Saturday, April 4, 2015

Quebec under the War Measure Act 1918

In this installment, I continue my examination of Canadian history by reviewing the latest interesting historical essay. To be honest, I’m always hoping that the Historica Canada foundation will find inspiration in my articles for the latest Heritage Minute, that excellent series of historical vignettes whose choice of subjects is not biased in any way!  This time, I choose to talk about the essay Québec sous la loi des mesures de guerre 1918, by Jean Provencher. The title translates as “Quebec under the War Measure Act 1918” and it deals with the events in Quebec City around Easter 1918, namely the popular uprising against the obnoxious recruitment effort for the war, the brutal suppression of the anti-war demonstrations by the army on Easter Monday and the declaration of the War Measures Act (WMA) soon afterwards, along with mass arrests, in order to find a foreign conspiracy behind the uprising which, of course, never materialized. I chose this work partly because of its relative brevity (150 pages or so), but also because it perfectly encapsulates the Quebec experience in Canada. The exploitation of the Quebec people for imperial ends, the ‘rule of law’ interpreted in such a way as to further those ends and the final repression led by an ambitious francophone toady who knew what it took to get promoted; it’s all there!

War Measures Acts, old and new

The current essay is actually a reprint of the original published in 1971, not long after another application of the WMA by another ambitious francophone toady who knew what it took to get promoted. The new edition includes an interesting foreword by Provencher, where he explains the genesis of his book and its impact after publication. It all started in the 1960s, when the author was working for the Quebec government as part of the commission for territorial integrity. Provencher and his colleague were tasked with reviewing documents from other ministries in order to find material relating to Quebec’s borders. During the course of this endeavor, he came across the coroner’s inquest report on the cause of death of the four innocent people gunned down during the Quebec riot of 1918. This discovery led to years of research finding material from the public archives of Ottawa, Quebec City and other sources.

A few years after its publication, Provencher’s book was turned into a play at the Trident Theater and was the biggest hit of the 1973-74 season. Two years later it was turned into a television play featured on the program Beaux Dimanches on SRC, which would later win the Annik prize of 1975 and represent the SRC at the International Television Festival in Venice, 1977. Finally, the play was translated into English by the American writer Leo Skir and published in the Canadian Theater Review in 1980. Skir saw a parallel between the events in Quebec in the spring 1918 and the killing of students at Kent State University during the Vietnam War. There is some truth to this, but it ignores the fundamental fact that the events in Quebec City, 1918, were the result of a dominant nation exploiting a subject nation, as cheap labor during peacetime, as cannon fodder during wartime. The national guardsmen and the students at Kent State were part of the same nation.

Setting the stage

Provencher starts by describing the overall context of the uprising.  Summer 1914, the Great War begins, and soon the lightning war that was supposed to be over by Christmas turns into a stalemate on the Western front. The initial influx of enthusiastic volunteers dries up and thoughts quickly turn to conscription. Obviously, Quebecers weren't too keen to volunteer to get themselves blown up for an empire that clearly held them in contempt. The infamous regulation 17 severely restricting French instruction in Ontario’s schools was passed in 1912 and was therefore still fresh in people’s minds. Campaigning against conscription was Henri Bourassa, founder and then director of Le Devoir, as well as a prominent Quebec City lawyer Armand Lavergne, who will play an important part in this story.

Naturally, the reticence on the part of Quebecers to go to France in order to inhale mustard gas for King George V aroused the hostility of Canadians. English newspapers were filled with Quebec bashing (a national sport, then and now). Some Orangemen MP’s in the House of Commons called for the arrest of Bourassa and the suppression of his newspaper. Rights and freedoms are great as long as they’re convenient (then and now). The Federal government tried to drum up support for conscription in Quebec through third parties. Military officers gave interviews in the press calling for or predicting conscription. They even offered to Lavergne the command of a battalion that he would recruit himself. Lavergne turned down the offer in an open letter published in Le Devoir on November 2, 1915. On June 11, 1916, the minister for the militia, Col. Sam Hughes, asked for and received the support of Cardinal Begin of Quebec City for conscription. The support of the Catholic Church for conscription shows the ambiguous role it played in Quebec society prior to the Quiet Revolution: on the one hand defending Quebec’s distinctly French and, especially, Catholic character, and on the other supporting the status quo and its own self-perpetuation.

Anti-conscription demonstration Victoria Square, Montreal, 1917
As can be expected, all this tension over conscription led to violent clashes. On August 23, 1916, the Federal government set up a recruitment center on Montreal’s Place d’Armes. The recruiting sergeants from the Irish Canadian Rangers thought they could increase recruitment by insulting people who happen to be passing by. A certain Mr. Pagé, a local hairdresser with oratory skills, worked up the assembled crowd against such treatment. Together, they demonstrated and forced the soldiers to retreat from the Place d’Armes. 

By late May 1917, with rumors of conscription becoming more persistent, large demonstrations took place in Montreal and Quebec City. During which, the offices of some francophone pro-conscription newspapers were attacked. This was because a certain francophone press, such as La Patrie, L’Événement and, of course, La Presse, were pro-conscription since they were more concerned with defending the interests of their rich owners than those of the population. Then as now, the corporate media was more concerned with forming public opinion than informing it.

The incident

It’s in this context of social tension and violence that the Borden government passed into law the Military Service Act on July 24th 1917. This bill called to arms all able-bodied men, single or widowed, between the ages of 20 to 35 years. Conscription was now in effect. Naturally, many men didn't want to go. If you didn't think you were fit for military service, you could make your case before a special tribunal in the hopes of obtaining an exemption. The judges on the tribunals, however, had a very restrictive view of what constituted unfitness. The population of Quebec City was shocked by several cases of virtual invalids being sent to the front.

The man charged with enforcing the Military Service Act in Quebec City was a Captain Charles Desrochers, an inspector for the federal police. He did this by hiring ‘spotters’, men of dubious reputations and questionable methods. These spotters weren't policemen, but rather former boxers or wrestlers, and sometimes figures from the criminal underground. The spotters were paid three dollars a day and may have been paid a bonus of ten dollars for each deserter recovered. Whether they really were given a bonus or not, they had a reputation among the populace as a bunch of bounty hunters.

As if this wasn't enough, even with a hard to get exemption you could still get sent to the front. Some young men who were asked to show their exemptions had it ripped up by the military police and then were accused of desertion. Some others, whose exemption request was still before the tribunal, were picked up off the streets and weeks later their parents would find out that their son was sent to Europe. Finally, on Thursday the 28th of March 1918, what had to happen happened. Around half past eight in the evening, a 23 year old Joseph Mercier arrived at a crowded bowling alley in the working class neighborhood of Saint-Roch where he met a friend. They saw three spotters enter the bowling alley. Although Mercier and his friend had their exemptions, they decided to leave anyway.

As they were leaving, the spotters blocked the door and asked them for their papers. Mercier’s friend showed them his exemption and was allowed to leave. Mercier, on the other hand, had forgotten his exemption at home. They detained Mercier at the bowling alley as they waited for the soldiers to arrive. Mercier asked if he could call his parents so that they may bring over his exemption, but the spotters refused without giving a reason.  As this was going on, the hundred or so young people at the bowling alley stopped playing and started watching the unfolding scene. Mercier then suggested that they escort him home, but the spotters refused again.  Word got out and a crowd started gathering outside the bowling alley. The chief of police, Émile Trudel, estimated the crowd at two thousand.

Finally, four rather large soldiers arrived. The spotters handed Mercier to them, who was then brutally manhandled to the Saint-Roch police station. “Let him go! Let him go!” the crowd chanted. When his father arrived at the station with Mercier’s exemption, he was released. While this was going on, two more young men were arrested at the bowling alley. The first one was let go after fifteen minutes, but the second was ripped from the hands of the soldiers by the enraged crowd. Before long, the crowd was in front of the police station, shouting slogans and throwing projectiles. At around ten o’clock at night, Captain Desrochers called the military commander of the Quebec City region, General Joseph-Philippe Landry, asking for a hundred men to rescue him from the crowd that he estimated at three thousand. Landry then calls the mayor, Henri-Edgar Lavigueur, who tells him the he will try to appease the mob. Chief Trudel and a few of his men tried that, but were met with flying debris. Landry then calls the Citadel, telling them to prepare their men, about four hundred of them.

Meanwhile, the mayor arrived at the scene and tried to placate the protesters by telling them that the spotters were no longer at the station house and that they should go home. At first the crowd seemed to be dispersing and satisfied with a job well done, the mayor went home. Not long after his departure though, according to the chief, the crowd  gathered again and were baying for the spotter’s blood. When word got out that Desrochers and his spotters slipped out the back, a chase ensued in the streets and alleys of Saint-Roch. The protesters eventually caught up with two of the spotters, Bélanger (who was especially detested in the neighborhood) and Éventurel. They were both beaten, Bélanger severely enough to require medical attention. And so ended the first night of what was to become known at the Quebec City conscription riots.

The escalation

The next morning, the events of the previous night were all over the newspapers. Rumors spread of violent mobs attacking key buildings. Rich citizens felt threatened and were asking for police protection. Chief Trudel, with a little over eighty constables at his disposal, was not ready to control a crowd of thousands, let alone protect a few over-privileged upper class types. The mayor asked Gen. Landry to deploy his men, but a procedural mix-up caused delays. Then, at around half-past seven in the evening, a crowd of about three thousand people left Saint-Roch and made its way to the upper city. Once there, they attacked the offices of the Chronicle and L’Événement newspapers by breaking their windows with projectiles. As it happened, the mayor, the chief of police and the army commander were in the post office across the street and saw the whole thing.

The crowd, by now numbering about eight thousand, moved to the auditorium where the files for conscripts were kept. The few policemen guarding it were overwhelmed by the size of the crowd, which quickly began throwing rocks through the windows. Protesters then entered the auditorium and headed to the second floor, where they overpowered two detectives guarding the files. They then proceeded to rip up files, throw them out the window and ripped out a light fixture which started a fire. The flames rapidly spread and soon the entire building was on fire. Twenty minutes later the firemen showed up and the riot is effectively over. Finally, the mayor, having worked out the paperwork allowing him to take command, arrives on the scene with a battalion from the Citadel in an attempt to disperse the crowd, now estimated at twelve to fifteen thousand. The sight of the soldiers, along with Lavigueur’s attempt to reason with the crowd, brought an end to the second night of the riots.

Major-General Lessard
Over the course of the 29th, the chief showed a marked reluctance to order his men to fire on the crowd. He would later explain at the inquest that women and children were mixed in the crowd and he didn't want to hit any of them. Nevertheless, his unwillingness to shoot his own people clearly troubled the Canadian authorities. That’s why on the morning of the 30th, Gen. Landry informed the mayor that he received new orders from Ottawa. He was to take control of all means to restore order. The mayor meekly acquiesced and placed the municipal police under the army’s control.  From here on, law and order was a strictly military affair. Train stations in Toronto and even Winnipeg were asked to facilitate the transport of troops. And one Major-General François-Louis Lessard was ordered to get to Quebec City urgently. Lessard rose through the ranks due to his enthusiastic service crushing striking workers in 1878, the Métis out West in 1885, and the Boers in South Africa 1900-1901. Basically, he went wherever the Empire thought the natives were restless, and they were certainly that in Quebec City.

The army was on alert and patrolling the city. During the afternoon a business center was sacked, but the real incident took place in front of the Manège militaire (the army’s horse riding school) at around nine o’clock in the evening. A large crowd gathered there and was shouting at the soldiers guarding the building. Their commanding officer ordered his men to fix bayonets and then shouted insults at the crowd. A certain senator Philippe-Auguste Choquette was present and tried to diffuse the situation. He seemed to be succeeding when soldiers on horseback strode into the crowd waving some kind of club (described by witnesses as pic or axe handles) and almost knocking the senator down in the process. The cavalry managed to push the demonstrators out of the square and onto St-Jean Street. The demonstrators countered by throwing rocks and chunks of ice. This startled the horses and stopped the cavalry in its tracks.

The deal

March 31, 1918 was Easter Sunday and Quebecers were flocking to their churches for the morning Mass. Cardinal Begin wrote a pastoral letter to be read at every Mass in his diocese. It said that a Christian conscience disapproves of the recent troubles and that the Church forbids them. However, many of the parish priests, who witnessed the suffering of their parishioners, blamed the federal forces for the unrest and said as much after reading the Cardinal’s letter. And more unrest was yet to come. During the afternoon, there were rumors that protesters were going to loot hardware stores and take the rifles inside. As a result Gen. Landry sent a regiment of the Eight Royal Rifles to confiscate the weapons in a Saint-Roch hardware store. On their way back to the Citadel with the weapons, they were met with two to three thousand people throwing rocks, bricks and ice. The soldiers responded with a salvo, wounding three people and intimidating the protesters, who let them pass.

Over the afternoon, about two thousands heavily armed soldiers were arriving by train in Quebec City, Major-General Lessard along with them. When news of this got out, it provoked anger in many people and a crowd was gathering in the lower city. On that day Armand Lavergne was resting at home with the flu. At around seven in the evening he received a call from Alleyn Taschereau of the federal ministry of justice and an old friend, exhorting Lavergne to meet him in his room at the Chateau Frontenac. Lavergne protested he had the flu, but Taschereau insisted and Lavergne relented. At the Chateau Frontenac, Taschereau introduced Lavergne to Lieutenant-Colonels H.A.C. Machin and G.A. Carruthers.  The three men explained to Lavergne that they want him to talk to the crowds. They’re convinced that Lavergne had enough influence among the population to prevent any more unrest. Lavergne wasn't sure what influence he had, but that he would try on the condition that the spotters and the army were withdrawn from the city. Machin promised to fire the spotters.  As for the army, he said he didn't have the authority but that he would do his best and offered his ‘moral certainty’ that they would be withdrawn.

Armand Lavergne
Lavergne set off to find a crowd about to make trouble. After some wandering he eventually came upon a large crowd, he estimated it at four to five thousand, at Place Jacques-Cartier. It was about nine o’clock in the evening. He delivered an impassioned speech telling the people of the deal between him and the army. He told them that if they returned home and remained calm, there would be no more soldiers on the streets the next day.  And he said that if the Canadian government did not keep its word, he would be with them tomorrow. The crowd gave him a long ovation and then started to disperse. Lavergne returned to the Chateau Frontenac where he reminded Machin of his promise.  “I’ll do my very best!” he replied. On his way out of the Chateau, Lavergne passed Gen. Lessard. He reminded the General how important it was that there should be no troops on the streets tomorrow, but Lessard didn’t acknowledge him as he rushed past. About half an hour later, Machin leaves the Chateau, suitcase in hand, for the midnight train to Ottawa. Lavergne, who stuck around to converse with some people who recognized him, saw Machin leaving. He asked him if he had spoken to the General.  Machin answered “I think everything will be all right” as he flew past.

Shoot to kill!

April 1st was Easter Monday and, ironically, April fool’s day. Lavergne, upon reading the morning newspapers notices without surprise that the pro-conscription newspapers blasted his intervention of the previous night, L’Événement going so far as to call him an “impostor with a Bosh mentality”. On his way to the mayor’s residence to recount the previous evening’s events to him, he noticed that the Place Jacques-Cartier was crawling with soldiers. He told the mayor that the sight of these soldiers were contrary to what he promised last evening and could provoke further unrest. The mayor told Lavergne that he would talk to Lessard about it, but Lavergne decided to take matters into his own hands and see the General himself. When he arrived at the Chateau Frontenac, Lavergne was made to wait outside the General’s office in the company of representatives of Quebec City’s various newspapers. Lessard was going to ask them for the support of their editorial pages. A free and independent press is fine as long as it does what it’s told (then and now).

When Lavergne got to see Lessard, he repeated to him that the sight of all these soldiers might provoke trouble. He also said that the men need only be kept out of sight, inside the buildings. Should anything happen, they could intervene at a moment’s notice. But the General would have none of it. “I have the power and I am using it!”, he repeated that exact phrase no less than three times during the exchange. Given Lessard’s career, that sentence could serve as his epitaph. He then warned Lavergne not to return to Saint-Roch. It turns out that as soon as Lessard got off the train, he ordered detectives to follow Lavergne, and they would have arrested him if he had gone there that evening.

After Lavergne left, Lessard told Landry to put the men on high alert. Lessard also had a notice posted on the walls of the city and printed in the newspapers saying that it would be dangerous for citizens to wander the streets and that they should stay home. This notice was not the Riot Act, nor did it expressly forbid public gatherings. But most strangely of all, it was unsigned. It did not carry the coat-of-arms of the Canadian government or anything else. Lessard would later testify at the inquest that he was not obligated to publish such a notice and that he only did it to prevent bloodshed, and that in the context of the time it was clear what it meant. Nevertheless, the notice clearly carried no legal weight and probably just added to the general confusion more than anything else.

At around eight o’clock that evening, a crowd was gathering at the Place Jacques-Cartier. The army surrounded the Place with bayonets fixed and emptied out the bowling alleys, pool halls and the clubs. But the people there, who may have resented having their evenings cut short, weren’t dispersing quickly enough. It was then that the cavalry strode onto the sidewalks, sabres drawn. In so doing they knocked over some women and children who didn’t get out of the way rapidly enough. This enraged the crowd who started throwing rocks, bricks and chunks of ice at the soldiers. Meanwhile, in the Saint-Sauveur neighborhood soldiers emptied out a popular pool hall, whose disgruntled patrons started throwing projectiles at the soldiers. A cat-and-mouse game between the protesters and the soldiers ensued. Protesters would throw rocks at the soldiers then slip into back alleys. Groups of soldiers would run after them only to be cut off from the main group and surrounded by protesters. Some people observing the mayhem from their balconies would join in. The soldiers would tell them to go home, in English, only to be told: “Parlez français!

Sometime past ten in the evening, this entire sorry episode came to a tragic conclusion. In the Saint-Roch neighborhood, corner of Saint-Joseph and Couronne, a concentration of 1200 to 1500 troops was spotted by protesters. The troops reported hearing shots coming from the crowd. A certain Major Mitchell orders the crowd to disperse, in English.  Seeing that this had no effect, and that his men were being pelted by debris, Mitchell ordered his men to open fire. Between salvos, the soldiers shouted obscenities at the crowd. Finally they opened up with Lewis guns, bipod-mounted drum-fed machine guns used on the Western Front. The result was about seventy wounded and four dead, who were just trying to get home. The next day, the soldiers were given a simple order: “shoot to kill”.

Summing it all up

There were some aggravating factors on the day of the shootings. There was a thick fog. Mitchell thought someone else read the Riot Act, which would have given him the authority to open fire, but witnesses don’t recall the Act being read. There was talk that some protesters had hunting rifles, but according to some testimony they claimed they were filled with blanks. We do know that the five soldiers who were injured that day were hit by flying projectiles, none were shot.

But the biggest aggravating factor that day was the Canadian imperial system itself. Its unrelenting drive for cannon fodder fed popular resentment. It imported a large number of English speaking troops from Ontario and the West who could be counted on to fire into a crowd of unarmed people they despised. Above all, the worst thing the Canadian imperial system did was putting François-Louis Lessard in charge of this fiasco.

Indeed, as an ambitious francophone in the deeply Francophobic Canadian army, Lessard knew the only way to make General was to exploit the “niche”. That is, to crush his own people with zeal whenever the Empire demanded it, thereby giving it a thin veneer of legitimacy while advancing his career. This niche started in 1759 and continues to this day with the likes of the reptilian Pierre “War Measures Act” Trudeau and the rodent-like Stéphane “Clarity” Dion.

The niche also explains Lessard’s strange behavior with respect to the deal struck with Lavergne, starting with his absence from the meeting between Lavergne and the slippery Col. Machin. Was Lessard too busy to attend a meeting that Machin was not authorized to hold, as he said at the inquest?  Perhaps. Or maybe Lessard knew perfectly well what Machin was up to, but decided not to attend so that he would not be obliged to honor any promises made. We know that after repeatedly assuring Lavergne that no soldiers would be visible on the streets the next day, Machin was urgently sent to Ottawa where he couldn't testify at the inquest, thus leaving Lessard free to tell the official story without fear of being contradicted by an underling under the pressure of a withering cross-examination.

But the worst thing about Lessard that day was his deliberately provocative attitude, starting with the posting of the ambiguous notice meant more to excuse him in the event of bloodshed than to prevent it, and ending with the open parading of troops in the city. The deal between Lavergne and the army may not have been officially sanctioned, but it was in effect and seemed to be working. Going along with it would have cost Lessard nothing, as he could simply have hid the soldiers in the buildings, to be deployed at a moment’s notice should anything happen.

So why didn't he go along with it? Because any concession to the “rabble”, no matter how small, would imply that they had a say in what happens to them and that, to a United Empire Loyalist like Lessard, was completely unacceptable. Besides, Lessard had no personal incentive to be reasonable since the killing of a few “frogs” could only enhance his standing in the army. The protesters, on the other hand, were essentially a group of people without leaders, without organization and without a well-defined strategy. Day after day, they expressed their outrage at the injustices, humiliations and servitude of their daily lives. Naturally, they never had a chance.

Printemps Érable, 2012
It’s clear that the Quebec riots of 1918 weren't about the arrest of Joseph Mercier. He was just the catalyst that unleashed the pent-up resentment of the population. And while the riots were mainly about the war, there was more to it than that. It was also about Quebec’s colonial condition within the Canadian empire. This is the thread that ties all of Quebec’s large demonstrations, riots and unrest in its turbulent history. From the Printemps Érable of 2012, to the large demonstrations of the 1960’s and even to the Rebellions of 1837-38 (that started with a large political rally which the British felt compelled to attack), the underlying cause of all these events, beyond the specific issues of tuition hikes, the protection of the French language or responsible government, was the occupation of Quebec by the British/Canadian empire. Only independence will put an end to these recurring cycles of unrest and make Quebec a normal country.


Provencher, Jean, Québec sous la loi des mesures de guerre 1918, Lux Éditeur, 2014.

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