Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Riot for Revolution: Maurice Richard and the Remaking of Quebec

By: Gabe Kleinfeld
There are few things more important to Canadians than hockey, and in Quebec, the Montreal Canadiens hockey team is followed with near religious fervor. Maurice Richard, a Canadiens star in the 1950’s was more than a hockey player; he was a French Canadian icon. His successes were successes for French Canadians, and the Quebecois followed his every move. It was the suspension of Richard after a questionable call in 1955 that would alter Canadian history forever, and begin Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, in which the French language and culture would prevail over the English. The Richard Riot, as it was called, was Canada’s version of “the shot heard ‘round the world”, an incident that initiated a revolution.
As the star of the Canadiens, Maurice Richard was the object of many harsh plays from opposing players. He was the prototypical athlete-celebrity in Montreal, and was a cultural and political symbol (Schultz, 2009a). French Canadians saw attacks on Richard as attacks on themselves as a people and a culture, and struggled to wrest respect and power away from English Canadians in the political arena. The final straw was the suspension of Richard by Commissioner Clarence Campbell after a questionable hit. Montrealers saw the suspension as unjust and severe, but on a deeper level they believed the suspension was no more than an Anglo-Canadian exerting power over a French Canadian. The schism would be emblematic of the constant battle between English and French in Canada. During Richard’s first game of the suspension, a riot broke out at the arena in protest of Campbell’s attendance at the game. A teargas bomb was detonated inside, sending fans outside to riot on the streets of Montreal. Over $100,000 worth of damage was caused emblematic of a society pushed too far. This is a great example of the dialectic thesis of sports as a product and producer of society (Schultz, 2009b). Montrealers saw the invasion of hockey as the invasion of their culture and fought for their rights. Sports had provoked the riot, and so much of the societal feelings permeated sports. The riot allowed French Canadians to finally come out and express their frustration as the forgotten people of Canada. They saw Richard’s suspension as an intrusion of their rights and saw the opportunity to show cultural pride and power.
The results of the Richard Riot were felt almost immediately, as a new wave of radicalism was sweeping Quebec, characterized by French Canadians coming to power in Quebec’s parliament. The riot is seen as the first exhibition of powerful French nationalism, and led the way for the Quiet Revolution. In this light, we see the function of sports as a precursor for social change. For years, Quebecois were neglected nationally, yet little was done. However, when a French Canadian hockey player was threatened, it seems the entire province of Quebec sprang into action to defend their hero and their values. The Richard Riot is a moment that transcends sports because it was about more than just hockey: it was about defending one’s culture and empowering a people. When a rioter was asked if he loved Richard, he responded: “Richard, who’s he?” The riot was simply the catalyst for the revolution, one that affected hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike (Katz, 1998). The proof of how profound the riot was in Quebec politics can be seen in the long residuals of French nationalism (Schultz, 2009c): since the riot, French prevailed as a language and a culture in Quebec, overpowering English to the point of a proposed secession by Quebec from Canada in 1995. French is the primary language in Quebec, as English is not required. French premiers were elected beginning in 1960 with Jean Lesage, the first election after the riot. Quebec continues to maintain a separate culture than the rest of Canada, using a civil law system as opposed to the British influenced common law system prevalent in other provinces. All these French nationalist measures and feelings can be traced back to the Richard Riot, which empowered French Canadians to take control of their province, using the mantra of “Maitres chez nous”, “Masters in our own house” as a rallying cry (Beaver, 2005).
From the Richard Riot, we can see the Maurice Richard was more than just a hockey player, and that hockey was more than just a sport. It is a barometer of national feelings, and sometimes social change begins in the arena and initiates broader transformations. We cannot analyze sports in a bubble, nor can we see history as isolated events. The two are intertwined, and each is critical to a culture’s vitality. For Quebecois, the Richard Riot was a fusion of sports and culture that signified change and social progress.

Works Cited
Farber, M. (1999, November 29). Loud Start to the Quiet Revolution. Sports Illustrated, 124-126. Retrieved April 19, 2009, From EBSCO Host.
Katz, S. (1998). The Richard Riot: a new collection features the inside story of a night to remember in Montreal [Electronic version]. Maclean's, 111(45), 76-79. From (EBSCO Host).
Moment [Electronic version]. (2005). Beaver- Canada's National History Society, 85(1), 8. From EBSCO Host.
Schultz, J. (2009a). Topic 7 Sport’s Golden Age. Lecture presented in KNES 293. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
Schultz, J. (2009b). Topic 1 Thinking about Sport History. Lecture presented in KNES 293. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
Schultz, J. (2009c). Topic 2 Sport in the “New World”. Lecture presented in KNES 293. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

Recommended Readings
Heintzman, R. (1983). The Political Culture of Quebec, 1840-1960 [Electronic version]. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 16(1), 3-59. From JSTOR.
Zeisberger, M. Battlefield Montreal. Hockey News, 33. Retrieved April 19, 2009, from EBSCO Host.

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