Houde was born in Montreal on 13 August 1889 and died there on 11 September 1958. He was nicknamed "l'imprévisible"—the unpredictable. He was the only surviving child of Azade Houde and Josephine Frenette. He is descended from the first Houde ancestor, Louis Houde, who came from Manou, Eure-et-Loir, France to Quebec in 1647. Louis Houde's son was Louis H. who married Marie Lemay in 1685.
He was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of Quebec as a member of the Conservative Party for the riding of Montréal–Sainte-Marie in the 1923 election. He was defeated in the 1927 election, but re-elected in a by-election on 24 October 1928. He was elected leader of the Conservative Party on 10 July 1929, led the party to defeat in the 1931 election, and failed to win a seat in Montréal–Saint-Jacques after vacating his previous seat. He resigned as Conservative leader on 19 September 1932.
When George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Montreal on the 1939 royal tour of Canada and were greeted by cheering crowds, Houde turned to the King and said: "You know, Your Majesty, some of this is for you."
He moved to federal politics and lost in a bid for election as a Conservative candidate for the Canadian House of Commons in a 1938 by-election in the Montreal riding of St. Mary. In 1940, he was arrested and charged under the Defence of Canada Regulations. He was imprisoned at Camp Petawawa in Ontario until the end of the war. He ran again in St. Mary, this time as an independent candidate, in the 1945 federal election, but was again defeated. He won a seat as an independent candidate in the riding of Papineau in the 1949 federal election by less than 100 votes. He did not run for re-election in the 1953 election.
Houde became a figure of ridicule in parts of English Canada because of his conduct in opposition to conscription. During the 1949 federal election, the Toronto Star, which openly supported the Liberal Party, attempted to link the unpopular Houde with George Drew, then leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada even though Houde was running as an independent candidate against an official Progressive Conservative candidate. The Star accused Drew of making a secret pact with Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis to appoint Houde to the Cabinet as Drew's Quebec lieutenant should the Tories win the election. The newspaper's campaign reached its culmination the Saturday before the election with a banner front page headline reading:
DESTROY DREW'S HOUDE
GOD SAVE THE KING
(in later editions, the last line was changed to "VOTE ST. LAURENT").
Concurrent to his career in provincial and federal politics, Houde was mayor of Montreal from 1928 to 1932, from 1934 to 1936, from 1938 to 1940, and from 1944 to 1954.
When World War II came, Houde then campaigned against conscription.
On 2 August 1940, Houde publicly urged the men of Quebec to ignore the national registration measure introduced by the federal government. Three days later, he was placed under arrest by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on charges of sedition, and then confined without trial in internment camps in Petawawa, Ontario and Minto, New Brunswick until 1944. Upon his release on 18 August 1944, he was greeted by a cheering crowd of 50,000 Montrealers, and won back his job as Montreal mayor in 1944's civic election.
Houde was made Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur and Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1935, and an Officer of the Order of St John in 1953.
On his death in 1958, Camillien Houde was interred in the Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Montreal, Quebec in an Italian marble replica of Napoleon's tomb.
Mayor Houde was a reform-minded mayor in the areas of patronage, unemployment, and organized crime. He was also responsible for some of the major public park improvements in Montreal including the park on Mont Royal with its man-made lake and park facilities. "Camilliennes" were public washrooms built by Houde during the Great Depression.
After his death, Mayor Jean Drapeau named a new road over Mount Royal after Houde, an act many considered ironic, as Houde and many others had long opposed building roads over the city's famous mountain.
Mayor Houde threw a party for the then-new fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was described by Bill W in the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age as "probably the first official reception that any A.A. group ever had."