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Golden Age of Montreal's Red Light Transcript
Jean-François Leclerc: Before becoming a city known for its vices and pleasures, Montreal was familiar to most people as the first economic capital of Canada and a large port city. The second busiest grain-shipping port in North America, Montreal could be called the New York of Canada, and when you have such a large city like this, you also have crime and poverty.
In the early part of the 20th century, people were coming in from all over the world, and then the temperance leagues in the United States gained momentum in banning the sale of alcohol. At the time, in both Canada and the United States, alcohol was becoming an enormous social problem that touched most of the working class.
The American temperance leagues wanted to create social change, but in doing so successfully convinced the government to intercede on the production and sale of alcohol. The same movement began to happen in Canada with several provinces passing the same kind of legislation, except for Quebec.
I don’t know if it was due to the Latin character of the Quebecois, but the solution here was not to ban it, but control it, and the government created what we call today La Société des alcools du Québec, or a Liquor Commission.
So, yes, it was a little tricky to buy a bottle of alcohol. One had to stand in line, leave with it in a paper bag so that it wasn’t obvious what it was, but that exercise created a tolerance for the sale of alcohol here.
The Americans soon discovered that just a few kilometres from their border there was a large city that allowed drinking. We promoted a special kind of tourism in Montreal. And with the Americans, came American money… and money from American organized crime.
We saw a proliferation of clubs and cabarets animate Montreal’s nightlife, St. Catherine’s Street, and the west side of the city and with that came an increase in less legal activities such as drugs, and obviously gambling, brothels, prostitution. That’s what really transformed the old downtown of Montreal and it is still called the “Red Light” even today.
Catherine Charlebois: The Red Light district had two lives: a daytime life and a night life. During the day, the area seemed like a regular part of Montreal with small grocery stores, schools, working class families who lived there. There were small neighbourhood businesses, cinemas. This daytime life was really quite quiet, but when the sun would fall...
[Jazz music and singing]
... the neighbourhood lit up for the night and there was a whole other life. The cabarets, the bars, restaurants, cinemas – this is where we saw a mix of ordinary people who came to the shows.
But the backstage, the alleys, where we would find the dancers, singers, and artists in general, there was also the underworld, the bookie, the stripper, the prostitute, the transvestite, the gambler and it was a world which became intertwined. They rubbed against each other in this “Red Light” universe.
St. Catherine was lit up. You have to imagine that it was a little like what Las Vegas is today… the Red Light was a bit like that, Montreal nightlife was a bit like Las Vegas today and St. Catherine Street was her strip. It really looked like that and the activity was go, go, go all the time.
There were a lot of key figures in the Montreal nightlife. It was rich, it was dense.
We had our local stars: Oscar Peterson, a great jazz pianist. We had international stars coming in: think of American stars like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald, who came to Montreal in the 1940s and 1950s.
We had people from France: Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Patachou.
Armand Monroe, I think he’s worth mentioning, even though he may be less well-known, but he hosted the first homosexual-only cabaret in Montreal in 1957.
We also had characters from the criminal sphere, celebrities in their own way. People like Harry Davis, Harry Ship, Vic Cotroni. They were the kingpins of the “Montreal Mafia” but we knew of them.
These characters were not completely unfamiliar, some of them had clubs of their own. Vic Cotroni owned the Faisan Doré, and the Faisan Doré was a very important club in Montreal at the time. So, as I suggested before, the lines between the legal and illegal were blurred.
Among the characters of this illicit world were also those of a more feminine nature… the brothel madams.
We have, for example, probably the best known is Anna Labelle Beauchamps who was a former prostitute. She quietly made her way into this world, this sphere, to become the owner of dozens of brothels in Montreal. She was very, very important and became very well respected.
There was a group of people who thought Montreal did not, perhaps, have a really good reputation, thought that Montreal may be a little too daring, entertaining too many vices.
Pacifique “Pax” Plante, for example, was a legendary figure in that group of people, and was on a personal mission to save Montreal from the clutches of the underworld.
Between 1946 and 1948, when Pax Plante was the leader of the Morality Squad, prior to going on raids he would call up reporters and say to them “Come on out, I’m going down to such-and-such place.” The cameras, the newspaper articles, caught fire and the publicity took off.
But in 1948 he kicked up too much dirt and the new chief of police, Albert Langlois, decided that it was too much.
Albert Langlois probably wasn’t above reproach, he may have been friends with people he shouldn’t have been given that he was the chief of police, but he said “Enough is enough.”
Albert Langlois was Pax Plante’s worst nightmare.
Langlois had the authority. As chief of police he could turf Pax Plante from the Morality Squad… but Langlois did not have the last word.
Pax Plante went to see the owner of the newspaper Le Devoir and said “I have a story for you.”
So from the end of 1948 to the beginning of 1949, week after week, Le Devoir published articles called “Montreal Under the Rule of the Underworld” where he named names and gave their addresses.
It was a torrent of accusations based on evidence Plante had been accumulating for years and years. The result was that the situation no longer remained a matter for the municipal authorities. It became a provincial matter once the facts became so widely public.
The evidence that had been accumulating was enough to successfully file a motion for a public inquiry in 1950 known as the Caron Inquiry.
Jean-François Leclerc: When we look back to that golden age of cabaret, of course we look back with a bit of nostalgia.
Today we still have prostitution, drugs, we have all of that but these illegal activities have changed their form. Until the 1940s and 1950s they happened in brothels. Nowadays, with the Internet, it’s much more fluid and difficult to identify specific places.
The Red Light district which characterized that period disappeared almost completely in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s — (there were) positive changes — and today the entertainment district, Quartier des spectacles, has been cleaned up.
Back then, when Montrealers rushed to have fun in the dance clubs, they were out with their boyfriend or girlfriend and were dressed up, it was out of the ordinary. Today, we stay in front of the television, we go to movies in Brossard or Laval, our lifestyles are very different.
Expo 67 was a key turning point for Montrealers when they realized that they could celebrate and come together safely, day or night, even outside. Little has changed since then and this feeling can be seen in how Montreal communities enjoy being together.
So we find ourselves with more “democratic” amusements. At the time, if you wanted to consume alcohol you had to have some money to go to the clubs.
Today, we keep the idea of being a city of pleasure, but with the emphasis of having fun together and may be that’s a little bit of Montreal’s challenge. How do we manage these pleasures? There need to be some rules, but we don’t want to lose the playful “madness” that made Montreal what it is.
This means our morality must not be too narrow-minded, we should accept that things won’t be perfect all the time and that, yes, a city of pleasure comes with a little noise and at times, unpleasantness.
And at this time when media is changing, at this time when people are living more and more in the suburbs, we will see what Montreal, ville de plaisir, looks like in 2025. I think Montreal has developed its own way of celebrating but we need people from outside of Montreal to be reminded that Montreal is a city of pleasure, of fun, and playing up our “city of sin” past could help us.