shoulder, you can read the inscription on Manon Dube’s marker.
In Sherbrooke everything butts up against each other, and this gets to the heart of the matter with the gangs, the Gitans and the Atomes. In 1974, reporter Lewis Harris profiled the situation in Sherbrooke after the Night of the Long Knives for The Montreal Star arguing that the lines between “good guys and bad guys” got blurred in a city with a then population of 82,000. Most people knew each other, or at least knew the family names:
“”Listen,” asserts a 23-year-old youth who works in a pizzeria, “I went to school with some of the Gitans and believe me, they’re not all bad. And not all Atomes are angels.”“‘Sacrilege’ led to bikers’ war” Lewis Harris, The Montreal Star, March 23, 1974
Echoed a police officer, “Even when we’ve had to arrest them or pick them up for questioning, most of the time they’ve been cooperative. It’s hard to dislike them.” And therein lies the challenge with policing in Sherbrooke in the 1970s.
The violence began at the brasserie La Boustifaille on King Street east Friday, March 15, 1974. Three members of the Gitans were sitting around a table having a beer when six members of the Atoms arrived and immediately started to challenge the Gitans. The parties moved to the parking lot of La Boustifaille where about twenty members of the Atomes and Gitans fought with guns, chains, and baseball bats. Robert Provencher from Coaticook, a member of the Atomes, was shot in the back, and Jacques Filteau from Sherbrooke, a member of the Gitans, was knifed in the stomach. You will guess correctly that Filteau recovered from his wounds, as he would later be cited in the CECO report on Quebec organized crime.
Filteau was taken immediately by his friends to the St Vincent de Paul Hospital for treatment. Provencher fled on foot and knocked at the door of a home on Cartier Street to ask for an ambulance to be called. He too, eventually wound up at St. Vincent de Paul.
The two rival groups eventually made their way to the hospital to check on the condition of Filteau and Provencher. Just before midnight, a second melee broke out in the emergency room between Atomes and Gitans. The overwhelmed security guard tried to control the battle in which fifteen bikers exchanged blows and knife thrusts. Police reinforcements eventually arrived shouting, “Là c’est assez, les mains contre le mur si non on tire ” / “Ok enough, hands against the wall or we start shooting.” Things would have ended there, but police received word that a gang of Gitans and Atomes were headed for the hospital to take revenge. At this point, the Sherbrooke Police decided to call in the Surete du Quebec for assistance. According to La Tribune, “This is one of the very rare times in the history of Sherbrooke where the municipal police have called on the SQ.” Indeed it was.
The Third Fight
Throughout the hospital, the police were running from door to door to prevent the bikers from entering the building to extract revenge and finish the job on Provencher and Filteau. Outside, other police chased the bikers to try to apprehend them. Frustrated, the bikers got into their cars and fled.
Five Gitans got into a car which was immediately chased by a vehicle loaded with six Atoms. When they reached 12th Avenue on rue King, the driver of the Gitans vehicle suddenly slammed the brakes and the car belonging to the Atomes then smashed into the Gitans. Armed with rifles and baseball bats, the Gitans surrounded the Atomes who did not have time to do the same. The Gitans opened fire on the Atomes, killing 23-year-old Marc Distefano and 19-year-old Michel Lamoureux. Lamoureux had been an Atom for six hours, only initiated that morning. The family did not allow bikers at his funeral in Coaticook.
Police spent the rest of the night searching for the assailants. All night, patrols canvassed the town of Sherbrooke in order to ensure hostilities would not resume between the two gangs. On Saturday morning, police arrested the Atom gang member who allegedly stabbed Jacques Filteau in the brasserie parking lot.
“The age of the gangs has passed”
Later in July 1974, U.S. border security stopped several Gitans bikers attempting to cross from Quebec into Vermont. Among the group of fifteen were brothers Claude and Roger Berger, Michel Lebrun and Michel Fortier, all of whom were soon to stand trial for the murder of Michel Lamoureux. La Tribune pondered why they should have the right to leave the country when they were up on charges of murder. Earlier in the year, Lebrun had been tried, but acquitted for the murder of Marc Distefano. Jacques Filteau was also among the Gitans arrested that day. By the fall, everyone would be acquitted in the affair known as The Night of the Long Knives. The La Tribune headline read, “Les Gitans “blancs comme neige”, but the paper never mentioned their own defense of the gang only a number of years earlier. That also was white-washed. There was no follow-up on Father Jean Salvail, the Roman Catholic priest who through community outreach had worked for years alongside the Gitans to try and understand the biker sub-culture.
In a May 4, 1979 editorial for The Sherbrooke Record, then editor, James Duff heralded the end of the biker gang era. Duff was always a good report of questionable judgement and insight (recall it was Duff chiefly who defended a serial predator while attacking the victim in The Tale of Mr. Morton ). Duff argued that times had changed, and by 1979 most of the notorious Sherbrooke bikers from the Gitans – Atomes era had gone legit; becoming welders, mechanics, truckers, “even insurance salesmen”… “most don’t even own motorcycles” he told readers, without citing any evidence, of course:
“But we can’t say we expect any earth-shaking copy out of the upcoming organized crime hearings (CECO) here in the Townships, because we think the age of the gangs has passed.”“Too Late”, James Duff, Sherbrooke Record, May 4, 1979
Nothing much came out of CECO for the same reason nothing comes from Quebec public inquiries: fear, intimidation, politicians on-the-take – the old reasons. This had nothing to do with the absence of a smoking gun. The age of the gangs hadn’t passed, it was only warming up.