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

An early political rally


100_4906324303644_01140c0d6a

It seemed, in hindsight, to be less of a political rally, such as go on during an election campaign, and more of a small-town welcome to a Prime Minister.  It might well have been both.

On the lawn in front of a specially-built stage across from the band-shell, between beautiful Stewart Park and the stately old Town Hall of Perth, Ontario, my grandmother and I unfolded lawn-chairs and watched as final preparations were made for the arrival of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his wife Margaret, whom he had just married the previous March.

This was the summer of 1971.  My grandmother was a Conservative voter, though never a party member as far as I know.  “My father always voted Conservative,” seemed to be her reasoning.

Having retired as a school teacher only a few years earlier, my grandmother took pride in her town, kept up on civic and church affairs, and rarely let a good lesson slip past her grandchildren.

Still a few months shy of turning 12 I had experienced a bit of a political baptism by fire with my family.  It had been less than a year since the October Crisis and our home was not in Perth but rather in Quebec.  Mom and Dad had settled in Valleyfield in about 1957, towards the end of the Duplessis era, when Dad’s specialty textile plant moved from Perth to be closer to its Montreal owners.

By 1970, with four children, Quebec was home but I can only imagine how the events of that October must have shaken Mom and Dad.  What I remember was a lot of army vehicles around town and soldiers with heavy artillery, at buildings even remotely connected to the provincial and federal governments, and especially at bridges which crossed both the St. Lawrence River and Seaway.  This was considered to be a plausible escape route by FLQ members to quiet U.S. border crossings or to Ontario.

All of this seemed like a lifetime ago on this warm evening.  I don’t remember how the guests of honour arrived.  I don’t remember who else was there but can say with near certainty that prominent Perth families such as the Crains would have been among them, the local MP, the perennial Member of Provincial  Parliament Doug Wiseman, as well as local judge John Matheson who made a name for himself steering the Maple Leaf flag through Lester B. Pearson’s Parliament and to whom I am distantly related through MacDonalds and McIntoshes.  (He’d occasionally walk across from the court house to my grandmother’s veranda for a visit during those years.)

Words of welcome to the Trudeaus from everyone nearly completed, it came time for presentation of gifts.  The only one that I remember, to this day, was a large package of disposable diapers.  There seemed to be a mixed reaction, whether Justin Trudeau’s expected arrival the next Christmas had not been made public yet or perhaps the proud people of Perth thought it was a gift in poor taste.

I think my grandmother might have voted Liberal a couple of times before she died, and that’s how my Dad always voted, Mom will do so until her last ballot is cast.  My first vote was Liberal, when Joe Clark’s government was defeated in 1979, but I went on to be a New Democrat for many years, a Green for a few more, and now I think I’m circling back…

Rest assured I’ll never vote Conservative.

Two Beatles albums (from iTunes!) stir assorted memories


David Letterman, noting Yoko Ono’s 78th birthday last week, joked that she celebrated by breaking up The Jonas Brothers.

Back in the twilight of sixties, perhaps early seventies, a much-appreciated Christmas gift (namely for my older brother Craig but which the rest of us took full advantage of) was a record player. Not just any record player, either. This was stereophonic, which as far as we could tell just meant there were two speakers – left and right – with enough spare cord to separate them by a couple of feet or so. We later learned (of course Craig already knew) that cool things happened in one speaker, then the other, sometimes back and forth.

It wasn’t in a big coffin-sized cabinet like my aunt’s. It was very slim. The record player dropped down from inside like a Murphy bed and it had a spindle maybe six inches long where you could pile records one on top of the other and they would drop down, individually, as the one before it finished – very cool. This also worked for 45s (single songs, double-sided). An arm swung over from the corner and held the records in place up top until they were ready to hit the turntable.

It’s hardly a surprise, thinking back, that it was green – my mother’s favourite colour – kind of the same shade of green as the fridge and stove.

If I remember correctly, that Christmas Mom and Dad played it pretty safe (for them anyway) with gifts to us of the greatest hits albums of Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, the latter being a Christmas album some of which I now have in mp3 format for old times sake.

I’ll try to think of a list of many of the albums which eventually flopped down onto that stereo turntable but meanwhile, as I enjoy the remastered Beatles iTunes in my ears, I’ll share a few memories of them.

I remember seeing them on one of their Ed Sullivan Show appearances. I remember the black suits and ties, white shirts and the scandalous mops of black hair which they all shook at various times as they performed. I must admit my appreciation only grew for them after they broke up, I was quite young, probably allowed to stay up to see them because the mouse was on with Ed, or promise for later that night.

Craig had both Let It Be and Abbey Road, the two I’m listening to now, if not more.

I almost owned a late hit single of theirs – at least I was late trying to get it, which I didn’t. My first and last shop-lifting attempt was, among a couple of other things (pipe-smoking equipment well beyond my age), the single “Revolution”. Never did get it, but will never forget the reason why.

As I was heading for the mall exit at Woolco (that dates it right there) a man hooked me under my right arm, very discreetly, and asked me to “vide tes poches” – empty my pockets. Well, amateur that I was, hoping to impress my peers and yet flying woefully solo, he very nearly had a few extra lumps from the back of my pants!

I was red-faced, nearly crying I’m guessing by then, certainly panicked. His office was back between the washrooms and the shipping room. Long story short, he eventually told me that he wasn’t going to involve the police nor my parents. Good thing, too, because as I explained to him I was just a few months away from a once-in-a-lifetime school trip to London (so I must have been 15 or 16).

Other than being later than expected home that night, I escaped unscathed.

Happier memories just floating by come from a diner in the Bellerive district of Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, where I grew up. It was called Le Fricot (The Stew) best-known, by me, for its nice, brown french fries (second only to the chip van which parked near the tracks on Maden Street most summer evenings). The Fricot was a one-storey building, modern, cube-shaped (it might be mistaken for a bank nowadays) and was built on a corner of an otherwise older neighbourhood so I suspect one of our annual major winter fires probably cleared a spot for it. Inside, diner-style, were booths separated by faux wood just above elbow height and mini jukeboxes dangled over the partitions between booths. I’d guess the going rate was three songs for a quarter. I distinctly remember that opening yelp from The Beatles’ “Oh Darlin’” there!

Song titles – and picture me singing the background sopranos at the top of my lungs in the basement – included The (soaring) Long and Winding Road, the hammer instrumentation of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, the guitar opening and brass-in-bass line of Because, the simple, descending, repetitious bass clef piano line in Let It Be, and the lyrics alone from She Came Through The Bathroom Window were hilarious enough for this kid!

A grand old Montréal building enters a new, uncertain phase


When I read news from over the weekend that another former Montréal banking landmark is up for sale – there’s a wealth of information from this link – I found the photo (below) of “The Canadian Bank of Commerce” which I took a few years ago.

(In 1961 it merged with The Imperial Bank of Canada to become today’s Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce or CIBC.) Not long after that their charcoal-coloured skyscraper was built up the hill at the corner of Peel and Dorchester (now boul. René-Lévesque) in the heady days of the construction of Place Ville-Marie, the new Métro system and Expo ’67.

Whatever happens to this imposing structure, I trust the people of Montréal to put it to good use.

A doggone Christmas morning


It started off like any other Christmas morning.  My two sisters and I were up first, kneeling in front of the tree, keeping a respectful distance for our first assessments, but sliding in ever closer, checking the weight of a few parcels, seeing if there was anything we could guess.  We pointed out the missing cookies and milk to young Janice.

Mom and Dad soon peered in to the living room from the back hallway and when Mom said we couldn’t open gifts until Craig was up a small kitchen band was quickly assembled and Janice, Lynn and I marched downstairs to the bedroom he and I shared.  We coaxed Sparky, our black cocker spaniel-poodle mix, on to the bed.  Craig’s welcome was less than regal, and we beat a quick retreat, but we didn’t have to wait too long before he was on his way upstairs.

Our grandmother, visiting Valleyfield from Perth, Ontario emerged from her bedroom to sit in on the excitement.  Sparky, doing what dogs do to those not enthralled by them, leapt up and nearly snatched some of Grandma’s knitting which she clutched to her chest – several pairs of socks and mittens which she had knit for us.  We scolded Sparky loudly, with Grandma seemingly unfazed, telling us as she laid them on top of the other gifts that they were all about the same size so we did not need to worry about whose was whose.

“What do you say kids?” Mom asked.

“Thanks Gammy!” we shouted in unison.  (“Gammy” was the name our grandmother gave herself when she first became a grandmother at fifty years of age. For so long as she continued teaching, she thought, she was too young to be called “Grandma” or “Granny”.  The name stuck until her death at age ninety-five.)

After gifts had been unwrapped, Mom set about making a complete pancakes-and-sausages breakfast.

It soon occurred to us that Sparky wasn’t around.

“Oh I let him out the side door,” Dad said.

These seemingly innocent words were big trouble where Sparky was concerned.

“D-a-d!” came the response in some sort of four-part discord.

Mom looked like the hot kitchen and her blood pressure were tag-teaming against her.

“You know that dog doesn’t come home on his own,” she scolded.  “That’s the reason we got him!”  (We had taken possession of him from a third party who had done all the homework possible as far as seeking his owner.)

“Well he should know enough to,” Dad answered.  “I can’t understand why he doesn’t.”

With Mom’s breakfast spread nearly ready, she was understandably none too happy as Dad and his four kids got into our snow gear and went looking for Sparky.

We split up and went in four directions – west and east along Boulevard du Havre, at one end of the street, and west and east along Dufferin Road at the other end.

The streets were quiet, with most families still indoors enjoying the early hours of Christmas morning.

Our search was futile.  An hour or so later we assembled back on our driveway, heartsick.  Mom stuck her head out the side door.

“I wish you’d come in and have your breakfast.  I can’t keep it warm too much longer with the turkey due to go into the oven,” she appealed.

We were a pretty discouraged bunch, hungry yes, but not getting the full enjoyment from Mom’s hard work to be sure, Gammy trying to encourage us as best she could.

Mom was just filling the kitchen sink with hot water for the dishes when she glanced out a front window to see a cab pulled up across the driveway.

“Who’s that,” she began, “oh it’s Nancy and Bruce – and with their darn dog.  Now what are they doing in a taxi?”

Where were they coming from?  Weren’t they on their way to Nancy’s parents in Portland?

It turned out that their car had broken down somewhere between Montreal and Val-Cartier, where Bruce was stationed with the Canadian Forces. They had called Nancy’s Dad and he agreed to meet them at our place so long as they got that far on their own. Bringing along the dog ruled out the possibility of a bus so it was a cab driver’s lucky day!

Bruce insisted on keeping the dog tied up outside (and got no argument from Dad and Mom!).  Mom got some tea and toast ready for our visitors just as Homer pulled his large Buick into the driveway.

He stomped the snow off his boots and came in the side door and, although he did sit down for a bit of a rest, he insisted that he was not hungry and would not have anything to eat or drink, well maybe a tea since it was made.

Our guests weren’t long getting their gear ready and into the car, the dog in the back seat with Nancy.  The Buick was just backing away, with most of us in a line extending in from the door, when someone yelled “Sparky!”

Looking like he knew a bit of the trouble he had caused, Sparky hung his head low and walked up the back stairs.

“Sparky, on your bed!” Dad intoned, as someone wiped his feet with an old towel.

I don’t think it was noon yet.

Music therapy – after which you may need some (without the music)


I cannot remember a time when music was not a vital part of my life.  Music is in my genes, especially from my mother’s side of the family, with my grandparents having been matched up in the early 1920s as a violinist/fiddler being accompanied by his pianist.  What I wouldn’t give for a cell-phone video of one of their evenings together at a Depression-era house party in rural eastern Ontario!  My mother studied piano throughout her childhood, later graduating from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, then earning her qualifications to teach the subject in Ontario schools.  With probably fifty years of teaching individuals, coinciding with thirty-plus years on the pipe organ at church, and I’m sure you’d agree that it was inevitable my siblings and I would also have some natural gifts in this area.

Anytime I am asked what types of music I like the only genres not on the list, with the exceptions of a few crossover songs, are country and today’s pop.  This, of course, leaves me with a vast array of music to choose from but the music player in my head doesn’t shuffle the same way that an iPod can, but goes from mood-to-mood, sometimes lingering on and repeating, over and over, the same song.

As a teen I would play and sing along to songs such as Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself”, the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and “Hide In Your Shell” by Supertramp in my basement bedroom, no Karaoke machine required, at the top of my lungs.  I know this experience was not unique to me and, while the examples cited were just a part of my record library, my tastes were generally not too mainstream – certainly not for a guy!

All of this is to prepare you for a sampling of the YouTube video-jockeying I did late last night, prompted by two guys posting two different songs by Josh Groban.  The first was a memorial tribute, from a man who had lost his partner to AIDS several years ago, while the second was a Christmas season favourite passed on to his Facebook friends.

Then I was swept away, again, by this.

And by this.

The next selection, a lot less video than audio, was such a blessing to find recently (and another artist does sing it on camera but at a much jumpier pace than I was accustomed to.)  Years ago, when the AIDS Committee of Toronto offices were at 464 Yonge Street, there was a group of us who gathered each Sunday evening for a healing circle.  It always concluded with a slower, studio version of this song, and hearing it again sends through me chills of so many emotions:

André Gagnon – whose every recording I have possessed in formats ranging from 45s to LPs, and from cassettes to CDs and mp3s – composed this particular song in homage to beloved French Canadian poet  Émile Nelligan (1879-1941). The poetry, and tragic life, of Nelligan inspired many Québec-based composers, authors and playwrights.  In fact Gagnon, along with the legendary Michel Tremblay, later penned an opera based on Nelligan’s life and work.

These pictures hardly do his Québec notoriety justice.  Having always fascinated me in my adult years, I often pass some of his haunts whenever I am in Montréal although, to the best of my knowledge, the boutique hotel which bears his name in the Vieux-Montréal quarter has no direct connection.  (The first two images are from his home, on Laval Avenue at rue Du Square St-Louis, and the bust in the fourth picture is in that square across the street.)

 

And now, as I prepare to conclude, here is my favourite Christmas carol – bar none!

 

 

World AIDS Day 2010 – Stories – 2 – “This friend living with AIDS who gave me so much…” by Dominique Gauvreau


Each author in this series has generously given me permission to post their work. The views and experiences shared are their own. Where applicable, links will also be provided at the end of the piece.

This is the World AIDS Day, 2010 entry in Dominique Gauvreau’s blog Rencontre sous le Chêne de Mamré (Meeting under the Oak of Mamre):

(Google translation edited by KC)

 

“This friend living with AIDS who gave me so much…”

 

 

There are people who cross our path at random and without knowing just how they transform us.

In the 1980s, a mysterious illness was striking the gay community in Montreal. Acquaintances were dying around me. I was terrified. At that time I was not “out”, essentially living in a gay underground. I hid because I was ashamed of who I was. I hid because I was told again and again that being gay was against nature, immoral, abnormal. Imagine being more affected by what was dubbed the “gay cancer.”

I entered adulthood marked by a childhood in the holy water, where the Catholic Church thought it was the only one which could possibly save me from eternal fire. I was influenced more by the existence of the devil, and fear of damnation, than by a God who loves unconditionally. At this time of my life, I was still marked by homophobic attitudes, having suffered beatings and taunts at school. I was so ashamed that for fifteen years I kept secret a sudden sexual assault in late adolescence.

My silence and my imprisonment in these underground confines led to hidden relationships – dangerous, anonymous, without boundaries and dead to any fear of taking medications, alcohol and street drugs to gild my non-existence. That led to a deep depression. Well-meaning Christians stretched out their hands to heal me, yet told me that marriage was the solution to my very gay problem.

I didn’t get it, seeming to sink further. Naturally! That God rejects and hates gays was well known. I did not deserve to live.

I met Marcel at a party. He told me his life story. He was one of the first I knew who spoke openly about his HIV status. Marcel was a believer and soothed by his faith even though it was very different from mine.

We did not get together too often. We met once by chance walking on Ste-Catherine. Pleased to meet and share some time together, without a pre-arranged date, we went to the chic restaurant “Cristal” in the gay village.

One day as I paced the streets, feeling out of it, at a very low point in my life, religious and social tensions at their lowest, Marcel accosted me with his big smile, hugged me and told me how much he loved me. There was universal love, unconditional. I firmly believe that his actions that day prevented me from throwing myself under a subway train. He was kind of my angel of the day.

Several years have passed since then. Today, I work for GLBT inclusiveness and I am aware of the realities of HIV and AIDS. I’m light years beyond the young man I was at that time. However, I am shocked to see that so much remains to be done in moving toward a society that’s more tolerant and inclusive. Unfortunately, prejudice remains and there is a rise of the religious right and those who would rather see the social exclusion of people with HIV, showing homophobic feelings.

When I see the repercussions in the media of intolerance and hatred on young people who end their lives or who are considering doing so, I ask myself many questions. I have to wonder if anything has really changed in forty years. Some narratives or stories that I hear have disturbing similarities to what I experienced back then. When a character like Benedict XVI speaks of homosexuality as an injustice and against the will of God it is really baseless, ideological bullshit.

Getting back to my friend Marcel, I saw him one fall evening, cold and rainy, in a restaurant. He was letting me know about his next stay in hospital. He gave me his phone number and told me he did not really like people calling it, except me.

After several attempts to contact him, I remained without news. Worried I returned to the restaurant to ask the waitress if she had seen him lately. She told me that he had died.

Every December 1, I think of Marcel and I thank God for having placed him in my path. I think of all those I knew or I know who live with the reality of AIDS. I invite you to do the same and perhaps contribute a donation to an organization or recognized charity.

For my part, in Montreal, I suggest you donate to Cocq-SIDA. I also invite you to learn about the new “Jasmin Roy Foundation” which works to fight against homophobic attitudes in schools. This is another reality which touches me closely and which unfortunately has been topical in recent months.

 

 

"Would we still be friends if I was HIV-positive?"

 

 


Biblical text of the day

Today, the biblical text is not that suggested by Taizé as I usually do.

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’

Recontres sous le Chêne de Mamré

Town Crier silenced


‘The voice of Valleyfield’ has died and, while I hadn’t given him any thought for many, many years happening on to this story in The Gazette brought back great memories.

Anyone of a certain age from Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Québec will remember this man’s voice as he drove around town making paid announcements via loudspeakers on the roof of his truck (or van, as I recall). We’d think he would never stop talking as he passed our quiet street along two slightly more heavily travelled routes, making his announcement and then, after a beat, starting all over again. This would have been in the 1960s and ’70s, that I remember, although apparently it lasted longer than that. In fact he outlasted home delivery of eggs, bread and milk from three different men – all of which I remember, despite the rigormortis I’m sure any young bucks reading this think must be setting in to my typing fingers.

Now it’s not like Valleyfield didn’t have other forms of media. There was an AM radio station (it’s now FM), although I’m not sure how many would have listened to it (or perhaps so many did that its advertising rates were through the roof – not likely). There was a weekly community newspaper (and now there are two!) with most people subscribing to Montréal’s dailies and watching television from the city as well.

His first year on the job, 1946, was auspicious to say the least. He was hired by Montreal Cottons to bellow at picketing workers in Valleyfield during what was a violent strike, which I wrote about here a few years ago.

Suffice it to say that Antonin (Tony) Guevremont had a good gig for a whopping sixty years! I didn’t know he was thought of as town crier. (I would only become familiar with that term later in Niagara-on-the-lake and Perth, Ontario, but these were/are of the “jolly ol’ England” variety.)

While, according to The Gazette story, he made announcements for quite a variety of causes I vividly remember a few key words that I could pick out with my then very limited French-speaking abilities:

“Attention, attention, s’il vous plait. Bingo bourse ce soir à huit heures à l’église Saint-Eugène…” and I don’t recall what followed. Nevertheless I had all the information I needed, had I wished it: there was to be an evening of bingo at 8 p.m. at St. Eugene Church (a very modern structure which appeared, at least, to have stained glass from steps to steeple – which someone familiar with such things might have mistaken for broken bottles from the nearby Schenley’s distillery).

Completely coincidentally, that building turned up on the police blotter of one of the aforementioned weeklies last week after a suspicious fire. I gleaned from the article that the Roman Catholic archdiocese had unloaded the real estate and plans were afoot to convert it into a seniors’ centre. How’s that for irony? A Catholic church, used more for bingo than anything else since even I was a kid, now being turned into a place where seniors can (still) play bingo!

I think Tony would get a chuckle out of that. In light of the fire, were he still alive (and working) he might have needed to announce the postponement, or outright cancellation, of bingo!