Behind the bars of the Pied-du-Courant prison
The Pied-du-Courant prison is where more than a hundred patriots were detained. Twelve were executed in front of the main enclosure.
The exhibition The prison of the Patriots, managed by the Maison nationale des Patriotes, tells how the prison of Pied-du-Courant, beyond being the place of execution of a dozen leaders of the patriot movement, is part of a new era of the middle prison at an important time in the political and social history of Quebec.
“The 225-cell prison was completed in 1840, but work began in 1832, even before the patriot rebellions took place , explains the cultural mediator for the National House of Patriots, Marilou Desparois. It’s an ideal place to build a new kind of prison since this area of Montreal was rural and removed from the city.”
A new prison model
The location, located on De Lorimier Street near Notre-Dame Boulevard and the Craig Pumping Station, allowed the colonial administration of Lower Canada, a colony of the British Empire that would become the province of Quebec, to to build a new type of prison. Indeed, incarceration is no longer just a simple transition, but it becomes an end in itself, breaking with the usual use of prisons.
The Pied-du-Courant prison in 1926. Note the monument to the Patriots, inaugurated for the first time on June 24, 1926 and which was then moved closer to the prison when the street was built, now Boulevard Notre-Dame. Photo: David Beauchamp, Metro
“At the time, prison was above all a place of waiting to obtain one's real sentence, whether it was a fine, death or corporal punishment,” says Marilou Desparois. The function of prisons changed at the beginning of the 19th century with what is called the Philadelphia model where henceforth individuals were deliberately held in prison. With this in mind, the Pied-du-Courant prison will be designed differently, for example, by including larger windows to let in light for prisoners who will potentially spend years in prison. This change in the role of the prison will change the architecture of the latter.”
Similar to today, prisoners are allowed some free time where they can entertain themselves or work inside prison settings. Although inmates at the time did not necessarily work, they had times of the day when they could write letters or play cards. However, living conditions at Pied-du-Courant were not always rosy, especially for the less fortunate.
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“At the height of the arrests at the end of 1837 and the end of 1838, 855 of them were arrested and detained, either at the old prison in Montreal or here [at the Pied-du-Courant prison]. They can be three to five prisoners in a cell without having access to furniture, a bed or a mattress. The wealthiest, making up most of the deputies of the Patriot Party and the leaders of the political movement, and those who have a family will be able to ask for more furniture, more food and to have a more comfortable cell. The status of the detainee influences the conditions of his detention, although the cells were generally of poor quality,” explains Ms. Desparois.
The size of an old cell located in the basement of the Pied-du-Courant prison. It went from red markings to black pylons and could hold up to five people at a time. Photo: David Beauchamp, Metro
Regardless of the status of the prisoner during this period, it was not uncommon for an inmate to go 48 hours without getting their daily gallon of water, for drinking and personal hygiene. In addition, the prison was mixed and it had a wing reserved for women. They had no better living conditions than the men in the prison since they were considered political prisoners in their fight against the British Empire.
A decade of portraits
For a period of ten years, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) will lend the Maison nationale des Patriotes portraits of inmates of the Pied-du-Courant prison to make an exhibition. These portraits, taken by the notary, patriot deputy and prison inmate Jean-Joseph Girouard, are of great historical value since they illustrate prisoners at a time when cameras did not exist.
It is an exhibition of which we are very proud. Every six months, more specifically every month of May and November, we will exhibit five new portraits from Library and Archives Canada to be able to present all the portraits in their possession.
Marilou Desparois, cultural mediator for the National House of Patriots
Five portraits of patriots are currently on display in the exhibition hall of the Pied-du-Courant prison. of the Current. On the far right is a portrait of Wolfred Nelson, one of the main leaders, who later became Montreal's first popularly elected mayor. Photo: David Beauchamp, Metro
In parallel with the presentation of the portraits, the team from the Maison nationale des Patriotes is currently working on the creation of a temporary exhibition to be held in the Pied-du-Courant prison.