Montreal Mirror (Sep 4-10 2003 Vol. 19 No. 12)
Where hookers once lay
>> Sex tour aims to expose our orgasm-seeking past
by KRISTIAN GRAVENOR
When the first European settlers docked their ships here they weren't only enticed by beaver pelts. The adventurers were also happily introduced to sexual practices among the natives unheard of back in the Old Country.
"In some of the tribes it was the women who were the ones deciding the sexual activities," says Louise Hébert, a local tour guide who plans to lay out many lesser-known facts about sex and this city this weekend and the next. "They had to have sexual activities with a man before saying yes to marry him. It could be once, twice or over six months."
The stories behind the horizontal gyrations of generations of Montrealers have been sadly omitted from the city's official historical texts. It's a flaw that Hébert's company, Gladiatour, will try to remedy by hauling a few dozen rubberneckers around Montreal for two and a half hours to peek at lesser-known nooks and crannies once famous as dens of infamy and vice.
Myths, legends, hot spots
Hébert's tour also sets out to demolish some local sex myths. For example, she asserts that the filles du roi, female orphans sent to live at the Maison St-Gabriel in the Point in 1653 to help breed a population base for the new colony, don't deserve their salacioius reputation.
"Even in today's perception, a lot of people say that the filles du roi were les filles de joie, which is a nice way of saying prostitute, which they weren't. They were orphans that were in a way adopted by the king of France. I don't know how that reputation came about."
Montreal cemented its reputation as a sex capital during and after World War II thanks to pioneers like performer Lili St. Cyr, whose acts at the Gaiety at Clark and Ste-Catherine (now the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde) cleverly outmanoeuvred prudish local bylaws.
"At the time the regulations of the City of Montreal said that a performer could not come off stage with fewer clothes than they went on stage wearing. So every night she'd start out fully naked in a huge bathtub filled with bubbles, and she'd go out totally nude and begin to dress."
During those years farm girls new to the city would entice male passersby by perching in windowsills on cushions, but a certain location was considered heads and tails above other local whorehouses.
"If you said the number 312, everybody would know what you meant. The 312 was known throughout Canada for being the brothel with the nicest looking girls," she says. Nowadays the original building remains, sans well-worn mattresses, as Pub Quartier Latin at 316 Ontario, no longer a house of ill repute.
Bribes and bordellos
The sex trade suffered a dip near the end of the Second World War, but returned to full speed until the early 1950s, when the Catholic Church, along with prosecutor Jean Drapeau and his police chief bud Pacifique Plante, intervened against it with a vengeance. Hébert considers that the motives weren't so much anti-sex as taking aim at the system of kickbacks to the low-paid police officers. "It wasn't so much prostitution that they wanted to stop, but rather the involvement of the police with the bordello owners to let things go," she says.
Prior to the modern invention of hookers who show up at your door, three types of sex dens thrived in this city. "There was the maison ouvert, which everybody could go to," Hébert explains. "Those were the lowest-budget ones, and they were in the area around de Bullion. You had semi-closed ones on the Main between St-Antoine and Ontario, which required an invitation or a reference, but this could even be a taxi driver or a gas station attendant. And then you had the maison close, more like a private club of men who knew each other, often lawyers and policemen, places they'd rent for the afternoon, which were mostly farther west like Drummond and Crescent."
The $30 tour starts at Place d'Armes in front of the Bank of Montreal on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and again at the same time and place one week later, but is offered in French only. Hébert says an English version will be offered if there is a significant demand. For information call 844-4021.