Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Strange Bit of Montreal History

It all started toward the end of WWI with concerns over prostitutes around the Montreal barracks. Reverend Herbert Symonds of Christ Church Cathedral sent the Montreal Suffrage Association 1913-1919 (of which had been a founding board member)a request to have them address the issue.

The Executive of the MSA didn't think it in their purview at that time.

It grew into a hurricane of righteousness when a certain Dr. Haywood of the Montreal General spoke in January, 1923 to the Canadian Club about drug-addled prostitutes, victims, he said, of very bad people.

There was a taint of racism about it.

Before the turn of the 20th century prostitutes in Montreal were seen as fallen women, or vain women with a taste for fine things, not victims. But with the immigration booms in the city with other races moving in, these women  suddenly became victims.

Haywood's heart-rending speech sparked fury among his well-heeled and influential audience and soon a group of concerned citizens descended on Montreal City Hall to demand immediate action.

So came about the 1924 Coderre Commission into Police Impropriety and Malfeasance, the first session being held on October 7th, 1924. The Inquiry was to investigate prostitution, drugs, gambling and police money-scams.

Movie theatres weren't on the agenda; but on December 13, 1924 a certain Constable Conrad Trudeau was testifying and he suddenly changed the subject,without being asked, from scale-tipping by coal vendors  to unchaperoned children in motion picture theatres, and brought up the name of my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, whom he said told the police to disregard various infractions, for illegal signs, non-payment of fees, Sunday shows, etc.

All very suspicious.My grandfather, Jules Crepeau, the Director of City Services from 1921 to 1930, had sat with a Dr. Atherton of the Montreal General on The City Cleanup Committee.

Constable Trudeau had apparently lent the Chief of Police, 'a personal friend'  (sic) 600 dollars over the years. The Chief had been accused many, many times of accepting money from his underlings, the previous month's testimony had revealed, even from Rose David, the Madame of a disorderly house frequented by policemen, even from shady underworld figure Tony Frank, who apparently ran a number of such brothels. There were calls for Chief Belanger's firing, even during the Inquiry, but it didn't happen.

On the stand, Constable Trudeau glibly claimed he was guiltless when it came to his loans, and he was not using the money for favors. "After all, I am still a constable and have been for 7 years."

Trudeau offered up another juicy tidbit with respect to over-crowding in theatres.  "One of these days there's going to be a catastrophe. One of these days a fire will break out and no one will be able to get out."

Trudeau was fired by my grandfather on the spot for 'bribery'.  The cop had given money to Belanger on behalf of this brother in law who wanted a liquor license for his business.

The costly Coderre Inquiry ended in January, 1925. Over a year later Juge Coderre published his report culled from 10,000 pages of testimony, claiming that 'vice spread its tentacles in every aspect of Montreal life' and expressing confusion and anger about my Grandfather and his powers over the Police.

And. then, life went on with few changes being enacted.

Two years later, in January 1927, there was a fatal fire in Montreal, the Laurier Palace Fire where 78 children, mostly boys, were killed in a crush of bodies rushing out of the upper balcony after someone yelled "fire" during a Sunday showing.

That fire was a game-changer in Quebec. The Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, the Nationalists and Big Labour got together and from then on,for decades, children under 16 were not allowed into movie theatres, even in the company of an adult.

There was a hint of anti-semitism about the proceedings.

Oddly, soon after the January 1927 fire, Le Devoir re-published  the 1924  Coderre Inquiry testimony fingering my grandfather, saying 'it is worth reprinting at this time.' The phrase beginning "One day there's going to be a catastrophe' was left out.

Despite the fact Le Devoir brought up this business, my grandfather, who testified at the Laurier Place Fire hearings on behalf of City Hall, wasn't implicated this time.

(He discussed how the Laurier Palace hadn't paid their license fee on time, but that was OK, according to the Executive Committee.)

The owners of the movie house were exonerated, too.

I can only wonder what the editors of Le Devoir were trying to do by re-hashing Trudeau's testimony, albeit abridged of its sensational last sentence.

In 1930, Camillien Houde was elected Mayor of Montreal and he got rid of my grandfather over a Water and Power Company money flip he had nothing to do with, but not before Grandpapa negotiated a fine life pension, which made him in retirement the second highest paid person at City Hall, after his replacement, Honore Parent.

In a stormy session at City Hall, where alderman debated whether to accept my grandfather's 'resignation' Houde said "The public want revenge for the Montreal Water Power deal and for the Laurier Palace Fire."

Weird, eh?

In 1937 my grandfather, whose large pension was dogging the City during the Depression, was hit by a car driven by an off-duty police officer. He died of complications a year later. Le Devoir was the only Montreal newspaper that wrote him a long eulogy.

My grandfather's brother, Isadore, who had been VP of United Theatre Amusements, a big theatre chain in the city, had died falling out of his 7 storey office window a few years before.

The official line was that he had been waving to his chauffeur and slipped.