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.

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