Maurice RichardSixty years ago this month, Montreal was the scene of one of the most significant riots in its history. Following the suspension of Montreal Canadiens star player Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, thousands of Montrealers took to the streets, keeping the city police occupied throughout the night. Many consider this as a harbinger of the Quiet Revolution that would shake the province in the early 1960s.

It would be impossible to understand this event, and its scope, without understanding the social landscape of Quebec society in the 1950s, and in particular the situation of those who were, at the time, called French Canadians.

The working class of the province had certainly demonstrated its potential many times over the years preceding the riot. We only need to recall the heroic Asbestos strike of 1949, undoubtedly one of the most important working-class struggles in the history of Quebec. The workers had met the fierce repression of the state apparatus, led with an iron fist by Maurice Duplessis, but the strike still lasted four long months. The strike at Dupuis Frères in 1952 should also be mentioned — a strike of more than three months that resulted in a clear victory for workers. Workers won the 40-hour week, salary increases, and the introduction of the Rand formula.

But the Duplessis years are not called the “Great Darkness” for nothing. The Quebec working class, despite some breakthroughs, was kept in ignorance and submission by the quasi-dictatorial Duplessis regime. While the economic boom of the post-war period was in full swing, Quebec workers reaped nothing but a few crumbs.

Although the working class, as a whole, suffered severe exploitation, the oppression experienced by French Canadian workers was particularly intense. According to 1961 data, a francophone earned, on average, 52 per cent of the salary earned by an anglophone. In addition, French-Canadian men aged 25 to 29 had an average of 9.8 years of schooling, compared to 10.8 years for African-American men. It’s a safe bet that the data was even more telling five or ten years earlier.

It is against this background of oppression of the French-Canadian working class that Maurice Richard enters the scene, against his own intentions. From the first time he hit the ice in the red, white, & blue uniform of the Montreal Canadiens, he lifted the spirits of the crowds at the Montreal Forum. In a field then dominated by anglophones — there were only 12 French Canadians in the entire National Hockey League in 1955 [1] —Maurice Richard, against all odds, left an indelible mark.

It should also be mentioned that Richard was a typical French Canadian of the era: born to a working class family of eight children, himself poorly educated, and working for an English-Canadian company, the Canadian Pacific Railway. His working-class background undoubtedly facilitated his climb to idol status, because everyone could identify with this “man of the people.” Hockey fans have all heard the anecdote that Richard scored five goals and had three assists, with an injured back, after spending the entire day lifting furniture while moving house. Such stories helped forge the legend.

Maurice Richard is thus the figure that crystallized the hopes of French Canadians, oppressed by the English-speaking bourgeoisie:

“Between 1942 and 1960, the French-Canadian nation, through the success of the Rocket, was able to express its repressed desires. What it could not do in the real world, Richard was doing on the ice by measuring up to the English and by winning his fights against them. Between the fantasy world of their dreams and their lives as exploited proletarians, French Canadians found a redeemer.” (Le Devoir, 17 Mar. 2005)

Richard also benefited from his notoriety to express opposition to the yoke of the English-Canadian bosses through a column he wrote for the weekly Samedi-Dimanche. He spoke of his particular pride in being “a Quebecer above all” (“Québécois par-dessus tout”) at a time when the use of this term was just beginning. On 3 Jan. 1954, following the suspension of his teammate Bernard “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, he excoriated the governors of the league for a punishment he considered too harsh, saying that NHL president Clarence Campbell was biased and that he blamed Geoffrion “simply because he is French Canadian.” Richard would push this audacity so far as to call Campbell a dictator. The league governors would manage to silence him; Richard ended his column on Jan. 16, saying he “no longer had freedom of speech” and he was “obliged to obey the orders of [his] employers.” [2]

Although Richard didn’t clearly express political ideas with class content, the fact remained that, in spite of himself, Richard was the symbol of resistance, particularly of French Canadian workers in the face of national oppression. Furthermore, his popularity expressed deep class hatred towards the English-speaking ruling class. The riot of 17 Mar. 1955 would exalt the symbolic status conferred on The Rocket.

On March 13, during a game against the Boston Bruins, Richard was at the heart of an altercation with Hal Laycoe, who had just dealt him a stick in the face. During the melee, Richard hit a linesman who was trying to restrain him. President Campbell decided to suspend The Rocket for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. The suspension was considered completely disproportionate and arbitrary by fans of The Rocket, as well as by many journalists. Campbell received hundreds of threatening letters following his decision. This suspension was seen as the epitome of contempt of the English-speaking bourgeoisie toward French-speaking Quebecers.

To add insult to injury, Campbell decided to attend the following game at the Forum, on March 17. A record crowd of 16,000 people attended the game while thousands of protesters amassed at the arena’s doors. Following the explosion of a tear gas canister in the stands of the Forum, the game was suspended and the demonstration outside the building turned into a riot.

This would leave considerable physical marks: overturned streetcars, burning fires, projectiles thrown at the Forum, vandalism, and looting on Saint Catherine Street [Video]. Damage was estimated at $100,000, a huge sum at the time. In its 18 Mar. 1955 edition, Le Droit‘s front-page headline read, “The worst riots since conscription, in Montreal.”

Beyond the physical damage, the riot seems to have been the turning point in the awakening the national consciousness of French-speaking Quebecers. Claude Larochelle, a sports journalist of the time, spoke of his surprise to see these “little people”, accustomed to observing “all the laws and rules of the police”, rising up in this way. [3] It is as if the years of misery and oppression on the part of the English-Canadian bourgeoisie had crystallized in the course of an evening in the person of Clarence Campbell, the persecutor of the French Canadian hero.

The testimony of a police officer seems to attest to the fact that the riot was enacted by working men and women. According this officer, the rioters were not “hooligan types”, but the “common people”, and he even had to push a pregnant woman out of his way. [4]

The riot, as such, may seem to have came from nowhere. But sometimes it is just a single event, as seemingly mundane or ordinary, that is enough to cause the oppressed masses to rise up out of their apathy. A quantitative accumulation of anger reaches a point where it produces an unexpected explosion, a qualitative change. This is what happened that night.

Nearly 15 years after his death, The Rocket still has his place in the memory of Quebecers. The political context in which he performed his sporting achievements, themselves are sufficient to have left an indelible mark in the history of national awakening of Quebecers. However his influence goes beyond strictly the Quebec context, as is shown by the success of the Roch Carrier’s story, The Hockey Sweater, not only in Quebec but also in English Canada.

Sixty years after the riot, the capitalist media rightly remembers this event and emphasizes its importance in history. Of course they will probably forget to link it to the awakening of French Canadians against national oppression, or point out its latent class content — for the anger against Campbell was the expression of widespread anger of Quebec workers against the dictatorship of the US and English-Canadian bosses which trampled them under foot at the time. It is important to emphasize the great feature that the riot was in helping to spark the chain of workers’ struggles that shook Quebec through the 1960s and 1970s.

[1] Alexandre Dumas & Suzanne Laberge, « L’affaire Richard / Campbell : un catalyseur de l’affirmation des Canadiens français », Bulletin d’histoire politique, 11, 2, winter 2003, p. 33.

[2] Alexandre Dumas & Suzanne Laberge, op. cit., p. 34.

[3] Alexandre Dumas & Suzanne Laberge, op. cit., p. 37.

[4] Ibid.

This article was originally published in our sister journal, La Riposte.