January 23, 1979
“Townships Crime worst in Quebec”. So read the headline on the cover of the Sherbrooke Record on January 23rd, 1979. Statistics released by the Quebec Police Commission showed that the Eastern Townships had the highest rate of crime of any region in Quebec in 1978 – higher even than the provincial average. The report noted that crimes against persons had “skyrocketed” in the region. The eleven Township municipalities having their own police forces collectively logged 377 crimes in the nature of homicides, rapes, sex crimes, armed robberies and other assaults in the year 1978. This was a 9% increase from the 345 crimes against persons reported in 1977. For those Township municipalities that did not have their own police forces – towns patrolled by the Quebec Police Forces (QPF) – the figures were even worse. The QPF showed a rise in violent crimes against persons from 87 in 1977 to 142 in 1978, a staggering increase of 63%. Raynald Gendron, the director of the police commission’s research and statistics division stated matter-of-factly that there was no accounting for the increase in crime.
Gendron may have been stymied, but the problem was due in part by the wave of consolidation that was merging smaller police forces under the umbrella of the Quebec Police Forces. In 1978, larger municipalities such as Sherbrooke and Magog were able to keep their forces in tact. While other towns such as Lennoxville and Brome were teetering on the brink of being swallowed up by the Provincial force. Still others such as Compton, Ayer’s Cliff and North Hatley had already succumbed to consolidation and lost their forces altogether. With consolidation came confusion. The QPF’s jurisdiction and responsibilities were growing at an accelerated pace. They were unfamiliar with the new territory and struggled to keep up adequate levels of service. The QPF force known as the Coaticook division (pronounced, “Quaticook”) had just eighteen men to cover over 2500 square miles, from Lake Memphremagog in the east to the New Hampshire border in the west, from the outskirts of Sherbrooke all the way South to the town of Stanstead on the Vermont border. The changes were confusing to both the police and public. For example, a short, two mile drive on route 143 – the main drag through Lennoxville -would take you through no less than three police jurisdictions – those of the Sherbrooke Municipal Police, the Coaticook division of the QPF, and the town police force of Lennoxville.
Not all of the problems could be attributed to consolidation. The Eastern Townships were a violent place. Reports of drug killings, bodies turning up in local rivers anchored to wheel rims and cement blocks, strangled go-go dancers, repeated stabbings of wives in domestic disputes; these were all common fair for L’Estrie, as the Townships were known in French. The regional chapter of the Hell’s Angeles was located in downtown Sherbrooke – right next door to a convent. Cowansville – located forty miles away from Lennoxville – had the area’s largest maximum-security prison. There were always reports of some inmate escaping only to wreak havoc across the Townships countryside. Lennoxville itself had an overabundance of rapes and sexual assaults – everything ranging from men exposing themselves, to peepers, to abductions and forced confinement charges. Violent crimes were widely reported in the French press but virtually ignored in the English papers. The English speaking establishment worked hard to promote an image of gentrification. Crime was unseemly. Reports of crime could hurt the region’s tourist industry and bring down property values.
In the closing remarks of his report on crime in the region, Director Gendron stated that the Province was not about to investigate why the Townships had become so “notorious” for crime. Finding out why, he stated, would require a “major sociological study.” Gendron conluded that in theory such a study should be undertaken, but in reality there were “too many variables to consider” to make the effort worthwhile.