Camillien Houde is, without a doubt, a colourful and iconic figure in Montréal’s history. Nicknamed “Monsieur Montréal” discover why ”Le p’tit gars de Sainte-Marie”* was one of the most popular mayors of the city.
Camillien Houde was not your run-of-the-mill politician. He did not come from a well-known family nor from the bourgeoisie. He had no money growing up, but when he did, he spent it. He had a reputation for celebrating his election wins and he liked to organize big community dinners. As the story goes, some 5,000 people were invited to these feasts that he held at the Stade de Lorimier. It is, in fact, in tribute to his big-hearted spirit of sharing that the 375th will be organizing a grand communal dinner for La Finale on December 31, which will feature a menu of traditional dishes like pea soup and pouding chômeur (poor man’s pudding). They say it was actually his wife Georgette Falardeau who invented the famous pouding chômeur recipe. She wanted to create a dessert that called for inexpensive ingredients so the wives of unemployed working-class men could sweeten their husbands up with a sprinkle of brown sugar. This typical dessert has earned its bragging rights. Pouding chômeur is now the national dessert of Québec!
A bit of background
Camillien Houde was born on August 13, 1889, in the working-class district of Saint-Henri. Although he came from modest means, he succeeded in getting an education and carving out an impressive career. In 1912, he finished a business course which paved his way into the banking sector. It quickly became apparent, though, that his real interest lay in politics. Elected for the first time in 1923 for the Conservative Party of Québec, he remained there for approximately 10 years before dabbling in federal politics for a few years. But Camillien Houde would devote most of his political career to being the mayor of Montréal, a position he held for nearly 20 years.
He was elected mayor for the first time in 1928, on an election promise to give everyday citizens access to City Hall. The Great Depression, however, forced him to change tack quickly. Priorities had shifted rapidly; lifting people out of poverty was now number one on the list. A sum of $100,000 was divided among the poorest through the Société Saint Vincent de Paul. At the same time, major construction sites were developed to provide the unemployed with work. Thanks to these initiatives, we now have the Botanical Garden, the Chalet du Mont-Royal, the Chalet du Parc Lafontaine and the Jean-Talon Market, public bathhouses and “vespasiennes”*, dubbed Camilliennes.
On a personal level, he was always willing to give generously and transformed his home into a veritable community aid centre. During the Depression, he briefly joined the opposition, but he returned to power with a roar in 1938. That wasn’t the end of things, though: he still had the precarious state of municipal finances to contend with.
In 1940, at the beginning of the Second World War, he told journalists that he was against national registration which, he felt, was the first step toward conscription. Not long after, he was branded an enemy of the state, and Canadian authorities arrested him as he was leaving City Hall. For four years, he was held prisoner in an internment camp in Petawawa, Ontario.
After he was freed in August 1944, a crowd of tens of thousands gave him a hero’s welcome at the Windsor Station. That fall, he was re-elected and remained mayor of Montréal until 1954.
Despite coming from a “Faubourg à m’lasse”, Monsieur Montréal was an incredibly popular mayor, a larger-than-life figure idolized by the working class who remains an icon to this day.
So, the next time you tuck into some pouding chômeur, you can think of—and thank—him.
Crédit photo: Max Seigler, conseiller municipal et Camillien Houde. – 17 mai 1950.