L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
The Gavazzi Riots and their Consequences
[This text was written by John Dent in 1881. For the precice citation, see the end of the text.]
A few days before the adjournment certain events occurred which the Opposition contrived to turn to such account as to still further prejudice the Government in public estimation. During the spring of 1853 the celebrated Italian patriot Alessandro Gavazzi, an ex-monk of the Order of St. Paul, visited America. He had even at that time acquired a more than European fame by his exertions in the cause of Italian liberty. In England he had been hailed with the enthusiasm justly due to one who has fought and suffered in a righteous cause, and his reputation as an eloquent and impassioned orator had preceded him across the ocean. During a tour in the United States he delivered a succession of powerful lectures, chiefly devoted to what he regarded as the errors of Romanism. Early in June, 1856, he reached Quebec, and on the evening of the 6th, pursuant to previous announcement, he proceeded to deliver a discourse in the Free Church, in St. Ursule Street, on the subject of the Inquisition. A large audience assembled to hear him. When he had been speaking for somewhat more than an hour he was interrupted by violent and abusive exclamations on the part of a gang of lawless ruffians who had distributed themselves here and there among the audience, and who had doubtless repaired to the lecture for the purpose of assailing the orator of the evening. The interruption was the signal for action on the part of other ruffians outside. A volley of stones came crashing through the windows of the church, and immediately afterwards a crowd of persons armed with bludgeons made a forcible entrance into the building. A scene of wild confusion ensued. The shrieks of terrified women and children sounded in all directions. The intruders pressed forward in spite of such resistance as decorous, law-abiding citizens, hampered by the presence of their wives and daughters, were able to offer, and a number of them reached the pulpit where Father Gavazzi awaited their assault. They had to deal with no craven, but with a brave and resolute enthusiast who had more than once been compelled to take his life in his hand, and to fight for it against overwhelming odds. The mob precipitated themselves up the pulpit stairs with intent to hurl him to the floor. He was a man of large and powerful build, with the courage of a Luther and the Chews of a prizefighter. He faced his assailants with dauntless front, and with eyes flashing like royal jewels. Armed with a stool, he struck right and left with lightning-like rapidity, and with such tremendous effect that sixteen of his assailants bit the dust before him. The contest, however, was too unequal, and after maintaining his position for some minutes he was thrown violently over the ledge of the pulpit on to the heads of those beneath. Regaining his feet, he fought his way to one of the doors. A division of the military providentially arrived on the scene, and soon all danger was over. Father Gavazzi escaped with a few contusions, but his secretary was so badly beaten that for several days fears were entertained for his life. After leaving the church the mob stationed themselves in front of the Parliament buildings, and roared in stentorian tones for Mr. George Brown, whose championship of Protestantism had made him an object of their hatred. That gentleman happened to be absent from his place in the House on that evening, and did not fall into their clutches. It was necessary to summon additional military assistance before the mob was finally dispersed. The civil authorities were shamefully remiss in dealing with the rioters, and the matter was brought before the Assembly by Mr. Christie on the following day, when an informal discussion took place on the subject.
On Thursday, the 9th, a much more serious affray occurred at Montreal, in consequence of the delivery of a lecture there by Father Gavazzi. The place of delivery was Zion Church, Haymarket Square. In order to guard against a recurrence of a scene similar to that which had been enacted three nights before at Quebec, a strong body of police were stationed opposite the church. Another occupied the middle of the square; and a small body of troops was kept in readiness near by. While the lecture was in progress there was an attempt on the part of a band of Roman Catholic Irish to force their way into the church. In this attempt they would have succeeded in spite of the police but for a number of persona in the audience, who sallied forth and repelled the intruders. A few minutes afterwards the latter returned to the assault, and were again driven back. One of them fired a pistol in his retreat, and was immediately shot down by a Protestant. Several other shots followed, and in the confusion that ensued the lecture was hurriedly brought to a close, and the audience started for their respective homes. During their progress along the streets several shots were fired at them, and many, of them were wounded by stones and other missiles. Two women were struck down and trampled almost to death. A child of nine years of age had its arm broken at the wrist. The streets resounded with the roars of murderous, half-drunken navvies, and the shrieks of terror-stricken, women. Mr. Charles Wilson, the mayor of the city, for some unaccountable reason, ordered the troops, who had issued from their place of concealment, to fire upon the crowd. The order was obeyed, and five men fell dead. For a moment it seemed as though the massacre of St. Bartholomew was to be reenacted in the streets of Montreal ; but the firing by the troops put an end to aggression on the part of the mob. The dead and wounded were conveyed to their homes. It is impossible even to approximate the number of the wounded, but among them were at least a score of respectable men, women and children; whose only offence was that they had sanctioned, by their presence, a lecture by Father Gavazzi.
Such an occurrence might well create tremendous excitement from one end of Canada to the other. The lawless character of the Montreal mob had never been more signally displayed, even during the excitement consequent on the Rebellion Losses Bill. As for the mayor, the most charitable supposition is that he was so carried away by the excitement of the hour as to lose his head. (1) But he was a Roman Catholic, and the Protestant population generally were not charitable in judging of his motives. The Upper Canadian Opposition press made the calamity a ground of attack upon the Government, who were charged with cowardice and heartlessness for not ordering an immediate and searching investigation. Mr. Hincks and the mayor of Montreal were both prominent members of the St. Patrick's Society, and the former was charged with being under Roman Catholic influence for political ends. In this way even the Gavazzi riots were made to subserve party purposes. The Government perhaps fairly earned a measure of censure for not immediately setting on foot a rigorous investigation, and subjecting the breakers of the law to adequate punishment. (2) For bringing Gavazzi to Canada they were of course not responsible, nor can Mr. Hincks with any approach to justice be held personally accountable for the shortcomings of the mayor of Montreal.
(1) Sir Francis Hincks is of opinion that the troops fired without orders; and he gives his reasons for believing that the mayor was guiltless of the massacre. - See his lecture on The Political History of Canada, pp. 78-79. Sir Francis is doubtless sincere in giving expression to such a belief; but a careful perusal of more than a score of contemporary accounts, and of the evidence given at the inquest, together with repeated conversations with several persons who were present on the unfortunate occasion, have prevented the author, from concurring in that view. It is fair, however to record the fact that Mr. Wilson himself, in his evidence before the Coroner's Jury, denied on oath that he had given any order to fire - a statement which was contradicted by several other witnesses.
(2) An investigation took place some time afterwards by the direction of the Government, but there would seem to have been unnecessary delay, and it was charged that the enquiry was not conducted with that rigour which the circumstances called for.
Source : John Charles DENT, The Last Forty Years: Canada Since the Union of 1841. Vol. II, Toronto, George Virtue, 1881, 649p., pp. 274-278. The title has been added by Claude Bélanger.
© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College