Ernest Côté was the 101-year-old D-Day veteran attacked by a thug before Christmas in his Ottawa apartment, but he was much more than that. After distinguished service during the war, he reverted from colonel to mister – or monsieur – and led an extraordinary life: He was at the birth of the United Nations as part of the Canadian delegation to the first meetings of the UN General Assembly; he was one of a team of five Canadians who helped draw up the guidelines for the World Health Organization; and he was Canada's deputy solicitor-general during the FLQ Crisis of 1970 and the invocation of the War Measures Act that followed.
His start in life was unusual in that he was brought up in a French-speaking family in Alberta, and that made him at home in all parts of the country and the world. Mr. Côté, who died at Ottawa's Montfort Hospital on Feb. 25 at the age of 101, spent his working career at the pinnacle of military, government and diplomatic life in Canada.
Ernest Adolphe Côté, was born in Edmonton on June 12, 1913, the third son of Cécile (née Gagnon) and Jean Côté. Jean was a land surveyor who traced the boundary between Alaska and the Yukon, among other things. A mountain in Alberta was named in his honour and there is a hamlet in the northern part of the province called Jean Côté, 125 kilometres northeast of Grand Prairie.
Jean died when Ernest was 11 years old, and the two elder sons supported the family while Ernest went to a French-speaking Jesuit boarding school in Edmonton. Like many other Jesuit schools, its curriculum was based on the classical college system used in Quebec, and it granted degrees from Laval University, in his case a bachelor of science degree.
After college, he worked at a number of jobs, including one as a bilingual announcer for CBC and Radio-Canada. He was an office boy and then a clerk with the Alberta auditor-general's department from 1931 to 1935. After that he went to law school at the University of Alberta. Realizing the war was coming, he took an officer's training course and when war was declared in September, 1939, he was attached to the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos, and sent to Britain as a lieutenant.
When British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk after the fall of France in June of 1940, Canadian troops under General Andrew McNaughton were all that were left to protect southern England from German invasion. After that threat faded, Mr. Côté was sent to a staff college in Britain and quickly promoted. He soon became quartermaster general of the Third Canadian Division, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. His job was logistics, organizing everything from gasoline to ammunition for Canadian troops. He was singled out for an Order of the British Empire in January of 1943, a rare honour for a young staff officer.
"He is a very conscientious and painstaking staff officer, active and practical. Most outstanding in all respects and with a devotion to duty well worthy of recognition," read part of the citation.
Lieutenant-Colonel Côté then helped prepare the Canadian army for Operation Overlord, the D-Day landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944. He landed at 11 a.m. that day, and though the Canadian forces had made the deepest penetration into German lines, the beach was still a dangerous place to be since it was well within range of German guns.
"His concern that day would be making sure supplies were sent forward to where they were needed. The assault battalions went ashore with what they could carry on their person and in whatever light vehicles were landed early, says Steve Harris, chief historian at the Department of National Defence, in Ottawa. "There was an expectation that the German counterattack – a strong German counterattack – would come in that night. The 'Q' [Quartermaster] staff's job was to push materiel forward to allow those at the front to fight these off."
Lt.-Col. Côté was mentioned in dispatches for his service in wartime Europe. After five years overseas, he was sent back to Canada in December, 1944, and promoted to the rank of full colonel in early 1945. While he was looking for an apartment in Ottawa, he met Madeleine Frémont, a lieutenant in the Canadian army. After a short courtship, they were married later that year.
After the war, he left the army and as a bilingual lawyer joined the civil service as an adviser to the Canadian delegation to the United Nations, shuttling between New York, London and Paris.
In June of 1946, he was one of the Canadians at the inaugural conference of the World Health Organization, and the only one of the five who was not a medical doctor. In 1948, he attended a United Nations meeting at the Hotel Raphael in Paris with, among others, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, General Georges Vanier, the future governor-general, and Charles Ritchie, the diplomat and diarist. Later that year Mr. Coté attended the Imperial Defence College in London and became legal adviser to the Canadian High Commission in London.
In 1952 he moved to Ottawa, working first as head of the American division of the Department of External Affairs. He rose quickly and in just a few short years was a deputy minister (the chief civil servant in any cabinet department). As deputy minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources, he worked on projects such as the restoration of the fortress at Louisbourg in Nova Scotia and the negotiations for the St. Lawrence Seaway, which was then under construction. In his memoirs, Réminiscences et souvenances, published in French by the University of Ottawa Press, he said the Americans wanted control of all three locks in the international section of the seaway, but in the end Canada controlled one and kept a voice in the operation.
In 1957, the Progressive Conservatives under John Diefenbaker defeated the Liberal Party, which had been in power for close to 22 straight years. Mr. Côté admitted it was a shock for the senior mandarins, but they knew their loyalties belonged to the government of the day, not any one party.
"A good number of the [senior] civil servants were veterans who had respect for hierarchy," he wrote in his memoirs. "Thus when Colonel [Douglas] Harkness became minister he invited me to spend an evening with him at his chalet in the Gatineau to bring him up to date in what was going on in his new ministry, this was not difficult." Mr. Côté was later deputy minister of Veterans Affairs.
Mr. Côté's most demanding post was deputy solicitor-general during the October Crisis of 1970, when members of the Front de Libération du Québec kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner, in Montreal, then kidnapped and murdered Pierre Laporte, a Quebec cabinet minister.
"The Armed Forces, fully armed, patrolled the streets of Montreal, Quebec and Ottawa and stood guard at the residences of important people. Unheard of in the 20th century!" Mr. Côté wrote.
Being in charge of security during the FLQ crisis caused some tension at home, as at least one of his four children was critical of the War Measures Act, brought in by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and administered in part by the RCMP, which came under the solicitor-general's jurisdiction.
During that period, he was also a governor of the University of Ottawa while his daughter Denyse was a student there at a time of campus unrest.
"I remember it because I was a leftie at the time. He was a very liberal man and we never argued. At one point he drove me to a demonstration at the University of Ottawa and said, 'Good luck with your revolution.' And I said, 'Good look with your repression.' The fact that I was a leftie, he didn't take it personally," Ms. Côté said.
During the October Crisis, Jean-Pierre Goyer was named solicitor-general. Mr. Côté didn't like him and he was the only cabinet minister criticized in his memoirs. He said Mr. Goyer appointed his girlfriend as chief of staff and asked that she be given an Air Canada pass, as if she were his wife. By 1972, Mr. Côté had had enough.
Mr. Goyer "had clearly decided to exercise the functions of deputy minister, contrary to instructions he had received from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau," Mr. Côté wrote.
He resigned his post and was made ambassador to Finland. He retired from the civil service in 1975. One of his projects in early retirement was building a cottage by hand at Lady Lake in the Gatineau Hills, near Ottawa, a building he called The Folly. He travelled while his wife was still alive, but gave up golf and other activities as he aged. His wife, Madeleine, died in 1991. Mr. Côté was mentally sharp and lived alone in his own apartment in Ottawa.
Mr. Côté received the French Legion of Honour at a ceremony at the French Embassy in Ottawa in 2004. Last year, a week before his 101st birthday, he travelled to France for the anniversary of D-Day.
He survived a home invasion in his apartment in December and said afterward, "Some people think that [if] you're 101 years of age you crumble up and wonder, 'Oh why, what was happening.' No, I was just mad," he said in an interview.
It subsequently came to light that DNA recovered in Mr. Côté's case linked the suspect to an unsolved triple murder eight years earlier. But before either case could go to trial, Mr. Côté died. According to his family, his death was the result of a long-term heart condition and was not related to the attack.
He leaves his children, Michel, Benoit, Denyse and Lucie; and four grandchildren.
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