Montreal’s 1885 anti-vaccine riots offer perspective on the trucker movement

A text written by Jaouad Laaroussi – Thank you for allowing your text to be published here.

The year 1885 was marked by a major epidemic of smallpox in Montreal, an epidemic whose management by the city of Montreal led to an insurrection against vaccination and sanitary measures in the fall. On September 28, a thousand demonstrators set out from the eastern suburbs of the city and made their way to City Hall by way of Sainte-Catherine. They attacked pharmacies, offices and doctors’ residences along the way. Once they arrived at City Hall, the crowd pelted the building with rocks, destroying some windows in the process. The Montreal police were overwhelmed! The police chief himself was injured in the scuffle. The army was called in to help restore order to the city of Montreal. In the days following their arrival, a few skirmishes broke out between the officers and the crowd of protesters.

This riot, one of the most important to have affected Montreal in the second half of the 19th century, is instructive for the moments that torment us today. Indeed, already at that time, one could develop a comprehensive interpretation of the emergence of the « anti-vaccine » movement while being critical of its ideological and political direction.

The anti-vaccine discourse was, among other things, carried at the time by the Catholic Church, which saw in the secularization of medicine a threat to its temporal power. The ultramontane current, which was ideologically important in Quebec at the time, affirmed the primacy of papal power over public life and opposed republican and secular ideologies. In this context, the resistance to vaccination was influenced by a reactionary and anti-modernist ideology, an ideology that would mark the political history of Quebec throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

One could look at this riot movement only through the criticism of the reactionary ideology of the ultramontane elite. However, the authoritarian liberalism that characterized the management of the pandemic also explains the reaction of the crowds. In the 19th century, the hospital system was still in its infancy and birth and death were not separated from daily life and were experienced at home. Thus, when the hygiene office tried to isolate children with smallpox from their families, they resisted. This was the case of a father who was shot by the sanitary police when he tried to prevent them from taking his smallpox-infected son by force. This authoritarian conception of public health, in which the State imposed sanitary measures through its regal power, necessarily came up against forms of resistance to the modern State that was then being formed.

This tension between the critique of the modern state and its authoritarian conception of public health, on the one hand, and the reactionary content of the ideological program of the anti-sanitary measures mobs, on the other, is still active today in the « trucker » movement.

Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

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