Walking around this weekend I noticed a procession of odd posters around the Main: “Québécois et Québécoises ! Montréalais-Montréalaises ! Prenez part à un mouvement HISTORIQUE !” they declared rather excitedly. “Le mouvement boulevard Lucien-Rivard propose de rébaptiser le boulevard Saint-Laurent à Montréal : boulevard Lucien-Rivard.” Above was what appeared to be a mugshot, a streetsign reading “boulevard Lucien-Rivard,” a photo of Schwartz’s and a boulevard Saint-Laurent street sign that had been angrily crossed out.
“This has got to be a joke,” I thought to myself. The mere fact that the name “Mouvement boulevard Lucien-Rivard” rhymes seems to suggest that this is a jibe at the whole Park Avenue affair and the city’s eagerness to rename its streets. I made a mental note to check out mblr.org, the website advertised on the posters.
Thing is, after looking at the website, I’m not entirely sure it’s a prank after all. It actually seems pretty earnest. Here, in the same excitable prose as on the posters, is an outline of the MBLR’s motivation:
On parle beaucoup de Lucien Rivard ces temps-ci et c’est comme si tout le monde l’avait oublié!! Lucien Rivard fait partie de ces personnages historique qui dérangent on dirait…
Trop de rues dans notre belle province portent les noms de saints inconnus ou de politiciens corrompus, ou encore des symboles serviles du système. Mais qu’en est-il des Québécois plus marginaux ?? Des personnalité hors-normes comme les Monica Proietti, le Grand Antonio, Denis Vanier ou Lucien Rivard ?
As for why the Main ought to be renamed, there’s an answer for that too: “La «Main» de Montréal est un boulevard au caractère symbolique pour tous les canadiens-français. À l’Ouest les anglais et les riches, à l’Est les pauvres canadiens français opprimé et manipulé par les institutions et les politiciens à la solde du pouvoir. Qui peut dire qui était Saint-Laurent ou ce qu’il a accompli ? Pensons-y… Quel rapport entre un homme d’église espagnol mort sur le gril en l’an 258 à Rome et la «Main» (à part les hot-dogs toastés?)???”
Lucien Rivard was born sometime around 1915. He grew up to be a petty crook and small-time drug dealer in the 1940s, but in the early 1950s, he moved to Cuba — then a hugely corrupt free-for-all ruled by Fulgencio Batista — where he opened a casino and got involved in the heroin trade. While there, he became friends with a number of organized crime figures, including Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who later assasinated JFK’s assasin, Lee Harvey Oswald. After returning to Montreal in 1958, Rivard exploited his Cuba connections to move into the gangster big leagues, and he began an elaborate drug-and-weapons smuggling operation.
That eventually led to his arrest and emprisonment in Bordeaux jail in the early 1960s. In 1965, Rivard escaped, and he managed to elude police for four months before being caught. The American government demanded his extradition to the United States, where prosecutors were eager to try him on major drug smuggling charges (he was also suspected by some of having something to do with JFK’s assassination) but Canada, already smiting over the face it had lost by Rivard’s escape, resisted. Several officials in Lester B. Pearson’s government even attempted to bribe the prosector hired by the US government to extradite Rivard, and when this was revealed, federal Attorney General Guy Favreau was forced to resign, setting the stage for Pierre Trudeau’s political debut.
Not many people can claim to have played such a big part in the drama of Cuban, American and Canadian history. Like Monica Proietti — aka Machine Gun Molly — Rivard’s antics earned him the status of working-class folk hero at a time when Quebec nationalism, much of it tinged by the class politics of the era, was on the rise. (Like Proietti, Rivard is about to become the subject of a crime drama, Le piège américain, which will be released this summer.) More than that, though, Rivard was one of the many salty characters that have given Montreal’s history so much flavour.
Of course, does that really mean that a street should be named after him? Mobsters, eccentrics and oddballs have always played a big role in Montreal’s culture, but what is the most appropriate way to recognize their role in history? I’m still not sure what to make of the Mouvement boulevard Lucien-Rivard. If it’s for real, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised: there’s something about strange, quixotic quests such as these that seem to be just as much a part of Montreal’s character as underworld heroes like Lucien Rivard.