L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
French and English Relations in Montreal
The Gavazzi Riots
[This text was written by Stephen Leacock in 1942. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]
The question of clashes between the races in Montreal has been mentioned above. This, of course, is the abiding danger in the life of the city. The soil under the feet of its people covers ashes never extinct. Its real volcano still smolders. Every now and then such clashes have occurred, on a minor scale, and occur as election riots. At times in the past they have occurred in a form to create the gravest alarm.
A case in point is the Gavazzi Riot of 1853 to which a reference was made in a previous chapter. Here the danger was heightened by the further intrusion of Irish animosity. The Irish being mainly Roman Catholics, but speaking English, would naturally seem a sort of connecting link, an element of union between the two races. Unfortunately this is not so. Indeed, the case is the other way - or at least was the other way during most of the history of the city. The Irish being against England for Ireland's sake, many of them, refugees and outcasts from a land depopulated under British rule, were more anti-British than the French themselves. Whenever all these elements coincide and combine the results have always been terrible to contemplate.
Father Alessandro Gavazzi was an Italian ex-Roman Catholic priest who had given up being that kind of father. He was, or said he was, an Italian patriot, a thing that sounded better then than it does now. For these were the days of the sorrows of Italy under Austrian rule, of England's sympathy, and presently of the hero worship of Garibaldi's red shirt-the shirt now turned to black.
Gavazzi came to the United States, lecturing, on Italian Liberty and Romish Tyranny. He could do a turn on either. He came to Quebec, lectured on the Inquisition, and narrowly escaped from the row that followed. Then he came to Montreal to speak in the Zion Church that stood on what was still called the Haymarket (Victoria Square). The audience, scenting danger, or a good time, came well armed. The garrison contributed a detachment of Cameron Highlanders concealed near the church. The Mayor was there, all ready to read the Riot Act. There was angry controversy afterward as to whether the scene was all set for the riot or the riot set the scene. At any rate, a body of Irishmen tried to break into the church where Gavazzi was lecturing. Firing broke out. The audience left the church. A confused crowd was apparently, as we now say, "milling round" on Beaver Hall Hill, some fighting, some trying to get away. The Mayor, Charles Wilson, read the Riot Act ... without avail . . . the fight went on; the soldiers fired. Forty people were shot down, others trampled down as the mob broke and ran. Gavazzi got out with his life and was smuggled across the river. The town seemed appalled. There was no inquiry, no arrests-just horror. They had raised the devil.
Source : Stephen LEACOCK, Montreal : Seaport and City, New York, Doubleday, 1942, 340p., pp. 282-283.
© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College