Serge Marc Durflinger
Historical Research and Exhibit Development
Canadian War Museum
Originally published in : Serge Bernier, ed. L’Impact de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale sur les sociétés canadienne et québécoise, Université du Québec à Montréal et la Direction Histoire et patrimoine de la Défense nationale, Ottawa, 1998. Reproduced with permission.
In late May and early June 1944 the Montreal area was rocked by a series of large-scale brawls pitting servicemen, especially sailors, against civilians, many of them “zoot-suit”-wearing youths. What was the cause of the fighting? Was it the result of youth alienation, wartime social stress or the playing out of national political and linguistic differences over conscription? Who was to blame for the violence? Could local naval authorities have prevented the disturbances?
This paper will describe the events of June 1944 and situate them within the context of civil-military relations in Montreal. These relations influenced the manner in which the events were viewed by naval and civil authorities. The official report of the naval inquiry into the “zoot-suit” riots is of particular interest and can be interpreted as an attempt by Montreal-based naval authorities to avoid responsibility for the disturbances.
It will be shown that, notwithstanding common contemporary perceptions, the youthful “zoot-suiters” were drawn from varied ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and were not overwhelmingly French speaking. The narrative which follows seeks to shed new light on an incident in Canadian social-military history long ignored by scholars. The “zoot suit” was a memorable fashion fad among some young men in the 1940s. In general, a zoot suit consisted of a long, loose coat with wide, padded shoulders, ballooning pants worn very high above the waist, an oversized bow-tie, a wide-brimmed hat and a long, hanging watchchain. These flamboyant outfits were meant to attract attention and those wearing them were commonly referred to as “zoot-suiters” or “zooters”. This fad was most common in North America and, to a lesser extent, in Britain. 1
Most observers have concluded that the zoot suit was a symbol of youthful defiance and non-conformity. Justifiably or not, the general public often linked zoot-suiters to anti-social behaviour such as fighting, drinking and loitering. Given the tense wartime atmosphere in Canada, combined with Ottawa’s exhortations for social cohesion, the actions and appearances of the zooters took on ‘unpatriotic’ overtones in the eyes of many Canadians, especially those in uniform. By 1942 zoot suits were technically illegal; they contravened Wartime Prices and Trade Board (W.P.T.B.) guidelines regarding the rationing of fabrics and textiles. The zooters’ social values thereby clashed with accepted wartime moral standards. Considerable antipathy towards zoot-suiters developed among servicemen stationed in or near large urban areas, where concentrations of zooters were to be found.2 These two groups of young men, aggressive and each wearing their own ‘uniforms’, were on a wartime collision course.
Minor clashes in Montreal between Canadian military personnel and zoot-suiters were reported as early as the fall of 1943 with intermittent incidents occurring throughout the winter of 1944. Major fighting between zoot suiters and servicemen took place during the night of May 27, 1944 in St. Lambert, just across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. Highlighting the perceived importance of the linguistic dimension to zooter fighting, La Presse noted that the zooters were mainly of Italian origin, though there were also French Canadians among them. The soldiers and some local youths who opposed them were mostly English Canadian. On May 31 more altercations took place in St. Lambert and the fighting quickly spread to the south shore landing of the Jacques Cartier Bridge. There, a group of about 60 mainly French-Canadian soldiers stationed in nearby Longueuil were attacked by a mixed-language band of some 200 zooters, 53 of whom were detained by the army Provost Corps. 3 By this time, isolated fights were occurring daily in the Montreal area. In one particularly distasteful incident a sailor and his wife were beaten by zooters on Dorchester Street just after midnight on June 2. This attack so upset other sailors stationed in Montreal that they immediately plotted their revenge against the hated zoot-suiters.4
At approximately 9 p.m. on Saturday June 3, a naval shore patrolman telephoned Lieutenant Bruce C. Whittaker, R.C.N.V.R., the Staff Officer, Shore Patrol, Montreal, and informed him that a large group of unruly sailors was congregating in Philip’s Square on Ste. Catherine Street in downtown Montreal. Lieutenant Whittaker immediately informed Captain J.E.W. Oland, R.C.N., D.S.C., the Naval-Officer-in-Charge (N.O.I.C.), H.M.C.S. “Hochelaga”, Montreal, of these developments. Captain Oland, alarmed, ordered all available shore patrols to Philip’s Square to break up the mob and prevent it from causing any serious disturbances. Simultaneously, however, a second large group of sailors further west along Ste. Catherine Street was reported to be on the move down Atwater Avenue. Their objective was the City of Verdun, about three kilometres to the southwest. It was clear to Whittaker and Oland that these naval mobs were the principal source of whatever trouble might befall the city that night.5
The nearly 400 sailors gathering at Philip’s Square were drawn from every shore establishment in the Montreal area, including H.M.C.S. “Donnacona”, Montreal’s main naval reserve division, H.M.C.S. “Hochelaga”, the command of N.O.I.C. Montreal, H.M.C.S. “St. Hyacinthe”, the nearby fleet signalling school and the naval manning depot in Longueuil, which was under command of N.O.I.C. Other sailors were crewmen aboard naval and merchant ships in port. Whittaker concentrated his paltry force of 16 shore patrolmen downtown and mobilized over 100 auxiliary patrolmen from ratings posted to “Donnacona” and “Hochelaga”. These men, some issued with sidearms, were despatched to the scenes of the disturbances downtown and in Verdun and ordered to break up fights and restore order.6 It was something of a gamble to send into the fray as auxiliary patrolmen ratings whose sympathies almost certainly were with their fellow servicemen; indeed, there were reports from Verdun that some auxiliary patrolmen battled zoot suiters there. But hard-pressed naval authorities had little choice in the matter.
The well-organized sailors quickly divided into several groups of 75 to 100 men and began to hunt their zoot-suiter quarry. The riotous sailors, joined by smaller groups of soldiers and airmen, descended on nightclubs, bars, restaurants, dance halls, pool rooms and anywhere else zooters were likely to congregate. As soon as zoot-suiters were found, the frenzied naval mobs beat them and stripped them of their outfits which were promptly torn to shreds. The battered zooters were left in their underwear until rescued by the police. Some of Montreal’s most famous nightclubs were the targets of the sailors’ wrath: the Palais d’Or, Val d’Or Club and the Chez Maurice Danceland. Ironically, the downtown headquarters of the Shore Patrol was located in offices above the Chez Maurice Danceland. All of these establishments and many others suffered superficial damage. Serious fighting broke out along Ste. Catherine Street, especially at the intersection of Bleury and a few blocks further east. Violence also occurred on Ontario Street, in Lafontaine Park and at other scattered locations. 7
At the same time, over 100 angry sailors made their way by foot and in taxis to the Verdun Dance Pavilion, located along that city’s riverfront. There, they confronted approximately 60 youths, not all of whom were zooters. Many other patrons at the Pavilion, wearing pre-war, pre-W.P.T.B.-regulated suits, were mistaken for zooters and set upon by the mob. Bottles and clubs were used as weapons by both sides. Dozens of naval shore patrolmen, army provosts and Verdun police arrived on the scene to break up the mêlée. The Verdun Messager recorded the following scene:
The zoot-suiters barricaded themselves within the Dance Hall while the young sailors tore up concrete park benches which they used as battering rams to clear a way into the building…They ordered all girls off the premises, with the exception of two who were wearing the feminine equivalent of a zoot suit, and they also expelled all young men who were not zoot-suiters. They then proceeded to tear off the clothes of the luckless zoot-suiters, including the two young women who were caught in the naval net. Some [zoot-suiters] climbed to the rafters of the building but were soon pulled from their perches…and many were bruised and exhibited black eyes.8
The brawling lasted more than an hour and was over by about 11 p.m. The Montreal Star referred to the fighting in Verdun as “vicious” while La Presse noted that “les bagarres ont pris des proportions graves à Verdun”.9
By 2:30 a.m. on Sunday the fighting in Montreal had ended and control of the city streets reverted to the shore patrolmen and the police. Dozens of zooters, sailors, bystanders and Montreal and Verdun policemen had been injured and over 40 people arrested, 37 of them sailors. Fighting between zooters and sailors, airmen and soldiers continued sporadically until June 7, although by this date zoot suits had become a rare sight on the streets of Montreal. The Montreal Star described the violence as the “servicemen’s private war on zoot-suiters”.10 The Gazette concurred, calling the disturbances an “island-wide armed forces campaign against zoot-suiters”. The “Zoot-suit Riots” were front page news in the English-language press until June 6, when they were superseded by news of more serious fighting in Normandy. But explanations, recriminations and blame for the fighting were just beginning.
On Sunday June 4, Oland, attempting to defuse the volatile situation, announced that all naval leave was being cancelled for Montreal-based sailors as well as for those serving aboard ships in harbour. All ratings under the jurisdiction of N.O.I.C. were confined to barracks. A 9 p.m. naval curfew was imposed in Montreal and the Verdun Dance Pavilion was placed out of bounds to naval personnel. These measures seemed to imply at least some naval culpability for the disturbances. Furthermore, Oland ordered a Board of Inquiry to be held at “Hochelaga” on June 5 to examine the navy’s role in the disturbances and to ascertain responsibility for the violence. 11
The Board of Inquiry was presided over by Commander F.H. Davis, R.C.N., Naval Controller for Montreal, and included three other officers serving in Montreal: Lieutenant J.H.E. Colby, R.C.N.V.R., Lieutenant D.S. Howard, R.C.N.V.R. and Lieutenant W.G. Duggan, R.C.N.R. Significantly, all these officers were English Canadians, as were the vast majority of Canadian naval officers. 12
The naval inquiry sat for one day and heard testimony from officers, ratings, shore patrolmen, zooters, civilian onlookers, and the owner of the Verdun Dance Pavilion. The testimony and three-page official report of the inquiry were very revealing. Defensive and antagonistic in tone, the report laid bare the strained civil-military relations in Montreal.
The Board of Inquiry seized the opportunity presented it to vent naval frustrations with the Montreal police and to bring matters to the attention of higher authority. In its opening line, the report absolved the rampaging sailors from any wrongdoing: “[T]he disturbance [was] due entirely to the fact that for the last few weeks several Service Men have been assaulted by so-called Zoot Suiters in various parts of the city”. The inquiry also blamed the Montreal police force for its past failures in preventing these incidents and accused it of harassing naval personnel. Since zooter attacks on servicemen had increased in the days prior to June 3 “without any intervention on the part of the Police, with the exception of the arrests of Naval Personnel, who were in most cases innocent bystanders, or victims of assaults”, naval ratings decided that “if their members were to be safe on the streets, then they would have to take their own action…which they eventually did.” Not only did the Board members sympathize with the ratings’ frustrations, they also claimed that without their retaliation, “no action would ever have been taken by the Civic Authorities…[and] the public would never have been aware of the misdemeanours of…Zoot Suiters.” 13In essence, the report shamelessly opined that the sailors’ vigilante tactics were a public service.
The report’s findings were questionable (to say the least) given the testimony and evidence provided by witnesses, the majority of whom, quite properly, were naval personnel. “The evidence is conclusive”, exaggerated the commissioners, “that these Zoot-Suiters are a definite sect or clan of a subversive nature who aim at sabotaging the war effort by unwarranted attacks on service personnel.” This self-serving and fantastic conspiracy theory was based on the flimsy testimony of a single not disinterested naval rating, Ordinary Seaman Douglas Codner. The report insisted that the zooters formed “a junior edition of the Black Shirt Fascist Organization which was formerly headed by Adrien Arcand.” It further claimed that since many zooters were of Italian ancestry, their unpatriotic and violent ways were an attempt “to force by illegal means the hand of the Government to release their fathers and relatives from internment”. The Board members seemed unaware that by June 1944 most Italian internees already had been released; moreover, Italy technically had been an Ally since September 1943.
Perhaps a contributing factor which induced the inquiry to absolve the sailors (and their officers, thereby) was that this was the week of the Normandy invasion. With Canadian servicemen winning great accolades in the press, surely there was a little glory to spare for naval officers and ratings fighting their own war for democracy in an inland Canadian port. In addition to their apparent “Fascist” bent, the zooters were also commonly viewed as draft dodgers by servicemen and in ‘patriotic’ civilian circles. This added wartime moral authority to the sailors’ orchestrated violence. In September 1944 a Verdun serviceman wrote a letter to the mayor of Verdun in which he stated:
… at the present time Jerry is on the run and the boys arn’t (sic) giving him any time to rest…[B]ut if our loyal friends the zoot-suiters don’t want to fight for their country, we will have to do it alone…If you need any reinforcements in Montreal to fight the Draft Dodgers, apply for them [in] France, you will get more than you need. 14
The Montreal sailors, then, were also in the front lines, battling the enemies of Canada.
The Board’s final recommendation was astonishing and indicated a lack of co-operation between N.O.I.C. and the local police force. Since there had been more fighting between June 3 and the issuing of the report on June 8, and since relatively few sailors had been allowed on the streets of Montreal during this period, the Board members believed that “the police will not or cannot stop the rioting”. Therefore, since it would be unfair to continue to confine sailors to barracks when they apparently were not the cause of the disturbances, and since “Service men will never be safe on the streets of this City until this organization is broken up”, the only viable solution apparent to the Board members was the “Declaration of Martial Law…for the City and District of Montreal”. This recommendation, and the entire report, seemed exceedingly far removed from contemporary political reality.