Mike Kennedy remembers: H15200 Gilles Lamontagne

Celebrating a Lifetime of Service

H15200 Gilles Lamontagne reaches his 90th birthday, still going strong

By 12570

Mike Kennedy

Mr. Lamontange has had a longstanding affiliation with RMC. As Minister of National Defence in the Trudeau Cabinet he served as Chancellor of the College, and from 1996 to 2001 he served as Chairman of RMC’s Board of Governors. His many contributions to Canada were recognized with the awarding of honorary doctorates from both RMC in1986 and later CMR in 1989.

 (Following article first appeared in the Veritas magazine – Fall/Winter 2009)

Thanksgiving 2009

As Canadians pause to observe this autumn holiday, they can look back on a year of almost unprecedented economic turmoil. Even so, notwithstanding the difficult business climate and uncertain outlook for the future, all of us must never allow ourselves to forget that we have a great deal to be thankful for. As citizens of the greatest country on earth, we are fortunate to live in a land of limitless opportunity, and one in which we enjoy rights and freedoms that millions of people in other countries around the world can only dream about.

The society that Canadians of 2009 inhabit was built by generations from years gone by, and arguably none of these played a more important role in shaping our nation’s destiny than those who fought the Second World War. Over one million Canadians served during that conflict, and their selfless and heroic service helped to save the principles of democracy from near destruction. With the passage of time, veterans of that conflict are becoming ever fewer in number, but their contributions will never be forgotten. Figuring prominently among those who still remain with us is H15200 the Honourable Gilles Lamontagne, who on April 17 of this year reached a milestone birthday marking the end of the ninth decade of an unforgettable life.

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One need only glance briefly at his resume to quickly appreciate the fact that Mr. Lamontagne is a remarkable Canadian who has served his country with distinction in both war and peace. But to those of us who have had the great privilege and pleasure of getting to know him, he is also a person of extraordinary warmth, dignity, and grace, and someone who epitomizes the qualities of a statesman and a gentleman in a way that no member of today’s generation of public figures could ever hope to equal.

Born in Montreal on April 17, 1919, Gilles Lamontagne arrived in this world barely six months after the end of a conflict that had been, at least up until that point in time, the greatest and most costly war in history. The youngest son of a prosperous businessman, he took his first steps at a time when veterans of the Canadian Corps were returning home with a well-deserved reputation as being the “shock troops” of the British Empire. As a young man he studied at Collège Jean-de Brébeuf , a training ground for members of the French Canadian elite of that era. While at Brébeuf he became close friends with a charismatic and intellectual schoolmate named Pierre Trudeau, under whom he would serve as a federal cabinet minister nearly 40 years later.

After earning his B.A. from Brébeuf, Mr. Lamontagne completed one year of study at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales in preparation for a career in the business world. By that time, the spring of 1941, the Second World War was raging and the situation for the Allies had never appeared more grim. Recognizing that his duty lay in combat rather than in a classroom, in May of that year Mr. Lamontagne withdrew from his studies and volunteered for service with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Ten months later he was a qualified pilot, and three weeks after completion of his flight training in February 1942 he found himself on the way to England for service in Wellington bombers.

Almost exactly one year after his departure from Canada, Mr. Lamontagne’s career as a combat pilot came to an abrupt end. On the night of March 13, 1943, while returning home after successful completion of a bombing mission, his aircraft came under attack by a German fighter. Mr. Lamontagne struggled to keep the bomber airborne long enough to enable his crew to bail out, and then finally managed to exit the aircraft himself, landing in a Dutch farmer’s field. Two days later, he met the fate that was dreaded by every Allied airman, when he was captured by the Gestapo and became a prisoner of war.

What followed was twenty-seven months of harrowing captivity in German camps. The most arduous ordeal he was to encounter during his wartime service came in early 1945 when, on direct orders from Adolf Hitler himself, the Nazis emptied their POW camps in the eastern part of the Third Reich and forced over 250,000 Allied servicemen to travel westward towards central Germany.  Marching on foot through one of the coldest winters Germany had endured in decades, the POW’s were plagued not only by the harsh weather, but also by hunger, exhaustion, and sickness, especially dysentery, which was almost epidemic.

Worst of all was the despicable brutality of the German guards who drove the POW’s mercilessly and routinely murdered those who could not keep up. No one knows how many died on the “Long March”, but estimates suggest that at least 10% of the Allied servicemen who were forced to leave their POW camps did not survive.

Salvation for Mr. Lamontagne and his comrades came in early May when, after nearly forty days on the march, they awoke one morning to discover that their German captors had fled during the night. Shortly thereafter, they were found by troops of the British Army’s 9thArmoured Division. Rushed by aircraft to Brussels for medical care, Mr. Lamontange weighed little more than 100 pounds at the time of his liberation. Moved to England to recuperate, he was soon reunited with the members of his crew who had been shot down with him two years earlier. He returned by ship to Canada during the summer of 1945, and was released from the RCAF in August of that year.

For his gallantry in action during the war, Pilot Officer Lamontange was awarded a “Mention in Dispatches” by King George VI. Upon his return to civilian life he pursued his original plan of a career in the business world, and in 1946 he settled in Quebec City and opened a successful importing business. Three years later he was married to Mary Schaefer, a native of Ohio who was studying at Laval University, and their union eventually produced three sons and a daughter.

Though his postwar career as a businessman left him comfortably ensconced in civilian life, the time inevitably came when once again he was to answer a calling to serve his fellow Canadians. This time, he would serve not as a warrior, but rather as an elected official, first at the municipal level and later in the federal cabinet. In 1962, responding to the urgings of a number of Quebec City residents, Mr. Lamontagne entered municipal politics as a founding member of the “Progrès Civique” party, a new political movement which sought to reform the city’s administration. Elected as a municipal councilor that year, he served in that role until 1965, at which time he was elected Mayor of Quebec City. He was re-elected in 1969, and retained his office by acclamation in 1973, eventually serving a total of twelve years as the Mayor.

In May 1977, at the invitation of his friend and former schoolmate Pierre Trudeau, Mr. Lamontagne made the leap into the national political arena and earned a seat in Parliament as the Federal MP for the riding of Langelier. Over the next two years he served successively as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Energy, Mines, and Resources, Minister without Portfolio, and finally, Postmaster General.

When the Liberal government was swept out of power in the May 1979 general election, Mr. Lamontagne was nonetheless successful in retaining his seat. Returning to cabinet following the 1980 general election in March of that year he was appointed as Minister of National Defence (MND), a portfolio he was to hold until August 1983. As MND, he oversaw many of the key initiatives that were implemented in the Department during the early 1980s. Notably, he was the last Minister with wartime experience to hold the Defence portfolio, and the only one in Canadian history who had ever been a POW.

Following his retirement from federal politics in early 1984, Mr. Lamontagne was sworn in as Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec in March of that year, and continued to serve in that post until August 1990. Now retired from the public spotlight for nearly twenty years, he continues to reside in Quebec City region. At 90, he’s now arrived at an age that is long past what many other Canadians can expect to reach.  But notwithstanding his advanced years, Mr. Lamontagne has retained a level of energy and vigour that would be the envy of many people thirty or forty years his junior. He works out on a regular basis, plays golf in the summer and cross country skis during the winter, and continues to be actively engaged in the life of his community.

Dignified. Gracious. Elegant and impeccably bilingual. Those are the words that come to mind when meeting Gilles Lamontagne for the first time. But once you have a chance to get to know him, the qualities that really shine through are his pride in his francophone ancestry and in his native land, and his unwavering commitment to the values and ideals that the men and women of his generation fought and died for.

I’ve known Mr. Lamontagne for nearly ten years now, and over those years have had the pleasure of meeting him on numerous occasions. But if I were to point to one single occasion which will forever serve as an enduring memory of both the man himself and what he stands for, it would be the moment several years ago when, after sharing a most enjoyable dinner with my family and I, he turned to my son Shane (who coincidentally shares the same birthday as Mr. Lamontagne, April 17) and simply said, “You have a great future as a Canadian.”

At just ten years of age, Shane was obviously much too young to understand the significance of the words themselves, or appreciate who they were coming from. But later on in life, as he has a chance to reflect on his past encounters with Mr. Lamontagne and others like him, I can only hope that my son will come to understand that his first and foremost duty will be to serve his country with the same sense of pride and purpose that were manifestly evident throughout every stage of Mr. Lamontagne’s life.

He fought heroically for his country during the greatest war this world has ever known, and as a public servant continued to serve his country with dedication, integrity and honour long after the last sounds of gunfire fell silent. He’s a proud and passionately loyal Canadian, and a man who embodies the most commendable qualities that define a real leader and a true gentleman. And though he’s not an Ex-Cadet himself, to all of those who have passed through the Royal Military Colleges of Canada, Gilles Lamontagne will always be remembered as a tremendous friend and supporter, and someone whose life story will serve as an unforgettable inspiration to future generations of Cadets.

As H15200 the Honourable Gilles Lamontagne enters the tenth decade of his life, all of us can only say, it has been a great honour to know you, Sir, and thank you for your sacrifice, and for your outstanding service to Canada.

TRUTH, DUTY, VALOUR !

Respectfully submitted and dedicated to the memory of the officers and men of the Royal Canadian Air Force who gave their lives in the Second World War.

12570  Mike Kennedy