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Montreal prison marks 100th anniversary


January 23, 2013
By Nancy Colagiacomo

The Montreal Detention Center, commonly known as Bordeaux, recently marked its 100th year of operation.
Located in the city’s north end, the prison is the oldest and largest in Quebec.

The Bordeaux opened in 1912 and its $2.5 million construction cost caused quite a scandal. Each cell was equipped with a private toilet and electricity, a luxury the average citizen could not afford at the time. A modern comparison would be the estimated $594 million cost for the new Toronto South Detention Centre facility.

Although the structure has undergone some changes over its life, the architecture still resembles its original plan – a widespread six part spread, with a central zone topped by a dome. Each wing is devoted to its own distinct purpose.

The unique design was heavily influenced by the Pennsylvanian prison system, which encouraged separate confinement as a form of rehabilitation.

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There were more prisoners executed at Bordeaux (82, including three women) than at any other prison in Canada. The balcony where the hangings were carried out is still very much visible in the courtyard. Its wooden floor looks very much like a trap door giving way underneath when execution time came.

It is estimated that 90 prisoners successfully escaped the jail, including Lucien Rivard, who linked garden hoses used to freeze an outdoor skating rink to climb the walls.

Bordeaux was home to some of Canada’s most famous criminals, including Richard Blass, Mom Boucher and Nick Rizzuto, and had its share of riots.

{Interesting facts}

  • Two guards, Diane Lavigne and Pierre Rondeau, were assassinated in 1997 on their way home after a shift at the prison.

  • Maurice “Mom” Boucher was convicted of ordering two hits and sentenced to life in prison. The crown prosecutor at the time is now famed Superior Court Judge France Charbonneau, chair of the inquiry into the Quebec construction industry.

  • The Bordeaux is a minimum security provincial establishment which holds some 1,400 prisoners – detainees awaiting trial and inmates sentenced to less than two year terms.

To commemorate its 100 years of existence, the prison recently held an open house and allowed visitors inside the walls. Although residents were relocated to other cells and well hidden during the day, the aura and history of the place could still be felt. Imposing iron gates, barred windows and metal everywhere left visitors overwhelmed.

Father John (Père Jean) served as the Christian chaplain at Bordeaux for 38 years, from 1969 to 2007, and still has some very fond memories of the place. He met and got to know most of the population and received thousands of letters, poems and written prayers from inmates revealing their innermost fears and experiences; for many he was the only person willing to listen.

Father John kept all the correspondence and recently put them all together in his book The idea was to give a voice to the souls who have remained silent for so long. True to his calling, he doesn’t judge nor condone any criminal behavior. Despite his retirement, he still visits prisons when he can, an environment all too familiar to him.


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