The internment of Montreal’s populist mayor during the WW2 conscription crisis
MONTREAL — On Monday, Aug. 5, 1940, a little before 11 p.m., the mayor of Montreal walked out of city hall wearing a light summer suit, suede shoes and a boating hat.
Camillien Houde, the rotund populist who was running a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, was met by RCMP and provincial police officers who arrested him on the spot.
A little more than a month prior, France had fallen to Germany, leaving Britain alone — except for some help from Canada — in its fight against the Nazi Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.
Then-prime minister Mackenzie King and Parliament had ordered all men between the ages of 14 and 60 to register for national defence. The law didn’t require conscription for overseas service and it was not a military mobilization.
But with the First World War conscription crisis still fresh in the collective memory of Quebecers, Houde was convinced the move foreshadowed conscription.
“National registration is a prelude to conscription,” Houde had written defiantly in a statement distributed to the press. “If the government wants to impose it, let the people vote for it without deceiving them this time.”
The statement was all the federal government needed to order the arrest of a man who would be elected mayor seven times and earn the moniker “Mr. Montreal.”
During the depression in the 1930s he spent generously to create jobs for the unemployed and also gave allowances to the poor so they could pay bills at a time when there was no social security.
Many public projects, including the city’s famed chalet and Beaver Lake on top of Mount Royal, were built during this time.
While he was being detained, the police — with journalists along for the ride — wasted no time raiding his home.
They didn’t find anything incriminating, but contented themselves with showing off to the media the mayor’s wardrobe: Silk scarves, evening shirts, suits, canes and butter gloves.
The mayor whose public spending had driven the city to near bankruptcy had quite the closet.
“In a glaze of hollow glory punctuated by the staccato bark of motorcycles which led the police cavalcade, Mayor Camillien Houde left the city,” the Gazette reported at the time.
“Overstepping the bounds of decency was nothing new to Houde, but this time he also overstepped the bounds of legality,” read the newspaper’s editorial, referring to his stance against the registration law.
“This is the silence which is indisputably golden.”
He was imprisoned in Camp Petawawa in Ontario, along with many of the Italians the government locked up for suspected fascist loyalties.
In 1942, Houde was moved to Camp 70, close to Fredericton in New Brunswick. He was told he and fellow prisoners had to leave Ontario to make room for Japanese detainees, who were also rounded up and imprisoned in Canada during the war.
As France was about to be liberated, in August 1944, Houde was freed.
He returned to Montreal on a hot summer night and was met by tens of thousands of people at the city’s Windsor train station.
A reporter remarked that the ex-mayor’s “embonpoint, while of slightly smaller circumference, was still noticeable, as was his toothflashing smile.”
Houde, who would be re-elected mayor in December 1944, told the crowd upon his exit from the station: “Every time the least of your rights and privileges are threatened, I will be at the front to defend you. You must feel the need to stand together.”
He served as mayor until 1954 and died four years later.
Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde, right, escorts Queen Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother) during her Canadian royal tour in 1939.