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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A Montreal whodunnit: How to make sense of all these firebombings

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Photo from mtlp‘s photostream on Flickr

While a whodunnit may sound fun, it’s disquieting and mysterious to think who’s throwing all these Molotov cocktails at cafes and bars.

CBC has reported that there have been at least 5 fire bombings in the past month. The incidents have been scattered around the city: a couple in the Mile-End, one in St. Michel, one in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and one in Little Italy.

The report also notes that no witnesses are stepping forward, raising suspicious that the victims of the attacks are implicated in some way. And since no one’s talking, these police investigations underway are likely going to be filed away under “Unsolved”.

A bit of levity was added to this serious issue by the police investigator assigned in this case: according to Cmdr. Robert Quevillon, the overall arson rates are down between 12-17% compared to this time last year. Talk about optimism!

But seriously. Has a rival gang invaded the Mafia’s turf? Or is it infighting? Or maybe a new thrust to gain power by the Hell’s? It’s easy to let the imagination run wild with plausible scenarios borrowed from “The Sopranos”. But there’s no need for TV for inspiration:  these attacks are likely very familiar to Montrealers, given the similarities with the biker gang wars of the 1990s. I wasn’t here then, but it sounded pretty ugly at times.

Back in the 1990s, given the recessed state of Montreal’s economy, these kinds of events probably contributed to feelings of unease about living in the city and probably fueled the exodus from the Island, and the province. Could a similar thing happen again? It seems unlikely, giving the trendiness or urban living (not to mention the higher cost of gasoline, so essential to the suburban dream).

Should we be more worried about this? I’m still not sure. But one thing’s sure: worrying probably didn’t help much last time around.


  1. When I went to McGill in the early 90s, my roomate and I would hear firetrucks screaming down St. Urbain nightly to what would be later reported as a fire in a ‘three-storey mixed retail and residential building’. We’d see the shell the next day, and often comment how the retail in that building had seemed to be bankrupt…

    The offensive term for burning down your building for the insurance money is a ‘Jewish fire sale’, which is grossly inaccurate since, besides a variety of ethnicities charged with arson and fraud over the years, a lot of Jews had already moved from Montreal to Toronto by then. Nationalist politics, no matter how benign, aren’t something a minority wants to deal with twice in an ugly century.

  2. Reminds me of the fruit shops on Parc a couple years back, the poor guy on the south got bombed 3-4 times!

    I’m not going to the north shop ever again, that’s for sure…

  3. I’d never heard the racist term “Jewish fire sale” – just as well. But in several countries Jewish people are involved in anti-imperialist, “nationalist” politics – Argentina comes to mind, for one.

    Now there is speculation about what is referred to as “street gangs” being behind the Italian caffè fires. Oddly, “street gang” is only used when gangs are so-called “visible minorities”, not the Italian mafia or the mainstream-ethnicity biker gangs.

    Typically such bombings were the result of small business owners not paying so-called “protection” money in extortion schemes. One prominent case was Roberto Geletaria when it was a very small byow restaurant and homemade Italian gelato parlour. In that case rumour had it that the leading gelato maker was run by the mob, and didn’t want competition. Nowadays there are several homemade gourmet ice cream and gelato places, so that story is passé, but such events recur in different ways.

    When I was a young student – way back in the early 70s – there was a huge wave of speculative fires in the southwestern Plateau – the streets around Carré St-Louis. We lived on Drolet then and friends who lived behind us on St-Denis were burnt out of their place – fortunately their cats survived the fire – and then a block of flats across the street burnt down and even more fortunately a friend’s dog awakened her and saved both of them. My cat at the time woke me up too – she must have been sensitive to the smoke engulfing the street as Drolet just above Carré St-Louis is narrow. This was before most of the Plateau became gentrified – only the areas right around le Carré and Parc Lafontaine were undergoing this process. We forget how many fires – as well as other kinds of intimidation – this process involves.

    Alex, I feel as you do about the northerly shop. I felt so sorry for the guy who kept getting bombed. Hell, someone could have been killed, either in the shop or above it. People did die in the speculative Plateau fires.

  4. “Nationalist politics, no matter how benign, aren’t something a minority wants to deal with twice in an ugly century.”

    J’aime comment tu compares les souverainistes avec des nazis, c’est fait avec tant de subtilité, de condescendance et de sufficance. Typique, vraiment.

  5. What is JC going on about. Donne-moi un break.

    As for the northerly shop on Parc, I don’t go there either. Glad to see there is a general, if small, consensus on that.

    Evidently there have been way too many waves of fires on the Plateau – each generation has their own. I clearly remember the decrepit 80s when two or three times a week something seemed to be burning down.

  6. All right Leila, you seem confused, let’s go over this again:

    Jamesmallon said:
    “(…)a lot of Jews had already moved from Montreal to Toronto by then. Nationalist politics, no matter how benign, aren’t something a minority wants to deal with twice in an ugly century.”

    What’s in this paragraph? What is he saying?

    First, he talks about “nationalist politics” in Montréal (he’s talking about souverainistes and their policies) and how jews didn’t want to have to deal with it (it being the “nationalist politics”) as they had dealt with “nationalist politics” (At the hands of whom? The nazis of course) before “in this ugly century”.
    Trying to put the souvereignist movement on the same level as the national socialist party of Germany is not only stupid, ignorant and totally fallacious, but it’s an insult to the people who suffered throughout the world during WW2 and an insult to the victims of the holocaust.

    Also, it’s fucking stupid. In fact, it’s as stupid as drawing swastikas on Canadian flags (if you don’t get the reference: the RRQ did it this year).

  7. I don’t think there’s any need to take this tangent of “Jewish fire sales” and references to the ugly events of the past century any farther. It’s simply way off topic. This issue is troubling enough already without these dark allusions.

  8. Concerning the fire-bombings on Parc, I am not aware of any serious evidence that Bob from Fruiterie Mile End (which is ONE DOOR down – rather risky if you are setting a fire) had anything to do with it. I always thought it was most likely due to their being shaken down by whichever ethnic gang was “representing them.” These gangs tend to hit on their own people.

    I go to both places, and love both of them.

    I agree with Jacob that there was no need to bring “Jewish Fire Sales” into this, and even less to bring in separatist politics! As far as I know, none of the recent wave of arsons are being considered as suspicious in the sense that they might have been started by the owner.

  9. That picture, I believe, is not really appropriate. That fire was caused by an electrical short circuit at the back of the club. These firebombings have (so far) not caused anywhere near the kind of damage that that fire on St. Denis did. It’s a great photo, but I think it’s a journalistic mistake to use it with this article.

  10. Walkerp: Your point is well taken. I was at a loss for a photo, so chose a “generic” Montreal fire pic (if such a thing exists). I hope this shortcut approach won’t be seen to compromise the high standards of journalism we try to maintain at Spacing.

  11. I would say that’s an issue, Jacob. I’m not from here, got directed via spacing Toronto, and immediately assumed the photo at the top was from one of the firebombings. “Woah”, I think, was my reaction to that. Thanks to walkerp for clearing that up.

    If you’re going to use an incorrect photo, at least have the decency to label it as such.

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