Reading today (when I’m not writing)


 

When I read it’s a bit like grazing in front of the dessert table (minus the diabetic considerations).

So it is that I am currently reading, roughly a chapter or section at a time:

The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855: Glengarry and Beyond
by Lucille H. Campey
Robert Bourassa
by Georges-Hébert Germain (texte en francais!)
Those Who Save Us
by Jenna Blum (on the recommended list in the recently-read Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay)

 

It’s the paper book version of channel surfing but with far greater results.

I bought the Bourassa biography (still available only in French) after seeing the author on Tout le monde en parle several weeks ago. It is a pleasure to recognize the neighbourhood in Montreal where he grew up, went to school (later across town in Outremont), and acquired a taste for the cut and thrust of politics with which I can so identify. His father was a painfully shy civil servant, his mother a more boisterous lover of singing – all during a time, in the thirties, marked by the Great Depression and the foreshadowing of war. It was, in fact, his keen interest in the day-to-day developments of World War Two which helped make Bourassa the walking atlas he would become.

That’s as far as I’ve read thus far.

In the novel Those Who Save Us, a university researcher is helping a Holocaust researcher interviewing German-Americans who experienced the war in their homeland. Meanwhile her mother’s story, including the disappearance of the narrator’s Jewish father, is being told in flashbacks.

The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855: Glengarry and Beyond appeals to the historian-genealogist in me. I am finding plenty of references to the life my ancestors must have shared, some coming to the named-for-home Glengarry region in the south-easternmost part of Ontario and others to Lanark County in the military settlements of the townships around Perth, on land assembled by treaty with the Algonkian (Algonquin) people as wood and farm land for immigrants and, in the case of Perth, as a military settlement for half-pay and retired soldiers from the War of 1812, including both the European battles and those along the border with the United States.

I haven’t bought an e-reader yet, still enjoying the weight and touch of a book’s pages – three books even!

Adieu Madeleine Parent


Aerial view of  Montreal Cottons Valleyfield works. Copyright undetermined as per citation at Université de Sherbrooke's Bilan du Siècle <http://bilan.usherbrooke.ca>

Aerial view of  Montreal Cottons Valleyfield works, 1950. Copyright undetermined as per citation at Université de Sherbrooke’s Bilan du Siècle

I was saddened to learn of the death last night of the iconic Québec labour activist Madeleine Parent. She was 93 so I knew that when I wrote this tribute to her more than five years ago I would more than likely outlive her.

One thing is certain – the legacy of Madeleine Parent will continue to live on for many years to come!

Recalling the optimism of Expo ’67


It’s hard to believe that it will be forty-five years ago this spring since the opening of Canada’s first World’s Fair – Expo ’67.

I have assembled a number of post-card images from that summer (some photos, a few just artist’s concepts).

(Post-cards were the text messages of the day, sent by Canada Post with 5-cent stamps!)

We lived about an hour’s drive away, all the faster thanks to national centennial projects such as four-lane highways! I was seven years old so my memories have that bias but a brief film introduces the International and Universal Exposition:

“Passports” were issued, both day and season passes, and visitors were encouraged to have our passports stamped at each pavilion visited.

I remember arriving at huge parking lots near the Expo site, divided into sections with signs on light standards picturing animals and sub-divided by number, so our first task as kids was to commit to memory where we had parked: “Giraffe 7″, “Penguin 4″, etc.

From there we took the “Expo Express”, trains that looked like today’s older subway cars in Toronto, over to the main entrance.

Notice Habitat ’67, an architectural gem which remains a very special place to live even to this day. Hard to believe it was the product of Moshe Safdie‘s thesis at McGill University!

A great place to start, and meet up were we ever to get lost (I do not recall any such emergency), was the site of the iconic Canada and Katimavik Pavilions.

Like most of the exhibition buildings these are long gone but a nearby sculpture has lived to see many another day, as documented during my winter visit to Montréal two weeks ago, when I posed at Alexander Calder’s “Man”:

The exposition’s theme “Terre des Hommes – Man and His World” was so-named before such exclusive language would have been over-ruled.  Yet a more optimistic time, in my limited life-span, has never been seen.  Remember the first IMAX theatre, I believe it was Bell’s, where visitors stood along a circular railing while all matter of stomach-quivering adventure was experienced as we travelled across Canada?

The Federal Republic of Germany:

Kaleidoscope:

The United Kingdom:

The U.S.S.R. (when the Soviet Union was in a space race with its Cold War adversary the United States):

Buckminster Fuller’s spectacular geodesic dome, the United States of America pavilion, worth two post-cards – day and night – is one of the few structures still standing, with one very important foot-note. Now home to Montréal’s Biosphère which, with an irony next to foreboding, the federal government translates as “Environment Museum” the building suffered a major fire in 1976, destroying the transparent acrylic coating, and remained an empty shell for many years. Its surviving steel truss structure remained in place, however, thus making the Biosphère possible.

The Biosphère as I saw it earlier this month:

Another surviving – thriving – edifice from Expo ’67 is France’s pavilion, now home to Casino de Montréal (alas Expo’s monorail – named “Minirail” if memory serves – was dismantled when Terre des Hommes was no more):

Living as close as we did to Expo, it only seemed natural that guests of an aunt and uncle’s collection of cottages in Portland, Ontario, should come to our place to stay for a few nights. Our make-shift B & B, while charging less than even the cheapest motels, made enough over the summer -as I think I’ve recounted before – for Mom and Dad to pave our driveway.

Finding Émile


I reached another marker this week in my posthumous, intriguing, fan-like relationship with Montréal poet Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) when Craig’s partner, Claude, drove me to the site of his burial in Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. Even with a map of the cemetery it took us a while to find Marker #588 in Section N. At 350 acres, and with fifty-five kilometres of road, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is Canada’s largest cemetery, dating back to 1854, and fast closing in on a population of one million people’s remains.

He even wrote about the place, the only reference in his works to Montréal:

Notre-dame-des-neiges

Sainte Notre-Dame, en beau manteau d’or,
De sa lande fleurie
Descend chaque soir, quand son Jésus dort,
En sa Ville-Marie.
Sous l’astral flambeau que portent ses anges,
La belle Vierge va
Triomphalement, aux accords étranges
De céleste bîva.

Sainte Notre-Dame a là-haut son trône
Sur notre Mont-Royal ;
Et de là, son oeil subjugue le Faune
De l’abîme infernal.
Car elle a dicté: ” Qu’un ange protège
De son arme de feu
Ma ville d’argent au collier de neige “,
La Dame du Ciel bleu !

Sainte Notre-Dame, oh ! tôt nous délivre
De tout joug pour le tien ;
Chasse l’étranger ! Au pays de givre
Sois-nous force et soutien.
Ce placet fleuri de choses dorées,
Puisses-tu de tes yeux,
Bénigne, le lire aux roses vesprées,
Quand tu nous viens des Cieux !

Sainte Notre-Dame a pleuré longtemps
Parmi ses petits anges ;
Tellement, dit-on, qu’en les cieux latents
Se font des bruits étranges.
Et que notre Vierge entraînant l’Eden,
O floraison chérie !
Va tôt refleurir en même jardin
Sa France et sa Ville-Marie…

Below, closer to his home as a teenager on rue Laval (also shown) near Square Saint-Louis, is a bust of the young Nelligan, which enjoys a prominent place in that lovely park.  It remains a somewhat bohemian, albeit pricier, neighbourhood of artists and students among whom, over the objections of his parents, he found companionship among peers.

Born at 602, rue de La Gauchetière (not far from present-day Gare Centrale) on Christmas Eve 1879, and baptized at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church on Christmas Day, he was the first son of Irish immigrant David Nelligan and Emilia Amanda Hudon, a francophone and daughter of the former mayor of the lower St. Lawrence town of Rimouski. Two younger sisters, Beatrice and Gertrude, followed. It cannot be overlooked that Nelligan’s bi-cultural background represented something essential to the understanding of Montréal culture at the time (think of Hugh MacLennan’s later work “Two Solitudes”). At the time of Nelligan’s birth, the percentages of francophones and anglophones in the city-proper was tied (and the English overwhelmingly waved power over the French). It was only after the annexation of outlying “towns”, which have been part of Montréal for generations now, and with increased migration from rural areas to the city, that the proportion of francophones grew to 75% by 1920.

On the outside, his childhood would have appeared to be pretty good, spent between the family home in Montréal and their summer residence in Cacouna, not too far from his mother’s birthplace. However Nelligan skipped school increasingly, devoting more and more time to his love of writing poetry. He left school outright in 1897, over the strong objections of his working-class father.

Childhood, despair, difficult relationships with his individual parents right out of a session with Freud, social awkwardness, love, sin, music and a morbid fascination with what he viewed as the relief of death dominate his work.

The story is told, in the preface to P.F. Widdows’ bilingual edition of “Émile Nelligan – Selected Poems”, of David Nelligan sending his son off to Liverpool, as something of a would-be merchant mariner. Alas he was back home in two months. His father having given up on him, as Widdows writes, “he never again submitted himself to what the world and his father called work”.

Émile’s work, however, his poetry, continued unstopped.

His first published poem appeared in the journal Le Samedi de Montréal on June 13, 1896, which he submitted under the pen-name Émile Kovar. It was Rêve fantasque, an early indication of his fascination with death, even suicide.

Qu’il est doux de mourir quand notre âme s’afflige,
Quand nous pèse le temps tel un cuisant remords,
-Que le désespoir ou qu’un noir penser l’exige -
Qu’il est doux de mourir alors!

My shaky translation:

How sweet to die when our soul is grieved,
When we weigh the time such a bitter remorse,
-Such black despair of thinking that is required
It is sweet to die then!

Nelligan was just sixteen years old.

Between 1896 and 1897 he met, and was taken under the wing of, Roman Catholic père Eugène Seers, better known in Montréal literary circles as Louis Dantin. An encouraging critic of Nelligan’s work, he published some of his religious-themed poems in the newsletter of his Order and was instrumental in preparing his protegé’s collected poems for publication after Nelligan’s mental breakdown.

Joining, quitting, then re-joining, l’École littéraire de Montréal which met at the Château Ramezay (pictured below in Old Montréal) Nelligan’s brief public reading stint came to a dramatic end during the presentation of three of his poems to members, one of them his most well-known La Romance du vin. Following a rapturous reception from his audience a nearly-ecstatic Émile Nelligan was carried away on the shoulders of his friends during – or after – which he suffered a psychotic breakdown.

That was May 26, 1899.  He was diagnosed with irreversible psychoses, before schizophrenia had been named.

At the insistence of his parents, Nelligan was confined to la Retraite Saint-Benoît, a Catholic brothers’ retreat centre at the eastern end of the Island of Montréal. He was moved to what was then the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum in 1925, where he remained until his death on November 18, 1941.

In 1979, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp which paid tribute to one of his most widely-read poems Le Vaisseau d’Or:

“Le Vaisseau d’Or”

C’était un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l’or massif: 
Ses mâts touchaient l’azur, sur des mers inconnues; 
La Cyprine d’amour, cheveux épars, chairs nues, 
S’étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif. 

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil 
Dans l’Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène, 
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène 
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil. 

Ce fut un Vaisseau d’Or, dont les flancs diaphanes 
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes, 
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés. 

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève? 
Qu’est devenu mon coeur, navire déserté? 
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l’abîme du Rêve! 

“The Ship of Gold”

It was a great ship carved from solid gold:
Its masts touched to the skies on uncharted seas;
Venus, goddess of love, her hair streaming, her flesh bare,
Flaunted herself on the prow beneath a blazing sun.

But one night it struck the great reef
In that treacherous ocean where the Siren sang,
And the horrible shipwreck tilted its keel
Into the depths of the abyss, ineluctable coffin.

It was a ship of gold whose diaphanous sides
Revealed treasures which the profane mariners,
Loathing, Hatred, and Neurosis, disputed among themselves.

What remains of it in the brief tempest?
What has become of my heart, a deserted ship?
Alas! It has foundered in the depths of the dream!

Source: Wikipedia, translator unknown

My very first introduction to Nelligan was through the music of pianist and composer André Gagnon .  On an early album was a tune entitled “Nelligan”.

Then, around 1990, Gagnon collaborated with playwright Michel Tremblay and mounted an opera/musical “Nelligan”.

One of Nelligan’s poems Soir d’hiver was put to music by the recently-deceased Claude Léveillée

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
Ô la douleur que j’ai, que j’ai!   Oh the pain I have, that I have!

Tous les étangs gisent gelés,   All ponds lie frozen,
Mon âme est noire: Où vis-je? où vais-je?   My soul is black: Where am I living? Where am I going?
Tous ses espoirs gisent gelés:    All his hopes lie frozen:
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège   I am the new Norway
D’où les blonds ciels s’en sont allés.  Hence the fair skies are gone.

Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Au sinistre frisson des choses,  The thrill of sinister things,
Pleurez, oiseaux de février,   Weep, birds of February,
Pleurez mes pleurs, pleurez mes roses,   Weep my tears, cry my roses,
Aux branches du genévrier.  On branches of juniper.

Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.   My window is a garden of frost.
Ah! comme la neige a neigé!   Ah! as snow snowed!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre   What is the spasm of life
A tout l’ennui que j’ai, que j’ai!…   For all the trouble I have, that I have! …

A lovely boutique hotel in Vieux-Montréal, complete with the renowned Verses restaurant, bears his name and celebrates his legacy. Hôtel Nelligan opens onto the cobble-stoned Rue Saint-Paul

Having learned about Nelligan’s impressive body of work (to say nothing of a promising career) dashed by mental illness that was treated with the crude methods of the day, I felt some identification with him – if only in the sense of having felt private despair.  I almost never fail to walk past Nelligan’s bust in Square St-Louis when I’m in Montréal.  I am so pleased to be connecting my love of André Gagnon’s music, the poetry of Émile Nelligan, my fascination with Nelligan landmarks downtown, and now his grave-site on the beautiful slopes of Mont-Royal.

Over 400 “Friends for Life” to thank as they cycle the shores of my gene pond, river, and canals!


There is some hope that this near-historic hot weather will return to “normal hot” by Sunday.  I have no doubt that this will be a great relief to all involved in the annual Friends for Life Bike Rally which leaves Toronto that morning on a six-day, six hundred kilometre ride to Montréal.

It was ten years ago that I completed the 5-kilometre Pride and Remembrance Run in Toronto, something of a mountain-moving feat given my health, which I approached with more than a little trepidation. The spirit alone of this bike rally pulls me in as a voyeur via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter each year.

Aside from the wonderful cause, Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (part of my life since even before I tested positive for HIV twenty-two years ago in 1989), the route has particular meaning to me as it traces – sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards – the emigration of generations of ancestors, mostly from the British Isles and Ireland but also France and Québec, to villages, towns and cities along the St. Lawrence River, the Lachine and Soulanges Canals, Lac St-Francois and Lake Ontario. (This does not include places in inland counties which they eventually helped clear and farm.) These historic ties are top-of-mind as I’ve been working hard on my family tree, particularly this year.  Ancestral hubs, those along the route at least, include Brockville (where new arrivals disembarked and went overland to the north and west), and many points on the route east to Lancaster (where the Dairy Queen at which rally participants will be indulging is a stone’s throw from a cemetery containing the remains of many Scottish immigrant and United Empire Loyalist relatives of mine).

Now, see, if I was along how interesting my yammering would be? Like endless slide-shows or home movies from your childhood!

Heading across the border into Québec signs soon give directions to Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, a small island city where Lac St-Francois squeezes back into the aforementioned Soulanges Canal and St. Lawrence River. It’s an almost completely French-speaking place which, practically from birth,  gave me such an appreciation for the French fact in our country.  From here to Montréal, along the Soulanges, Lac St-Louis and Lachine Canals, are communities with my own memories and the histories of people I never knew but who weaved their France-formed branches into mine via marriages long ago.

Two views from the cycling paths along the Lachine Canal

Once downtown the riders and crews will head to Place Emelie-Gamelin where they will most certainly be warmly welcomed to the annual Divers/Cité celebrations well underway.

This journey is such an inspiration to me.  Many participants are HIV-positive themselves.  I know what it took to run 5 km.  I don’t know what it would be like to even wake up and get going every day, as early as these folks, even if my only duty was cleaning up our camp-sites and riding in a school bus for 600 km!

Some time, maybe.  I’ll leave it on my bucket list.

Licence to drive, licence to vote


When I vote in advance polls this weekend I will not be asked to dip a finger in purple ink.  Armed guards will not be inside or outside the polling station.  My vote will not be influenced by bribes or intimidation.  Sad then, isn’t it, that so many Canadians, having seen the struggles for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa this winter, will not exercise their democratic right between now and May 2nd and yet will feel free to complain about the outcome!

If barely sixty percent of Canadians old enough to vote will do so, all the more reason – among others – to lower the voting age to sixteen.

As difficult as it is for this 51-year old to imagine that 16-year olds were only born around 1995, the fact is that they are in school, and have hopefully had at least some compulsory lessons in Canadian history and social studies.  What a great environment of debate and discussion to spark an interest in How Canadians Govern Themselves .

Only as an adult, hearing of the distance so many people feel from our democratic institutions, could I truly appreciate growing up as close as I did to Ottawa (and spending summers even closer).

Map picture

Going to high school near the site of the War of 1812 Battle of the Châteauguay, which thwarted an over-land invasion by Americans bent on conquering Montréal, I was gifted to have a couple of very enthusiastic history teachers who placed a lot of emphasis on local events.  As this also coincided with the Parti Québecois’ historic first election to government in 1976 there was no shortage of material – and of course there was lots of study of the October Crisis of 1970 a few years before.

Each year of high school included a day-trip to Ottawa where we would tour Parliament, at least one museum, and the Experimental Farm.  Setting off from Ormstown, we’d travel through my home-town of Valleyfield (or its formal name, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, which honoured French-Canadian lieutenant-colonel Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry, hero of the aforementioned La Bataille de la Châteauguay), up past the sprawling horse farms of St-Lazare and the Ottawa River-side town of Hudson (home of NDP leader Jack Layton) to Highways 40 and the 417 which sped us to our destination.

I know that when it came to history and politics I was definitely a nerd but I look back on these opportunities with gratitude.

During the summer I split my time between Portland, Ontario on the Rideau waterways and Perth which, as a War of 1812 military settlement, has a great deal of history in its own right.

In the grand old court house across the street from my grandmother’s, at the time, there sat a judge for many years (John Matheson) who, as a local Member of Parliament during the Lester B. Pearson government, handled the political sausage-making which led to Parliament adapting our much-loved Maple Leaf flag.  Matheson, so my grandmother boasted, is a distant relative.  My great-grandmother was a sister of Judge Matheson’s grandmother.  (The Scottish side of my family make it our life’s work to trace our bloodlines back centuries to the Highlands – roots which I always blame, without evidence admittedly, for my fair, irritation-prone skin.)

All of which is to bring me back to the fact that it was in my youth, even before learning to drive, that I also was most intensely learning about politics and how government works.  I’m sure the same is true today so, with so much pathetic apathy among adults, let’s thrown open voting to young people.

Old enough to drive?  Old enough to vote!

André Gagnon


The upright grand piano in our living-room was given a good work-out most days when I was a kid, if not from older brother Craig or me (our sisters never took to it) then most certainly from Mom’s many piano students on weekdays after school, evenings and the occasional Saturday.  Piano music, therefore, is something I have always appreciated – and in most every genre of music.

I latched onto a recording artist during the 1970s and claimed his music as my own.  In fact I just came across his most recent recording on iTunes.  Prolific and well-loved Québec musician André Gagnon, not to be confused with impressionist André-Philippe Gagnon, was born 2 August 1939 in Saint-Pacôme-de-Kamouraska, one of nineteen children!

Map picture

The artwork on the cover of Gagnon’s album, Le Saint-Laurent, coupled with the very dramatic music of the title track, convey so well the ever-changing light, wind and colours of the widening river here with rolling hills adding to the beauty.

1252073628_le-st-laurent

Hand-in-glove with Le Saint-Laurent (1977) is Neiges, released in 1975, which introduced Gagnon to more fame in Canada outside Québec.  Incidentally, even at times when Gagnon appears to have vanished from the public eye here, he has maintained a very busy performance relationship with the people of Japan.  These two albums have travelled with me over the years in their LP, cassette, CD and now mp3 formats.  Also, if you’d like to get a sense of him in concert (which I’d highly recommend), he recorded a concert in Montréal a few years ago when the Bell Centre was named for the Molson family or their famous products.  I actually prefer the live version of Neiges as it, and all selections from other albums played that night, was souped up with some brilliant orchestration!

While a student at Niagara College I chose Gagnon as my subject for a music feature assignment.  In addition to highlighting his music, his record company (STAR, a division of Polydor) sent me an interview he had done with a Montréal radio personality which I was able to edit into my program.

I had the pleasure of seeing him live on two occasions, in the early eighties, back when I was playing the aforementioned albums over and over again.

The first time was at Massey Hall in Toronto, my first-ever visit there, on a date with a female co-worker from St. Catharines.  Of course that hall is pretty magical, as it was that evening.  The next time, if I’m not mistaken, was at Brock University in St. Catharines.  The music was fantastic but the concert ended a little strangely when the audience seemed more interested in getting home than anything else.  He acknowledged a couple of us yelling for more and sent us home happy with an encore.

Back when I first became a fan I was aware that he lived in a beautiful home on square Saint-Louis between the bohemian rue Prince-Arthur, the Latin Quarter, and the lovely public square.  It was no accident that his residence was once home to iconic, tragic nineteenth-century Québec poet and friend-in-history Émile Nelligan .  He and famed playwright Michel Tremblay would later collaborate on a modern opera, Nelligan, featuring some of his more well-known poems, a recording of which was later issued.

Well, as we used to say in the newsroom, talk about “burying the lead”!

André Gagnon has returned to the recording studio after seven years away from the environment.  The result? Les chemins ombragés (Shady Lanes), beautiful music he says was inspired by nature. Gagnon performs both solo and accompanied by l’Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivières, under the direction of Jacques Lacombe (who also conducted an orchestra assembled for the Molson Centre concert).

D i s c o g r a p h y
This is a list of André Gagnon’s albums.  He also had several successful singles which were not part of an album release.

Year
Title

1964
André Gagnon – Piano et orchestre

1965
Léveillée-Gagnon

1966
Une voix, deux pianos

1968
Pour les amants

1969
Notre amour

1969
Mes quatre saisons

1971
Let It Be Me

1972
Les Turluteries

1972
Encore

1973
Projection / Les forges de St-Maurice

1973
Les grands succès d’André Gagnon

1974
Saga

1975
Neiges

1977
Le Saint-Laurent

1978
Mouvements

1981
Virage a gauche

1982
Les grands succès/Greatest Hits

1983
Impressions

1986
Comme dans un film

1989
Des dames de coeur

1990
Nelligan (with Michel Tremblay)

1992
Noël

1993
Les jours tranquilles

1993
Presque bleu

1994
Romantique

1995
Piano

1996
Twilight Time

1996
Musique (Coffret de collection)

1997
André Gagnon au Centre Molson

1997
Éden

1997
La collection émergence

1999
Juliette Pomerleau

1999
Printemps

1999
Été

1999
Automne

1999
Hiver

2001
Histoires rêvées

2003
Piano solitude

2010
Les chemins ombragés