The 1993 Montreal Hockey Riot Raged Against Political Dysfunction and Deindustrialization

Montreal’s 1993 hockey riot wasn’t about one nation’s anger at another’s victory — it was an expression of fury over Quebec’s experience of neoliberalism and deindustrialization in the province.

Rioters tipping over a car in the 1993 Montreal Stanley Cup riots, from news footage of the event. (CBC)

It was surprising to see Montreal’s 1993 Stanley Cup riot included in the “Blood Sports” section of Jacobin’s “Nationalism” issue. While most of the details were correct, it was the explanation that the riot had been caused by “incensed Los Angeles Kings fans” that hit a discordant tone. There were many contributing factors that led to that riot, but nationalist rivalry wasn’t among them.

After all, Montreal fans have a history of rioting when the Canadiens win.

News reports clearly identified Montreal fans as being responsible for the riot, and linked it with what was considered a growing global phenomenon of “hooliganism.” It wasn’t without precedent either: fans rioted the previous time the Canadiens won the cup as well. The 1986 riot — which saw several thousand jubilant fans looting stores along Montreal’s main commercial thoroughfare, Saint Catherine Street — caught the city and its police force by surprise. Most of the blame was attributed to police’s slow response rather than the “few bad apples” whose “exuberance got the better of them.” Then chairman of Montreal’s public security committee, Guy Descary, defended police inaction at the time, saying that had police employed their batons it would have made things worse.

While competition between nations was not the underlying cause of the 1993 riot, nationalism still played a role — albeit indirectly. The riot wasn’t a consequence of one nation’s anger at another’s victory. Rather, it was an expression of intense frustration resulting from Quebec’s fading hope for self-determination, misgivings over the appropriation of an important cultural export, and the crushing experience of neoliberalism and deindustrialization in the province and its metropolis.

The End of the Twentieth Century in Montreal

The 1990s was a tough decade for Montreal. The difficulty of the decade was presaged by the horror of Montreal’s day of infamy, December 6, 1989. Until it was surpassed by the Columbine High School massacre a decade later, the École Polytechnique massacre held the ignoble distinction of being the world’s worst school shooting. The dead and most of the wounded were women, representatives of the first generation of Quebec women to enter STEM fields in large numbers. The killer entered a classroom, ordered the men to leave, accused the women of being feminists, and then began shooting. Politicians and pundits chastised male students for not overpowering the gunman, and scolded women for having the temerity to suggest a mass femicide might be driven by, in Quebec’s case, a deeply rooted societal tradition of misogyny.

A few months later Canada entered a major recession, by some accounts the worst since World War II, and the effects of which would be particularly pronounced in Montreal. The city had already spent much of the 1980s losing economic ground to archrival Toronto. The passing of the title of “Canada’s economic capital” from Montreal to Toronto had begun in earnest in the latter half of the 1970s, with the election of the sovereignist Parti Québécois (PQ) government in 1976. The PQ was nationalist — in the sense that it wanted to create an independent Quebec nation — albeit within the context of what its supporters saw as a larger global effort at decolonization.

The PQ had clearly articulated goals: a public referendum on the future of Quebec’s place within Canada (generally interpreted as a referendum on whether or not to secede), and making French the sole official language of the province. These two factors convinced several major corporations to move their operations to Toronto (an instance of such significant capital flight that the effects of it can still be seen today) and kickstarted an exodus of the province’s English-speaking minority.

By the time the early-1990s recession began, Montreal’s economy had been weakened by these factors as well as the deleterious impact of free trade agreements on the city’s urban blue-collar sector. Additionally, three decades of population loss to the suburbs had siphoned away a large chunk of the city’s tax base.

Free trade’s impact on Montreal’s textile and apparel sector was particularly devastating, as almost overnight what was once a vibrant sector of the economy imploded. One estimate suggested that as many as half a million Canadian manufacturing jobs, many of which would have been unionized and located in urban areas, were killed off in just a few scant years after the signing of the Canada-US free trade agreement in 1989. Montreal lost forty-two thousand jobs in 1991. A devastating sixty-two thousand jobs were lost — including over seventeen thousand in the clothing industry and over fourteen thousand in the hotel and restaurant industry — in 1992. A further twelve thousand jobs would be lost in August of 1993, two months after the riot, while another fifteen thousand workers gave up looking for work altogether.

By June of 1993, Montreal and Quebec were still struggling to recuperate from a recession the rest of Canada had already recovered from, with real unemployment standing stubbornly above 11 percent in the city. According to one estimate, in 1991, roughly 25 percent of Montreal’s population was living below the poverty line.

Hockey in Quebec

The origins of professional ice hockey in North America can be traced back to the elite schools and exclusive athletic clubs of Montreal’s English-speaking elite. But hockey became a lucrative business and professional sport in large part because of working-class French-Canadian players and spectators. And if hockey is Quebec’s secular religion, then the Montreal Canadiens are its saints. The team is deeply rooted in the culture and society of Quebec, such that the team’s official name (Canadiens) and its nickname (the Habs — short for ‘Les Habitants’) are both references to the French-speaking population that colonized Quebec beginning in the fifteenth century.

The Canadiens are the most-winning team in the National Hockey League (NHL), holding twenty-four Stanley Cup titles. They are also the longest continuously operating professional hockey team in the world, and the only NHL team whose founding predates the creation of the league. The connection between Montreal and professional hockey goes even further: the first modern game of ice hockey was played there in 1875, the length of a modern ice hockey rink is the distance between two streets in downtown Montreal, and the NHL was founded in a Montreal hotel. To say that Montrealers have a proprietary interest in hockey is something of an understatement.

Between 1965 and 1980 the Canadiens brought the Stanley Cup home no less than ten times, and in the late 1970s won the cup four times in a row. But the 1980s would mark the beginning of a new era, both for Quebec and Montreal, as well as professional hockey. The NHL began an aggressive expansion project in 1967 with the addition of six new teams, all of which were based in the United States. With the exception of the Canadiens’ win in 1986, the cup would be won by an expansion team every other year of the decade. Tying the city’s economic decline to its apparent loss of dominance over the game it helped create, the NHL left Montreal for New York City in 1989.

Quebec’s game was lost to other cities in the United States and Western Canada as Stanley Cup wins accrued outside Montreal throughout the 1980s. At the same time, the province’s economic situation was being aggravated by political instability. Though federalists won the 1980 Quebec independence referendum, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau undertook an aggressive program of constitutional reform with the hope that Quebec’s frustrations might be quelled through a negotiated settlement.

Political Turmoil and Police Brutality

For the next fifteen years, Canadians would be engaged in a nearly unending series of acrimonious constitutional negotiations between the federal government and Canada’s provinces. Though these negotiations would bring about Canada’s constitution in 1982, Quebec never ratified the agreement. Additional constitutional accords, negotiated between 1987 and 1990, and then again in 1992, would prove fruitless.

The first of these accords failed because of the objection of an indigenous legislator from Manitoba, Elijah Harper, who refused to ratify an accord negotiated without the input of the indigenous community. Because the Manitoba legislature required unanimous consent to approve the accord, it ultimately failed, with the proposed amendments lapsing on June 23, 1990, the day before Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day — Quebec’s “national” holiday.

Within Quebec the failure of the accord was seen as a rejection of the province by “English Canada,” and half a million Quebecers demonstrated for independence at Quebec City’s Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations. Eighteen days later, Quebec’s provincial police force raided a Kanienʼkehá:ka (Mohawk) barricade protesting a planned expansion of a golf course onto traditional Kanienʼkehá:ka land in the Montreal suburb of Oka. The raid was a disaster. Not only was the raiding SWAT team repelled by Kanienʼkehá:ka land defenders, one of its officers — Corporal Marcel Lemay — was killed in what was likely a friendly-fire incident.

The Kanienʼkehá:ka Resistance of 1990 would involve blockades of Quebec highways and bridges around Montreal for seventy-eight days, and would further involve the deployment of thousands of Quebec police officers and the lion’s share of a historically French-speaking brigade of the Canadian Army.

Five days after the botched sneak attack against indigenous land defenders, Montreal police raided a nightclub popular within the city’s LGBTQ community. Though overtly homophobic nightclub raids had been fairly common in Montreal in the 1970s, the attack on Sex Garage seemed to come out of left field — unexpected, unwarranted, and particularly brutal. Photos of police phalanxes mock-masturbating their batons and badge-less constables smashing their truncheons into terrified patrons were carried by Montreal’s newspapers the following day. When city and police officials failed to meet with community representatives, a mass “kiss-in” was held in the middle of an intersection next to a major downtown police station.

With television cameras broadcasting live from the scene, Montreal police were filmed once again beating people senseless. Throughout 1990, there would be several more incidents of police brutality, and an equal number of incidents demonstrating jaw-dropping police incompetence.

Rule of Three

Faith in the political establishment was fading as well. The ascension of three politicians of different political stripes — at different levels of government — had seemed to offer a degree of stability in the middle years of the 1980s. But their luster was gone by the early 1990s.

At the federal level, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney led a Progressive Conservative Party that won a landslide victory in 1984. Mulroney, a Quebec native, promised renewed prosperity through privatization and free trade. Unlike his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau (the brief premiership of John Turner being more a blip than a changing of the guard), Mulroney was viewed as a unifier who could find common cause amongst Canada’s divergent regional interests.

At the provincial level, the PQ government that had lost both the 1980 referendum and constitutional debates was swept from power by the economist Robert Bourassa in 1985. Bourassa aimed to develop a strong Quebec within a united Canada.

At the municipal level, Jean Doré ascended to the mayoralty of Montreal in 1986 after the twenty-six-year reign of the previous mayor, the autocratic Jean Drapeau. A breath of fresh air seemed to waft across the political spectrum.

But whatever promise these men presented in the mid-1980s was gone by 1993. Mulroney would resign at the end of June 1993 as one of the least popular prime ministers in Canadian history, his government embroiled in scandal and his two principle economic policies — free trade and a general services tax — both deeply unpopular and ineffective.

Bourassa was similarly unpopular, having missed two opportunities to secure Quebec’s position in Confederation and also dealing with ineffective economic policies that couldn’t raise Quebec out of the early-1990s recession. And at Montreal’s city hall, the progressive “people power” policies that had brought Doré to the mayoralty were losing ground to the politics of staying in power.

Despite widespread social, political, and economic problems facing his citizens, Doré overfocused on bread-and-circus solutions, going all-in on celebrating the city’s 350th anniversary in 1992. A riot at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium following an aborted Metallica–Guns N’ Roses double bill in August presaged the Stanley Cup riot ten months later. Both upheavals featured unexpected violence, and an equally surprising unwillingness of the police to intervene.

By 1993 Doré was being lambasted for spending $300,000 on a new window for his recently renovated office. He was pilloried as well for his involvement in an ill-conceived (and ultimately aborted) dinosaur museum meant to capitalize on the popularity of Jurassic Park, promoted by a convicted fraudster.

Government priorities increasingly seemed completely detached from reality. A billion dollars in tax increases were levied against the already-cash-strapped population, while the government continued to pour money into building a retractable roof for a professional baseball stadium and spent $95 million on a new casino. Just ten days before the riot, perhaps as many as one hundred thousand public and para-public workers held a massive demonstration against government austerity measures.

A Hat Trick of Anger, Disillusionment, and Frustration

Hockey was a popular cultural export for Quebec, but its wasn’t of any particular economic benefit. Rather, Canada and Quebec’s poor economic performance was making the game appear to be untenable in its home country. The NHL’s successful expansion was bringing Quebecois hockey talent to exotic locations with no history of or cultural attachment to professional hockey, like San Jose, Tampa Bay, and Anaheim. At the same time, Canadian teams faced the possibility of relocation despite collections of Stanley Cup trophies and loyal fan bases.

And while the Hollywood glitterati took their seats at the Los Angeles Forum, the working class Montrealers who had seen the team through thick and thin were largely shut out of the 1993 contest, with most of the tickets held by wealthy season-ticket holders. Those few tickets that were left for the general public were often snapped up in minutes, while scalpers demanded extraordinary sums for the stands.

Whereas blame for the 1986 riot focused on the police’s unpreparedness, blame for the 1993 riot was cast on the police as much as the revelers. Mayor Doré blamed the looting on organized gangs, while store owners and merchants put the blame back on the police. Perhaps mindful of the then-shocking displays of police brutality (and its consequences) coming out of Los Angeles in the early 1990s, police defended their apparent disinterest in crowd control by arguing that they didn’t wish to violate people’s human rights.

Police chief Alain St Germain argued that his strategy was to avoid confrontation, while also suggesting that the looting was carried out by organized gangs of teenagers, something that seemed to be confirmed by eyewitnesses both at the time and in retrospectives years later.

However, the idea that millions of dollars of damage and looting could be caused by well-organized gangs of youths, intent on using postgame revelry as a cover for their coordinated looting operation, seems implausible on its face. There was no guarantee the Canadiens would win that night, and there were hundreds of police officers deployed around the Montreal Forum and on Saint Catherine Street. The partial explanation of police reluctance to intervene seems more likely, particularly given that just days before the riot, a judgement issued by a Quebec Superior Court investigation of the 1986 riot placed at least some of the blame on negligent officers.

While there are plenty of examples of nationalism infecting the world of sport, Montreal’s 1993 Stanley Cup riot was not a blood feud between nations. It was a unique expression of anger, disillusionment, and frustration masquerading as jubilation. It is worth noting that, by contrast, there were no major incidents of violence two years later in the context of the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum. Nor was there any rioting by Canadian nationalists after the Unity Rally (potentially the largest single demonstration in Canadian history), or by Quebec nationalists after their razor-thin referendum defeat.

St Germain called the riot a breakdown of the social order. He was right, though he may not have fully articulated or realized the breadth of that breakdown. An anonymous looter, interviewed on the street by an Associated Press reporter, succinctly summarized a widely-shared social and cultural emotional state when they said, “The Habs won the cup and big bonuses. This is what we get.”