A quick family story: During the summer of Montréal’s Expo ‘67, far and away Canada’s best centennial project, an aunt and uncle from Portland, Ontario along with a great-aunt from Lancaster, were on their way to our place for the night after seeing a Scottish tattoo at the Autostade on the edge of the Expo site. Situated where it was, I’m sure my uncle was not the only stranger in town to mistakenly head on to the nearby Champlain Bridge, missing the turn to Autoroute Décarie. At the time the bridge charged tolls, and in the old-fashioned way with collector booths, and Uncle Homer was not a believer in road tolls of any kind so it was bad enough to pay to go where he didn’t want to go but paying again to retrace his way back to the correct route was a major piss-off! In today’s parlance he did not “let it go” for a long while (nor could the rest of us resist teasing him about it!)
This bridge is not merely a commuter artery, as important as that is, but is also the island of Montréal’s main connection to the autoroute which carries goods to and from the United States. Does that not give it an importance which all levels of government (and their would-be successors) can agree on, the perils of doing too little (“repairs”) in the short-term just too stupid to contemplate?
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.
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.
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.)
“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.
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.’
Millions of Roman Catholic pilgrims climb the 283 steps to St. Joseph’s Oratory – praying on their knees.
In the early days of my AIDS diagnosis I used to go to a “healing mass” at Our Lady of Lourdes on Sherbourne Street here in Toronto. I can’t say I wholeheartedly believed there was much hope for a cure but as long as continued life accompanies my skepticism, and I’m still sucking air, I’ll remain interested in all manner of healing.
St. Joseph’s Oratory, spiritual home of Brother André, is like Montréal’s Our L of L, only much, much bigger and a great deal more famous. It is where thousands of Montrealers will gather this weekend to watch as the Pope declares Brother André a saint.
Regardless of your mode of travel to Montréal, approaching the city from the west affords a view of the large dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory on the Côtes-des-Neigesslope of Mont-Royal. It’s across the road from Collège Notre-Dame where, for many years, a man born Alfred Bessette in 1845 (he was later given the name Brother André) worked as a porter – a not-so-glorified doorman – for the student priests.
Brother André claimed a strong devotion to St. Joseph and eventually he was given permission to fund-raise for a shrine to St. Joseph. The first structure was built in 1904. Church authorities permitted a room to be added to the chapel and Brother André was instructed to live there so as to be able to receive pilgrims seeking prayer. He received the ambulatory sick during the day, while evenings were devoted to visiting anyone who could not leave home. In 1914 construction began on what would eventually be known as Saint Joseph’s Oratory. By the 1920’s over one million pilgrims visited each year and Brother André’s prayers, through St. Joseph, were credited for hundreds of cures. (There are displays of antique crutches left there many years ago.)
Lest you think L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph, and its beautiful gardens, are only for the devout a few months after my brother Craig died in 2007 I went there one hot August evening with Craig’s partner, Claude, and two of his friends to hear the church’s music director play the massive pipe organ as accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin film – the fourth or fifth such silent move night that year. It’s a building that can’t be missed and, once there, shouldn’t be missed.
But, alas, what would a Roman Catholic celebration be without a sexual abuse scandal? That’s the risk when nothing is done about a systemic problem!
I started off pacing myself, but Montréal is such a great city for walking that I soon lost track of time and covered more ground, over two days, than I might have imagined I could. (I did take the Métro from Lionel-Groulx to Peel stations Tuesday afternoon and from Lionel-Groulx to Sherbrooke, following dinner at La Maison Magnan with long-lost-friend-found-via-Facebook, Karen, on Thursday evening.)
The photo album and map tools of Windows Live made this summary easy. I hope this is more than merely the updated slide show of our childhoods :)
One of the areas of Montréal which, until this most recent trip, I had not explored is the ever-evolving lands adjacent to the former Lachine Canal. The closest I have come to it regularly is as a passenger aboard any VIA Rail train coming in to the city from the west.
After visiting Old Montréal on Tuesday I continued west along Rue de la Commune and followed the pedestrian and bicycle path to the Marché Atwater Market.
Former grain elevators are being redeveloped, or waiting to be redeveloped as the case may be, while other old factories have been turned into condo lofts and office or retail space.
On Thursday I returned to the area with a Facebook friend, and former neighbour from my childhood, as we had dinner at the very lively Magnan’s just south of the Atwater Market on Rue St-Patrick along the canal.
With many beautiful homes ringing its perimeter, and arterial streets such as Prince-Arthur nearby, Square St-Louis is a park with bohemian characteristics within walking distance of L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), civic and provincial government offices, as well as several campuses of downtown hospitals.
La Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (loosely translated as Chapel of Our Lady of Safe-keeping), known as The Sailors’ Church, backs down the hill towards the edge of Montréal’s Old Port on the St. Lawrence River.
It is almost as striking from the rear with the large statue of Mary greeting sailors and newcomers on the water’s edge to Montréal for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.
As Québec has become much more secular, collectively fleeing the Roman Catholic Church, old church buildings serve as museums which, in this case, is very appropriate given its long history.
Bixi is the name of the private,not-for-profit outfit which rents bicycles at highly visible stands throughout Montréal. By buying any of a variety of memberships, residents and tourists alike can pick up a bike within a short distance of almost anywhere and drop it off at another such Bixi stand. For $5 per 24 hours or via passes of various lengths it sure beats having to replace stolen bicycles every six months or so! (The billboard pictured in Vieux-Montréal is advertising $10 off a pass for a limited time.)
The bicycles are stylized, if not stylish, and made of very light aluminum by Alcan, one of the program sponsors.
I saw quite a few of the bicycles around town this week. They’re like two-wheeled Zip cars (even handier) – but helmets, while recommended of course, are not provided for practical reasons.
Would any bombastic, and other, mayoralty candidate(s) in Toronto care to import this great idea from down the 401?