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The Montreal and Verdun Zoot-Suit disturbances of June 1944 – Page 2

– Page 2 –


Perhaps the very timing of the riots helps explain why this might have been the case. The disturbances could hardly have come at a worst time for Captain Oland and the officers of “Hochelaga” and “Donnacona”. The Minister for Naval Services, Angus L. Macdonald, and the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral G.C. Jones, were scheduled to arrive in Montreal on June 9 for the opening of “Donnacona”‘s new facilities on Drummond Street. With the impending arrival of their political and service masters, it is not inconceivable that the officers making up the Board of Inquiry sought to magnify subversive dangers lurking in Montreal and portray the sailors under their command as combatting the opponents of the war effort.

In arriving at their conclusions, the Board members might have taken their cue from Oland, who was exonerated and even praised in their report. The June 1944 War Diary of “Hochelaga”, prepared by Oland and sent to Rear-Admiral Leonard W. Murray, C.B.E., R.C.N., Commander-in-Chief, Canadian Northwest Atlantic (C-in-C, C.N.W.A.), Halifax, referred to the “smouldering” tension between servicemen and “hoodlums” in Montreal. Oland offered an apologia for his men by claiming that after so many provocations, “Naval Ratings no longer were able to control themselves”. With the exception of this cryptic reference, however, the N.O.I.C.’s war diary gave the subject of civil-military relations in Montreal a wide berth. 15

Oland provided Macdonald and Vice-Admiral Jones with copies of the Board of Inquiry’s report which had been submitted to him, perhaps hastily, the day before by Commander Davis. 16There is no evidence to suggest Oland disagreed with anything in the report. The opinions of the minister and the chief of the naval staff do not appear to have been recorded, though they could hardly have been pleased with the draconian recommendation to impose martial law in Montreal. Despite its exaggerations, the report amply demonstrates Montreal naval authorities’ frustrations with the local police forces and youths not on active service.

On June 10 copies of the Board of Inquiry’s report were sent to C-in-C, C.N.W.A. and to Paymaster Commander Joseph Jeffrey, R.C.N.V.R., Secretary, Naval Board, Ottawa. Rear-Admiral Murray and those among his staff to whom the report was circulated were neither impressed nor condemnatory of it. While no one in Halifax accepted martial law as an appropriate course of action, sympathy existed with the Montreal ratings over the treatment they had received from the police and civilians. 17 After all, were not similar sailors’ complaints being voiced in Halifax? The ill-will which afflicted relations between sailors and Haligonians during the war has been noted elsewhere, as has the navy’s poor handling of incidents implicating sailors and civilians. There was a tendency among servicemen simply to blame civil-military tensions on the hostility of the local citizenry or the inefficiency of the civil power. 18

After reading the testimony heard at the Montreal inquiry, Paymaster Commander Jeffrey could not accept the report’s views. He was outraged by the Board’s slipshod procedures and the report’s antagonistic tone. “The Finding is not in accordance with the evidence adduced, but rather represents a biased attitude on behalf of Naval personnel”, he wrote in a memorandum drafted in response to the report. A copy of Jeffrey’s memorandum was sent to Rear-Admiral Murray. The Secretary, Naval Board was unimpressed with the Montreal officers’ attempts to blame virtually anyone but naval personnel for the rioting. “The evidence discloses a lack of discipline in the Montreal Command”, Jeffrey wrote, “which is aggravated by the officers concerned taking an attitude which is not in keeping with their status and responsibility”. He identified a “lack of cooperation between officers and men” as a reason for the naval authorities’ inability to implement “preventive precautions” before the sailors assembled for their rampage. Jeffrey was shocked that no attempt was made to locate and prosecute the naval “ringleaders” of the June 3 incidents. He agreed with the Board members that relations between the Montreal police and naval authorities were “far from cordial”, but he was not so sure who was to blame. 19

Montreal civic authorities were under no illusions as to where the blame lay. The view from City Hall was that sailors had planned and directed the violence and that during the height of the fighting, from June 3 to June 5, naval shore patrols had overstepped the boundaries of their authority and acted in a provocative manner. Over 150 shore patrolmen and special auxiliaries were on the streets responding to reports of zooter-sailor violence on the night of June 6 and several minor scuffles broke out after their arrival onto the scene. In one June 5 incident on Ste. Catherine Street, the police firmly requested the shore patrol to leave the area. There seemed to be little civilian confidence in the impartiality of these sailor-policemen. 20

J. Omer Asselin, chairman of Montreal’s Executive Committee, felt the shore patrols were “taking the law into their own hands”. On June 7 The Gazette reported that Asselin had made a “courteous but firm” declaration advising, but not formally demanding, all service police forces to cease patrolling Montreal streets. It was time, he thought, for the Montreal and service police (which did not trust each other) to reach an “amicable agreement” on the issue of who should respond to disturbances in which service personnel were involved. Since sailors were still confined to barracks and subject to curfew at this time, the naval authorities agreed to withdraw the shore patrols. The patrolmen’s presence might have been missed, however, since on the night of June 7 more violence erupted between zooters and soldiers and airmen, resulting in a score of injuries and arrests. Moreover, without a naval police response on the night of June 3, the rioting and mayhem in Montreal surely would have been much worse.

Language might have been an escalating factor in some of these disturbances. Linguistic differences in Montreal over conscription were magnified when numbers of English-speaking servicepeople mixed with their French-speaking civilian counterparts. As zooters were detested as “draft dodgers” they became easy targets for frustrated servicemen, a situation possibly worsened by the perception that zoot-suiters were mostly French speaking. 21 But it was simplistic to assume that most zooters were French Canadians and all the sailors English Canadians.

Testimony taken at the Board of Inquiry indicated that the zooters whom the mainly English-speaking sailors attacked in Montreal and Verdun were drawn from various ethnic backgrounds. Five out of eight witnesses who were specifically questioned on the matter of the zooters’ language or ethnicity insisted they were predominantly of Italian ancestry; two claimed the zooters were mainly French speaking while another believed that they were of all backgrounds. Several witnesses also mentioned that some zooters were “Jewish” or “Syrian” and most agreed that there were many English speakers among them. 22 Despite contemporary notions and enduring popular perceptions, Montreal’s and Verdun’s zoot-suit disturbances did not neatly divide French speakers from English speakers. The belief that they did has tainted perceptions of what the fighting represented in terms of wartime social relations.

Only once in the period June 5 to June 8 did either the Montreal Star or The Gazette mention language as a possible instigating factor in the disturbances. The Gazette of June 8 quoted a psychiatrist as suggesting an “English-French racial problem” could develop unless matters were brought under control. La Presse and Le Devoir were also restrained on the issue, neither having allotted the rioting front-page coverage. However, both newspapers displayed an anti-navy bias, with Le Devoir on June 5 sarcastically noting how the sailors brought before the Montreal Recorder’s Court that morning pleaded “not guilty” to the charge of disturbing the peace. La Presse published interviews with some French-speaking victims of the sailor’s brutality whose testimony obviously had an anti-military tone. The fact that most of the sailors were English speaking was also duly noted.23 But overall, press accounts in both languages hardly treated the fighting as a clear example of linguistic discord.

Newspaper coverage of the rioting was far more vitriolic in Verdun. The servicemen’s vigilante actions against the zoot-suiters were looked upon approvingly by Verdun’s English-language weekly, The Guardian, which implied that linguistic tensions had played a role in the violence. Verdun’s bilingual weekly, Le Messager, was far more sympathetic to the assailed zoot-suiters, the majority of whom were assumed to be French speakers. In an English-language article, Le Messager attacked the ill-disciplined sailors involved in the fracas, stating they “seemed quite willing to descend to Gestapo methods to enforce their own particular ‘way of life’ upon fellow citizens.” 24It is unlikely Canadian sailors would have been compared to the Gestapo in the English-language press. Referring to the zoot-suiters as “clown-like”, The Guardian insisted that the suits were the “symbol of insolence and army evasion, frivolity in time of war”.25 In Verdun, at least, language seemed to divide opinions on the causes and meaning of the military-zooter conflict.

Some Verdunites were outraged at the brawling in their municipality. Reverend Ernest S. Reed, rector of Verdun’s St. John the Divine Anglican Church, referred to zoot-suiters as “hoodlums”, “hooligans” and “chisellers of the lowest kind”. In calling for “sterner measures” against these youths, he declared:

If there are those who object to military service, let them be honest…But young people who are making good wages in war industries and who spend their leisure time sniping at those in the armed services fall into a very different category [than conscientious objectors]…There may be even more sinister influences behind these disturbances. If any groups are using “zoot-suiters” to nefarious ends, let these groups be exposed. Those who, by their teaching or practice, set creed against creed, raceagainst race or group against group are the most despicable kind of fifth columnists. 26

Clearly, Reed perceived a language dimension to the zoot-suit disturbances. He blamed the zooters and, by extension, seemingly unpatriotic French-Canadian “influences” for the fighting. In this respect, his conspiracy theory echoed the findings of the naval Board of Inquiry.

Yet, the owner of the Verdun Dance Pavilion, Rolland David, disputed such views. He implied in his testimony before the Board of Inquiry that the animosity existing between the sailors and the zooters had more to do with social and civil-military differences than with linguistic conflicts. He insisted both sides contained English and French speakers. His views must be carefully considered. David was a dance hall owner accustomed to dealing with youth; he understood the social backgrounds and motivations of much of his clientèle. He was on the scene in Verdun during the fighting and stressed in his testimony that the language issue was exaggerated as an explanation for the brawl.27

There very likely were other than linguistic motives for the fighting. In a response to a question in the House of Commons on June 8, the Minister of Justice, Louis St. Laurent, noted that the R.C.M.P. and Montreal police believed the fighting had no “racial” underpinnings and was not political in nature. He termed the violence as “spasmodic” and without “sinister significance”. St. Laurent did fear, however, that certain elements in the population might attempt to portray the incidents as political and linguistic in origin. Rather, explained the justice minister, the fighting seemed motivated in part by the rivalry existing between young men in and out of uniform for the affections of Montreal women. William Weintraub has recently made the same point. 28 Perhaps one need look no further to explain the behaviour of groups of young men, conspicuously wearing different ‘uniforms’, who, over a period of several months, opposed one another with violence.

The Montreal rioting was symbolic of the dichotomy inherent to Canada’s war. Taken for what they were, and for what people might have thought they represented, the zoot-suit disturbances constituted evidence that not all was well in the Montreal area between local naval headquarters and municipal authorities, between servicemen and civilians, between French and English speakers and between youth and the wartime society created by their elders.

There is no single explanation for the Montreal zoot-suit riots of June 1944. Perhaps the disturbances had a linguistic and political component, but they were about many things: youth, the war, civil-military relations, a lack of discipline at “Hochelaga” and a lackadaisical approach to gang violence on the part of the Montreal police. A closer examination of these events place s them into their proper wartime context. The first week of June 1944 was very hot and humid in Montreal and many young men were frustrated with each other. There was a war on, and war begets violence. And boys will be boys.


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