Part 1: Doubts
On the morning of February 21, 1966, Paul Comtois, Quebec’s Lieutenant-Governor died in the fire that destroyed the Bois-de-Coulonge mansion, his official residence. His death was quickly ruled accidental by a coroner’s inquest and the investigation into his death was quickly closed much to the relief of Jean Lesage’s provincial government. For the past 50 years, I have had lingering doubts about the investigation and its conclusions.
Paul Comtois was appointed the 21st Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Quebec by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1961 after serving as Canada’s Minister of Mines and Technical Surveys from 1957 to 1961.
Bois-de-Coulonge was an historic mansion, originally known as Spencerwood, built in 1854 and purchased by the Quebec Government in 1870 to serve as the official residence and home to Quebec Lieutenant-Governors. The mansion had 48 rooms in addition to a servant’s wing and a winter garden. Furnishings and decor were fit for royalty; the Queen and Prince Phillip stayed there during their visit in 1964. The Queen Mother and King George VI as well as Sir Winston Churchill also visited.
The sixties were important in the history of both Quebec and Canada; the Quebec Liberal Party, led by Jean Lesage, had begun major reforms in the Province which would later be known as the Quiet Revolution. The Lesage years saw the Province take control of its hydroelectric power and adopt legislative rights to protect the French language. Just as important, those years saw the end of the stronghold maintained by the Catholic Church, in cahoots with Duplessis’s Union Nationale party, over the education and healthcare systems in the Province.
An unexpected consequence of these changes was the rise of Quebec nationalism to a point where the Lesage government became a victim of its own success. In the provincial general election of June 5, 1966, it was defeated by the National Union party led by Daniel Johnson with a campaign that called for a better deal for Quebec within the Canadian Confederation; Johnson went as far as committing to a path towards separation if his demands were not met. During the same election, more radical elements in the Province wanted to go directly towards separation. Two parties promoting this option participated in the 1966 election, Rassemblement pour l’independance national (RIN) and the Ralliement national obtained 9% of the vote.
Paul Comtois was my maternal grandfather; at the time of his death, I was 19 and a student at College Sainte-Marie, a Jesuit-run institution located in downtown Montreal that provided a classical course, an eight-year program of general studies. The Jesuits encouraged free thinking and activism and, as a result, the school became an ideal environment for the growth of Québécois nationalism. Actions by some of my fellow students would later become more radical; Paul Rose would be convicted of the kidnapping and the murder by strangulation of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte. He was the head of the Chénier cell of the Front de liberation du Québec (FLQ) a terrorist group fighting for the independence of Quebec.
As the grandson of the representative of the Queen in the Province one would have expected some ribbing but I do not remember any unpleasant incidents except for a few snide remarks, surprisingly, by one of the lay teachers at the school.
That was 50 years ago and every time I think of the death of my grandfather I wonder if foul play could have been involved. As a representative of the Queen in Quebec, he would have been the perfect target for a terrorist group. The idea of looking into the circumstances surrounding his death was always on my mind, albeit low on my priority list, life obligations always in the way. During all those years, I hoped that a historian or investigative reporter would decide to dig into the event, but nobody seemed to be interested.
The item moved up on my list when stories began to appear in the ultraconservative Catholic press in both the United States and England, coming back on the claim that Paul Comtois could have survived the fire had he not attempted to save the Blessed Sacrament from the mansion’s chapel. In the articles, published between 2009 and 2013, his death is referred to as the “glorious Martyrdom of Paul Comtois” and the authors suggest that he be considered a modern “Catholic Hero”, falling short of asking for his beatification. A recent article in the magazine Verbe (February/March issue 2016) comes back on the subject. This was not the first time I had heard this story, and I remain highly skeptical. None of the writers mentioned their sources for the information. I finally decided to look into it.
In the second part of the series, to be published on November 30th I begin with an analysis of the newspaper reports that followed his death.