General Articles

The One and Only Houde

EVA-LIS WUORIO December 15 1947
General Articles

The One and Only Houde

EVA-LIS WUORIO December 15 1947

The One and Only Houde


MAYOR CAMILLIEN HOUDE of Montreal is five feet seven, 267 pounds, with a big head narrowing at the top, scarce black hair, snapping, protuberant eyes, an immense nose, a massive jutting chin, conversational hands and the short-stepped walk of a very stout man.

After five minutes with him you forget how he looks. After half an hour you are ready to argue with all comers that he is really quite a handsome type. It is, as always with Camillien, the shrewdsentimental Norman, mind over matter.

The mayor is a character, “un original,” his French-Canadian constituents appropriately label him. You could throw Roget’s “Thesaurus” at him and practically all the words that fell out would fit him. irascible, ebullient, indiscreet, sentimental, arch, profound, roaring, intense, raucous, sagacious,

excessive, witty, charming, difficult-.....take your

pick. In five letters they spell Houde.

He is vividly a part of all that he has met. He is still the boy listening to the song of the St. Lawrence in a 225-year-old farm house; an orphan who ran errands in I,he slums of Montreal; a young man who tried to hide his chagrin at his huge nose by playing a magnificent Cyrano de Bergerac in small theatrical companies; a bank clerk, forbidden by his job even to talk politics, launching forth on a spectacular political career; the brash young politician who fought Mayor Médéric Martin and finally toppled that fabulous cigar maker from his decade-long rule of Montreal; a leader of Quebec Conservative party ordered off the floor of the legislature.

And more. A man who made the King laugh for the first time on Canadian soil and a year later was firmly entrenched behind barbed-wire fences for a four-year stay in Canadian internment camps. An ex-prisoner, wearing a Legion of Honor ribbon, greeted on his release by a cheering, weeping crowd of 100,000 at the station and on the streets of Canada’s largest city. A man judged dangerous to the safety of his country, installed with a majority of 15,000 votes as the Mayor of Montreal four months after his release.

The darling of the nationalists, beaten by 3,000 votes six months later when he tried to enter Federal Parliament from the Montreal riding of St. Mary’s, his stamping ground in the days when the name Houde was big medicine in provincial politics.

That’s Camillien Houde.

Houdisms have been an essential part of Cana« diana for years now. They are told in profusion, in French and English. Montreal people are always talking about Houde.

They say; “He’s a rabble rouser, a calamity joe, but boy, what an actor!”

“He said the French-Canadian sympathies would be with Italy in

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case of war between Britain and Italy.”

“He advised people against National Registration. Didn’t believe the powers that be would touch him.”

“He’s a shrewd joker, you ought to go and see him twist an angry crowd until they beg to sit on the palm of his hand.”

“He never forgets a friend but sometimes he forgets an enemy.”

“He’ll give the shirt off his back to someone in need.”

Lieut.-Col. Ted (T. L.) Bullock, of the Royal 22nd Regiment, onetime secretary to Houde, says, “He’ll never be a great man, but to people who know him he is a great guy. If you wanted to give the exact opposite of Chamberlain, Houde’s it. His mistakes are mostly mistakes of the heart. He is not much of a judge of character; if he likes you he truste you, sometimes unwisely. Houde is the most absolutely and uncompromisingly honest, man I know in Canadian politics.”

Canadian author Bruce Hutchison wrote; “What you think of his politics won’t matter. The man will delight you.”

His secretary of 13 years, Charles Renaud, says: “Sometimes I would like to kill him, but most, often I would like to die for him.”

Once, in a moment of candor, Houde considered the various criticisms about himself, his methods and his politics and finally gave his explosive opinion, “Why should Ï change? I like myself as 1 am.”

A Royal .lest

PERHAPS the best-known story about Houde is the one concerning Montreal’s reception to the King and Queen. It happened in the great

banquet hall of the Windsor Hotel. We, who had watched King George VI, that shy, reticent monarch, throughout his first few days in Canada, were suddenly amazed to see him burst into gay spontaneous laughter and with a warm familiar gesture invite the Queen, on Mayor Houde’s left, to share in the joke. Before the banquet the brass hats of Montreal had feared that Houde, with his impetuosity, would spoil everything. Yet there he was, laughing with Their Majesties, actually saving them the embarrassment of signaling that the host and company could relax formalities. What had happened?

Houde himself says he’s forgotten. The most frequent version of the story claims that the mayor, after a painful quarter of an hour of silence, pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and, frowning at if, spoke to himself: “Now, I have been told that I must not address my King unless he speaks to me firsthimself. However, were he to speak to me, l would of certainty tell him many things, remembering not to mention these subjects I was told to steer clear from ...” so naturally the King reached for Houde’s memo and had a marvellous time.

Houde’s repartee is instantaneous, often unprint -able. When his political opponents, trying to slur his reputation, accused him of unhappy home life, of having to pay his wife $500 for every public appearance she made with him, his answer was swift. “Gentlemen,” said Houde, “allow me to tell you one thing. Never have I had to pay women for anything

Houde was recently asked about, a newspaper report that he could have left internment, any time he wished after the first six months. He pondered for a moment.. “It is like this,” he explained. “As you can see, I am not very thin in the middle. In fact, there is much of me there. If I had bent.

very low perhaps—it is possible—I might, have been released. But it is very difficult for me to bend.”

Houde once drank a lot. He stopped smoking and drinking instantaneously—hasn’t touched alcohol since 1932. The other day Joe Cooper, a former City Hall reporter, met His Worship on the steps of the Mount Royal. The mayor was puffing away at a cigarette.

“Tut, tut,” said Joe. “I thought, monsieur le maire, you do not smoke any more?”

“And why not?” demanded Houde. “At my age what remains to be done?”

Someone recently remarked to the mayor that it was a curious coincidence he should play host to the King and Queen and a year later be firmly installed in Their Majesties’ Government’s internment camp. Houde answered, “Not curious at all. Return of courtesies.”

Recently I visited Mayor Houde at St. Luke’s Hospital in Montreal where he was recuperating after a jar received when the City Hall elevator fell two floors. I had met him during the 1939 Royal Tour and his split-second memory functioned immediately. He recognized me in a burst of welcoming French. “I am sorry,” I said, “I don’t speak French.” “Aha!” Houde pointed an accusing finger, “do you not remember, Mademoiselle, you promised me you would the next time converse with me in French.” “But Mr. Mayor,” I protested, “have you forgotten you promised to teach me?”

“Alors!” cried Houde, “but you did not come to where I was!” And then he doubled up with laughter, slapping his thigh, throwing his head back, obviously considering his internment a fine joke played on me.

Today Houde is one of Canada’s most effective public speakers. This probably stems from a combination of three

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The One and Only Houde

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things; early dramatic training, a Gallic flair, and an amazing natural knowledge of psychology.

Houde himself says, “I never prepare a speech. I prepare an idea.” He’ll attend a learned meeting, listen to the erudite speakers, scribble a few notes on the edge of his menu or program, and get up and deliver the best speech of an evening. In Montreal, to have Houde as an after-dinner speaker is to assure the success of the event.

The mayor has an explanation for this. “Crowds respond to me because I love them,” he says.

When the crowd is against him he goes systematically to work to win (hem. He appears to have eyes and ears on every street corner of his city and he knows of every criticism levelled against him. With sometimes more courage than wisdom he brings all these to light, invites questions from his audience and gets them. He pretends to be backed into a corner and then at the final moment he brings out his trump. He must keep stacks of them up his sleeve. He recognizes his own method; “When the crowd is against me,” he says, “I start with simplicities. I describe them to themselves. I say, pointing such a finger that everyone thinks I am pointing at him, ‘Tonight at dinner you said to your good wife, “You will excuse me, chérie, but I must go to hear that Camillien. This time he has gone too far!” ’ ” In parenthesis the mayor says, “We French Canadians must always tell our wives where we go. Similarly, when we come back we must have proof of where we have been. Thus, the husbands who come to hear me speak take the speech back home to their wives in their memories for that will prove they really did come to hear me.”

Now he has the crowd’s attention. It turns out that was precisely what they did say to their wives. Camillien seldom gauges his audience wrong. Now he develops his theme, bringing out his listeners’ criticisms, objections, grouches in their own words. Then he explains what he is doing and what he intends to do. Long before he is finished he has the crowd with him.

Camillien Houde’s day starts early. He is up by seven. His breakfast is light, with lots of coffee. He leads both the English and French papers at this time, thoroughly. If he has no early appointments he may put in a voracious half hour of other reading. His favorites are biographies of all periods and history. He has read everything on Napoleon he has been able to lay hands on.

Most mornings, as he either drives to the City Hall with his faithful Belgian factotum Jacques Lambert, or walks the three miles from his home, he will be wearing what has practically become his uniform; striped trousers, morning coat, ascot tie, pearl-grey vest. His cane swirls eloquently on fine mornings and he will hum merrily as he swings along. He explains the superelegance of his apparel: “Each day I

must meet some notabilities. I must be ready for them.”

Getting in the Papers

Camillien Houde has occupied the ornately carved chair behind the mayor’s desk for five terms, four of two years, the last, commencing December, 1944, three years long, and at the time of this writing he was again seeking office. Of his prospects he said worriedly; “All the news are too good, too good.” In 1932 and 1936 he was defeated and his fourth term was cut abruptly by his internment in 1940 for refusing to comply with the National Registration order and urging all good

Montrealers to do likewise. His theory at that time was that this was the first step toward conscription. His fifth election came four months after his release from what he gaily terms his “pilgrimage,” when he was a victor with 62,917 votes to the 48,413 of the retiring mayor, Adhemar Raynault.

Before his internment it was a common thing for Camillien to get off his throne and on to the floor of the council chamber, a thing unheard of during terms of more orthodox mayors, and pronounce his views. Revision of the Montreal charter in 1940 reduced the mayor to a figurehead, an official glad hand. Since Houde’s release he has, to everyone’s amazement, forsaken his former buccaneering tactics and consented to stay within the bounds of the charter. How long this will last is anyone’s guess.

For some time after his release there appeared to be a concentrated effort on the part of the newspapers to ignore him. The ebullient mayor said nothing.

However, he began to be seen everywhere. He received a Lake Superior lake trout in a hands-across-the-lake ceremony; attended Lafontaine Park singsongs; was welcomed on board HMCS Nootka, and, blithely discoursing on his days as an enemy of the state, brought the officers back with him to sign the Golden Book at the City Hall. He tried out the Diamond Taxi two-way radio cars, spoke to the 4-H Club’s young farmers, attended the aldermen’s ball game at St. Helen’s Island, welcomed the guests of the Quebec College of Physicians and Surgeons, and attended a dinner to sponsor a campaign for an $11 million fund for the University of Montreal. He got himself presented with the Canadian Citizenship Certificate and was made an honorary citizen of Troyes, France, aboard the French frigate L’Aventure.

Never was there a busier ex-prisoner. Only occasionally now did he find time at noon to put away a couple of dezen oysters at his favorite Chez Pauze, with his faithful Lambert standing behind him, and stroll back to the City Hall, snatching off his hat with an ardent gesture as citizens greet him, “Ca va, Camillien?” Unless the newspapers wanted to ignore local events entirely they had to photograph Houde. His expressive face stares out of the papers daily again.

Up From the Slums

In his own eyes he is a very simple, ordinary guy. “A typical middle-class Montrealer,” he calls himself. If asked, “And what is that?” he’ll define “Gay, exuberant, taking the bad as well as the good, hustling, somewhat sentimental when the moon is high above Mount Royal and the city glitters with lights, turning quickly realistic again.”

Houde loves his city. The four years lie spent in internment were the longest time he had ever been away from it. (“The only holiday I ever had. And then I didn’t choose the spot.”)

Herbert Andrea who was in the camp with Houde, recalls that the mayor was the most even-tempered man of all the prisoners, and, Andrea says, “the most popular.” Houde, who will not comment on the pros and cons of his internment outside of pointing out that he was not given a trial, explains his equanimity:

“When I started my ‘pilgrimage’ I made up my mind I would be an example of moral fortitude. I was the only public man there. I tried to conduct myself with the sense of my responsibilities all of the time.” He lost 100 pounds while interned, has put it all back again.

He is proud that he was the cham-

pion woodcutter at Petawawa, where he was detained for a year and a half. At Fredericton camp he was the champion long-distance skater (many of the ex - prisoners recall Houde, portly, sombre, hands behind his back, skating for two hours in a howling blizzard that had sent everyone else indoors), the champion long-distance walker, and the Chinese checker champion.

Houde’s life has never been dull. He was born Aug. 13, 1889, on a Montreal street so poor it was nameless, son of Azade Houde and Joséphine Frénette, both natives of Lobinière County on the St. Lawrence. When he was eight, his father, a millworker, caught pleurisy, which developed into tuberculosis, and died. Camillien went to work in the butcher shop of Jean Baptiste Rochon for a dollar a week and all the fresh meat the Houdes could eat. Out of this Camillien kept five cents spending money; the rest was scrupulously saved by his mother to finance his education. He was too overworked, too interested in his various undertakings to do well at his lessons at Plateau School. Pooling all her resources and borrowing from relatives, his mother sent him as a boarder to the College de Longueuil. Here Camillien developed into a brilliant student, graduated at 16 and immediately landed a job as a clerk at the Bank of Hochelaga. He was an inspector at 23, a branch manager at 26. Meanwhile he had joined the newly opened Conservatoire Dramatique La Salle and spent his evenings studying diction, elocution and dramatics.

Bank to Politics

He married his first wife, Mignonne Bourgie, daughter of Urgel Bourgie, one of the biggest funeral directors in Montreal, while still at the bank. She bore him two daughters, Madelaine and Marthe, and died when he was 28. A year or so later Camillien met Georgiana Falardeau, an office manager of a biscuit-manufacturing company. She used to come to make daily deposits at the bank. It is related that she convinced him he ought to go into business. In any case he married her, and went into business for himself, operating an agency for a Valleyfield biscuit manufacturer, then starting a candy business, working as an insurance agent for La Sauveguarde and as a wine importer for the newly formed Quebec Liquor Commission. At none of these was he very successful. He was now a father of three daughters; he felt he wanted security. He took a job with an electric appliance company at $40 a week. Here he would stick, he said.

Among his friends at this time was an ancient spinster, Mademoiselle Paquette, who supplemented her small pension by exchanging gossip for meals at the houses of acquaintances. One day she came to borrow an unused Quebec heater she had seen in Houde’s shed and offered to tell Camillien’s fortune in payment. Camillien laughed and told her to go ahead. The little Paquette dealt out her cards and threw up her hands. Never, she declared, had she seen the like of it—here was Camillien Houde, shaking thousands of hands, and here again, standing on a high platform, shouting, gesticulating, and tnumphant.

She couldn’t have been more right. Six months later Camillien, after a chance attendance at the Opposition Club of St. Mary’s Constituency, found himself first of all a secretary-treasurer of the club (they remembered he’d been a banker), and in no time a candidate in the provincial election of 1923. Urgel Bourgie, his father-in-law, a

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staunch and well-known Conservative, was delighted and swung his money and influence behind Camiilien.

He ran, won, and took his seat in the Provincial Legislative Assembly. For two sessions he had nothing to say, but near the end of the 1927 session Camiilien got on his feet about labor problems. Premier Louis Alexandre Tachereau, scion of one of Quebec’s greatest families, permitted himself a crack at Houde’s lack of culture.

Houde was immediately on his feet. “I may not have everything that was given to the Honorable Prime Minister,” he shouted, “but we did not stait from the same place nor did we follow the same course. If the Honorable Prime Minister had started wheie I started he would assuredly not be where he is today, nor would he even be where I am today. I am the beginning, he the end of the race.”

He lost at the 1927 elections, mainly, the story goes, through the animosity of his own leader. He sank his last penny in contesting proceedings. He was broke and discouraged the dull day a political reporter for the Montreal Star, tongue in cheek, fabricated the item that ex-M.L.A. Houde was in line for the mayoralty of Montreal. Toronto Saturday Night has recorded the result of the joke. Houde cut out the item, appeared at the Star office with it and complimented publisher Lord Atholstan on his brilliant reporter, and wondered how such a secret could possibly have betn ferreted out. He turned on the Houde charm and came away with a cheque big enough to finance the beginning of a campaign which ultimately unseated the hitherto invincible Médéric Martin and installed Houde with a 22,000-vote majority. Houde was then 38, a tenant in a humble second-floor flat, and the mayor of„Canada’s largest city. It was 1928.

That was the year he promised his English constituents to address them in their own language by the next elections. He claims to have learned his English, which today is barely accented, fluent and gusty, entirely from reading English newspapers.

A year later he was chosen the Leader of the Provincial Conservative Party in Quebec and the following year he again ran for mayor, winning by 42,000 votes over an English candidate.

In 1931 he greased his political pole and skidded himself out of favor in provincial politics for the next eight years. His own temper was his undoing that time. He had toured the province winning favor right and left. Victory seemed possible. And then, the night before the election, in a fit of anger against his opponents, he went after them over the radio in such vituperative argot that Jean Baptiste in the backwoods shook his head. “Non,” hard-headed habitants decided, “Camiilien is not yet the man to be the Premier.” The Conservatives won only 11 seats, Houde lost his.

Houde went into decline. He lost the mayoralty campaign of 1932, re-

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signed his Conservative leadership, resigned as a Conservative. As an independent he contested a by-election in the federal constituency of St. Henry in 1938 and lost. Next year he again got back into the Quebec Legislature, again for St. Mary, and still an independent. Today, still, he lists himself as belonging to no party, no union, no club, no company, no society, and no fraternity. He is a staunch Roman Catholic.

In 1934 he won the mayor’s chair again by the record majority of 54,000 votes. He was out in 1936, back again in 1938. Effervescent Houde will remark; “I am like a woman, men cannot get along with me, yet they cannot get along without me.”

When his political ethics are questioned he has a ready answer. He is poorer today than when he entered politics. Out of his yearly salary of $10,000 (less than some of the directors of municipal departments) his monthly take-home pay, after tax deduction, is $680. His intimate friends record that he has a $16,000 house on St. Hubert Street, which, it is understood, has two mortgages of $10,000 and $3,000 with some payments made on the former. They say he owns no stocks, bonds or shares, but is known to have two sizeable debts. He has rather a novel idea for getting some ready cash. Houde claims that legally the provincial Government owes him indemnity for the four sessions he couldn’t sit for St. Mary’s because he was interned. He may quite easily decide to collect it one of these days. It would be typical Houde.

He Steals the Show

His record as a Mayor of Montreal is often dimmed by the fact that he served through the worst depression. Yet it is undeniable that his building programs to stem unemployment were the largest any city in this country has seen. He caused mammoth markets —Atwater, St. Antoine, St. James and Jean Talon—to be built. Because of their size they were dubbed “Camillien’s white elephants,” but have since proved to be too small. Tunnels under railway tracks, parks, police and fire stations, playgrounds, community halls, as well as the mountain-top chalet are Houde-inspired. His name will live too in the “vespasiennes,” the underground comfort stations located on many Montreal squares, and familiarly known as “camilliennes.”

His plans today are known only to himself. Even to the very eve of the elections this year he kept saying “Should I choose to run.” About provincial politics he says, “You cannot tell until it happens.” He has lately starred on a weekly radio program, broadcast from his office at the City Hall and called “Ici Montréal.” Though there are three guest experts every week Houde steals the show. The first broadcast was timed by Paul Celinas, the radio station’s public relations man, and he reports that of the half an hour, the announcer took five minutes and 30 seconds, the three experts were allowed six minutes, and Camiilien Houde was in good voice for 18 minutes. Mainly he told anecdotes about Montreal’s history.

At 11.30 p.m. that night his wife telephoned to say that she had a snack prepared for him, when was he coming home? “Ah, ma chérie,” Houde cried over the telephone, “you know I am an artist now. I cannot come early. I have joined the union.” Hollywood lost out when Houde embraced politics rather than acting. Should his political fortunes fail, perhaps he’ll change his career even at this date. The move would be astonishing enough to please him.