Gazette’s “Tale of Two Cities” hits where I once lived

This morning’s Montreal Gazette hits home, emotionally and almost literally, with its feature “Tale of Two Cities” (under Editor’s Picks).

Comparing two small cities – Salaberry-de-Valleyfield (pop. +/- 40,000), in the extreme southwestern corner of the province, and Rivière-du-Loup (pop. 22,439), several hundred kilometers to the northeast – the newspaper contrasts the economies, and the fortunes (not necessarily economic), of the two municipalities.

As I have written about elsewhere in this blog, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield is where I grew up. While no longer the place I call home – nor do any other members of my family (although my brother, in Montréal, is just 60 kilometers away) – Valleyfield is still my hometown.

It is interesting, to me, how much I have been influenced by my years there in ways – both large and small – that I take for granted or, at least, I do not always fully appreciate. Living as an English-speaking person in an overwhelmingly French-speaking town gave me an empathy, which I hold to this day, for Québec’s dominant language and culture. The English majority of Canada, and the colonialist English history of Québec, ensured my space in English-language schools and ‘community’ during those awkward years between “The Quiet Revolution” and the election, in my second-to-last year of high school, of the first Parti Québecois government in 1976.

The PQ’s progressive social policies, by the way, made the party far less objectionable to me than for many English-speaking people in the province. This was, perhaps, easy for me to say, though, as my post-secondary education would take me out of Québec less than a year later. As Niagara College students and faculty of that time can attest, however, I was a great defender of Québec during those early days of the PQ.

My first opportunity to show that publicly was when the late, legendary CBC journalist Barbara Frum visited one of my classes and, as the then-host of As It Happens, she and I politely and enthusiastically exchanged views on the René Lévesque government. I also had one of my first-ever letters to the editor published that fall when Maclean’s Magazine printed my response to something broadcaster Gordon Sinclair had written about Québec.

So, to quote the headline given that letter, I “know whereof I speak” as a 17-year old college rookie then and, with many memories of Valleyfield, now.

To read the Gazette article on Valleyfield, particularly the statistics on post-secondary education, is to ground myself in gratitude for the sacrifices my parents made to put, not one but four, kids through college or university.

Dad was a supervisor in a small, long-since-closed, specialty textiles plant – Springdale – in an industrial town then known for much larger employers like Montreal Cotton/Dominion Textiles (of, as I noted here, Madeleine Parent fame), Schenley’s (whose whiskey bottle labels proudly included the name Valleyfield), a past war-era C.I.L. munitions factory, whose suburban location – Nitro – was named for, guess what, nitroglycerin, a zinc refinery, large chemical plants, such as Allied Chemical Canada Ltd., and – from the time I was a baby – Goodyear.

Incidentally, to read a history of Allied, combined with C.I.L. and other large plants, is to realize just how potentially explosive Valleyfield was back then (and may well still be). There were, indeed, a couple of memorable accidents while I grew up. It is a wonder, too, that my blood does not glow in the dark. Heavy industry was part of my subconscious world-view.

Yet, and this is thanks to Mom’s role as in-home music teacher to dozens of children, and both Mom’s and Dad’s involvement in Valleyfield United Church (where Mom played, and directed the choir, from a beautiful Casavant Frères pipe organ), I never felt, as a kid, like I was part of a hands-dirtied industrial society – although Dad certainly was. Perhaps it was the liberal United Church upbringing, more than anything, which made me the socialist I am today.

Even in my high school which, like the hospital, was a regional, English-language school in Ormstown, I was more aware of local farm families than company-town kids. I was, stereotypically – if not flamboyantly so – gay, a member of the school choir, band and drama clubs. I don’t need to think hard, though, to remember how the economy in Valleyfield, certainly, revolved around industry that employed well-paid, unionized workers.

Dad and Mom moved to Valleyfield in the mid-to-late 1950s, between the time my older brother was born, in Perth, Ontario, and I came into the world in October of 1959 in Ormstown, Québec, twenty kilometers from Valleyfield, where the region’s English-language hospital was located. (My two sisters were also born there.) Dad’s employer, Springdale, had decided to shut down its Perth operations and move them to Valleyfield, closer to the firm’s Montréal headquarters. Suffice to say I was a first-generation citizen of Québec, Canada.

I went to school with older siblings – and there were twelve of them – of Gerald McKissock, whose personal story, related to the pending loss of so many jobs at Goodyear, is featured in both the print and audio-slideshow versions of the Gazette story on Valleyfield. I remember when Gerald was born (he is just six years my junior) to a family whose lifestyle was, to say the least, modest. He, better than my memory, could tell me which of his siblings were in my school classes.

So, as I read today’s Gazette I am filled with sadness for the Goodyear families of Valleyfield. To see the stark statistics on higher education from 2001, showing 38 per cent of locals between ages 45 and 64 never earned a high school diploma, (that demographic age group takes in we three oldest Chaplin children), is to be reminded of the sacrifices my parents made for us.

This is not to boast, by any means, but to try to express a measure of gratitude for my parents’ sheer determination – one very modest pay-cheque and one piano lesson at a time – to start us off so well away from the nest. That nest, in my youngest sister’s final year of high school, was moved back to Perth, Ontario where Dad, thankfully, retired a few years early when Springdale – like Goodyear is doing, substantially, now – shut down (for good) in Valleyfield.

The islands which make up Salaberry-de-Valleyfield and area are located in a beautiful river valley, just upstream from Montréal, between the Laurentian Mountains to the north, and the Adirondacks to the south. The town’s lasting physical beauty is all the more remarkable, given the presence of so much industry among which, it’s now certainly clear, is tourism.

I hope my hometown survives as more than a bedroom community for the Montréal area. Its speedboat regatta each summer is still going strong. Certainly Valleyfield’s location on major highway and rail networks, in addition to being a still-vital port on the St. Lawrence Seaway with industry still there, leave me hopeful.

Gazette photographer Phil Carpenter, who narrates his web site slide-show (which may or may not, it seems, stay up there) included a picture of a sign near the Goodyear plant which, translated, reads, “Goodyear plant closure: 1000 direct jobs lost; 3000 indirect jobs lost – an economic and human disaster for the region. Where are our governments?”

Then, echoing a provincial license plate slogan adopted by the the new Parti Québecois government of 1976, the sign exclaims, “I will remember!”

This is a time of provincial elections in Québec and, perhaps by spring, federal elections all across Canada.

Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, to a certain extent, probably feels like it’s sailing against the wind these days. Prospective governments might want to pay attention.

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