1940-44: Camillien Houde & Other Quebec Curios

Part of "Shadows and Revolution", 1900-1960

Camillien Houde, at one-time part of the provincial Conservative Party and a collaborator with Maurice Duplessis, found provincial politics boring and decided to try his hand in municipal politics. His first adversary, Médéric Martin, was the incumbent mayor for fourteen years, but Houde managed to dethrone Martin after accusing him of election fraud. Bouncing back and forth between provincial and municipal politics, Houde was mayor of Montréal twice and was serving a third term just as the Second World War broke out.

Adélard Godbout‘s trials with conscription and its intricate connection with orders from Ottawa, ultimately one of the reasons for his downfall, would come later. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s trials, however, were just beginning. As the war was getting started, Mackenzie King imposed mandatory inscription starting in August of 1940. It was not conscription, but shadows of the conscription that occurred during the First World War loomed large over Canada. Camillien Houde, by all accounts a man quite literally larger than life (weighing in at over two hundred and forty pounds), flamboyant, and most of all outspoken, would not let Ottawa’s declaration go by without a comment of his own. Defiantly declaring that the federal government had no mandate to declare conscription, not only did Houde express his disapproval and his refusal to abide by the mandatory inscription, he incited other people to do the same.

Charged with sedition, Houde’s arrest was a rather quiet one, occurring at night, but the workings behind it were by no means minor. Prime Minister Mackenzie King, invoking the War Measures Act, had the ability to arrest and detain people in the name of the security of Canada. Houde’s arrest warrant was signed by the federal Minister of Justice himself, Ernest Lapointe. Led away by members of the RCMP, Houde would be arrested and denied a trial. Working alongside suspected Nazis and spies, the once-Mayor of Montréal would be psychologically tortured, initially deprived of familial visits, and would be subjected forced labour in camps in Ontario and in New Brunswick. During this period, he lost over one hundred pounds.

Though Houde was out of the public eye, he was certainly not forgotten. As the years went on and Houde’s imprisonment continued, people started to clamour for his liberation. A young Jean Drapeau, later one of Houde’s successors as mayor of Montréal, would be one of many to attempt to convince the federal government for Houde’s liberation. Behind the scenes, the government gave Houde a choice: to sign a document that said he would keep his opinions to himself as well as support government initiatives from now on or to remain imprisoned. The document was drawn up in English only despite Houde’s rudimentary knowledge of it. Caving in due to his fears that his family would no longer be able to support themselves, Houde signed the document in 1944 and gained his liberation.

Released just slightly over four years after his courageous declaration, over 20 000 people greeted Houde as he returned to Montréal. He would be elected once more as mayor of Montréal, serving until 1954.