Shaun Fryday, whose faith community emulates his personal hospitality, to be this year’s recipient of the Craig Chaplin Memorial Award


Rev Shaun Fryday has been selected by Montreal’s United Theological College to receive the award, established by my late brother, at the UTC Convocation on May 8th, 2013. Fittingly, the ceremonies will take place in Shaun’s congregation of Beaconsfield United Church.

When he received the news, Shaun is said to have been deeply moved, recalling Craig as one of his closest friends and how the award makes Craig seem “very present”.

Craig died on May 9, 2007 as the result of a fall fifteen days earlier which caused traumatic brain injuries. Like me, he had been retired since the mid-1990s when the stress and fatigue of living with HIV had become too much to bear in his capacity as a United Church minister in west-end Montreal. It was shortly thereafter that he first made plans to establish the award, which would follow his death.

In a letter to the college, in which he outlined terms of reference for the award, Craig wrote:

“…it is my intention and desire that this award be presented in recognition of the particular ministries of gay and lesbian people both within the formal, organized structures of the Christian Church and without…to honour those whose life’s work has been particularly distinguished in its clear embodiment of such central Gospel values as personal courage and integrity, life-affirming faith and spirituality, an unswerving commitment to social justice and a sustainable environment and solidarity with those who are poor or marginalized.

“The conditions of eligibility for potential recipients of this award are intentionally and necessarily exclusive in one important respect – the person being honoured must be able and willing to be publicly recognized as a lesbian or gay man. I am sadly aware of the fact that because of the current climate within some churches and certain elements of our society, this condition effectively excludes a good many competent and highly gifted people who are eminently deserving but who do not feel they can risk coming out of the closet at this time. I am all too aware of the oppression many of them suffer and the peculiar irony in the fact that I am creating an award for which I myself would not have been eligible for most of my professional career in the Church because of my own inability during those years to be safely and publicly self-declared as a gay man.”

Craig went on to say that he believed the award would have the potential to create positive, visible role models for gay and lesbian Christians. He poignantly recalled the United Church’s much-debated decision in 1988 to no longer exclude LGBT persons from consideration as ministers. The final decision was made at a Church-wide council meeting in Victoria, which Craig attended with much trepidation, referring to LGBT members in the third person.

Much has, thankfully, changed since then – the Church evenly electing an openly gay man as Moderator last August!

In nominating Shaun, his congregation cited his vision and commitment to numerous social justice initiatives, from guiding the parish in becoming an LGBT-affirming congregation to the creation two years ago of an LGBTQ Youth Centre, a first for Montreal’s West Island (and for any church!). The centre has more recently expanded its outreach to family members of the LGBTQ community as well as to LGBT adults seeking to break out of isolation.

A couple of paragraphs from a congregation member’s supporting letter speak volumes:

“…after working at the front lines of the African AIDS epidemic I needed solace and community…Shaun was not only open about his sexuality, he was willing to explore the injustices the world visited on LGBTQ people and explore how the experience of being ‘different’ in the world might offer us all opportunity to live more compassionately and justly…

“But I also would like to make clear that Reverend Fryday does not confine his zeal for social justice in ministry merely to issues directly impacting the LGBTQ population and their families. He has been a fierce advocate for the indigenous people of the Philippines, and has determinedly brought their plight into our consciousness at Beaconsfield United Church. Indigenous communities in far away places are easy communities for comfortable Canadians to ignore. But Reverend Fryday has demonstrated that to do so is merely to perpetuate the systems of inequality that plague our planet, destroy communities and, ultimately, our planet. And when injustices on this scale occur, we cannot be silent.”

Shaun’s c.v. concludes, “I have a number of leisure activities that I enjoy pursuing. Particularly, I am an avid reader, I enjoy writing, and I love to cook (and eat!)”

Shaun is a tall, and in other ways, large man – self-deprecating, too!

His hospitality figured prominently in the agonizing days that Craig lay dying in Montreal’s Neurological Institute. Craig’s partner, Claude, and sister Lynn kept constant vigil each day asking other would-be visitors (other than we siblings) to respect their privacy. With understanding and compassion illustrative of his pastoral care, Shaun prepared and delivered delicious home-cooked meals a considerable distance each day to the walk-up Craig and Claude shared in the “Le Plateau” district. I was privileged to partake in some of these meals, both in Montreal and Perth (those we took up there for Craig’s burial).

Craig’s family is proud to anticipate Shaun receiving this award!

Coming out as the end of a beginning


This morning on CTV’s Canada AM Kevin Newman, of Question Period fame, was promoting a very important segment on this weekend’s W5 program (Saturday at 7 p.m. ET) and, in the accompanying online article he wrote, “Coming out is toward the end of the process for our gay children” – when learning to accept it is just starting for parents. A very important insight, I thought, as I recalled my own process.

(This weekend’s W5 will not only include Newman’s gay son, Alex, but will focus on out gay athlete @ScottHeggart who I wrote about last spring.)

Kevin’s empathy and insights are quite remarkable, perhaps more so to any families who have not yet been faced with a child’s dramatic struggle towards self-acceptance, and “coming out (as) toward the end of the process for our gay children”.

By the time that I came out to my family in 1981, at the age of 21, I had been through a whirlwind of attempts to make peace with myself but, almost completely untethered and in the shadow of a traumatic childhood and adolescence, I had done so in the fog of abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and in a rampage of sexual activity at a time when HIV/AIDS was just beginning to permeate our collective conscience.  So much living before I could be sure enough to come out!  Notwithstanding the exceptionally loving acceptance of my family more than one reckless genie had been let out of the bottle.

As I look upon the rest of my life as recovery I am optimistic for the future of younger members of my community with helpful, empathetic media coverage and young role models and their families so willing to share their stories.

W5’s ‘OFFSIDE’ airs this Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on CTV, along with livechat at CTVNews.ca

YAK – creating trust among Perth youth and adults


He’s maybe thirteen, going on thirty-five, perhaps a survivor of abuse who is experimenting with rubbing alcohol and having trouble in school. She might be fifteen, maybe pregnant, and unable to bear being at home after school.

They, and dozens of other young people with a variety of greater or lesser needs, have found both a family and a home at a place called YAK. The Youth Action Kommittee’s community centre is in a roomy loft on the main floor of a former shoe factory in the Lanark County Town of Perth.

During my tour of the centre last Friday I told Executive Director Tanis Cowan and Program Manager Donna Stratton (pictured above) how impressed I am that such a place exists in Perth. When I used to stay with my grandmother there each summer as a kid she kept me on a pretty tight leash, bemoaning the “nonsense” that town youngsters my age got into – hooliganism such as pulling out flower planters on the main street or defacing signs.  (I got away with a few minor infractions unbeknownst to her!)  These were but symptoms of much greater issues being faced by young people then (and now) but there was precious little for anyone, not – say – heavily into organized sports, to do.

That’s a drastic over-simplification of the issues, then and now, but YAK is doing an amazing job in a variety of ways to give youth a greater sense of purpose, making life in a small town much more bearable. Specialized services, more available in densely-populated areas, do not always measure up where school boards are one hundred kilometers or more across!

Community meals. A public health nurse. Addiction and mental health services. Mentoring programs. Recreation. Computer skills. Youth homelessness support. Literacy and homework help. (See the web-site for much more information available through YAK and its partners.)

YAK has a board of directors representing professionals and community mentors, backed by Town Council.

Notice the rainbow flag overhead. Respect for diversity is so ingrained at the centre that whenever staff hear a homophobic slur, for example, Donna says the offender knows to “drop and do push-ups”. Even better, the young people themselves exert their own positive peer pressure.

This is not the town of my youth!

I am setting myself some reasonable goals of assisting YAK, in ways yet to be announced, because I see myself wanting to help make the growing up experience a more positive one for young people who are motivated to move ahead against some occasionally difficult odds, in this town of Perth I hold so dear.

Mental Illness Awareness Week through Saturday


The stereotypical walls are long gone this Mental Illness Awareness Week which finds me bridging between a recent, quietly-endured “brown out” state-of-being in Toronto and my absolute delight as I bask in the love of family members gathering in the splendidly autumnal Town of Perth in eastern Ontario.

I’m thinking of Jamie Hubley‘s loved ones and friends as the first anniversary of his death approaches. And of David Dewees and all who cared so much for him.

In the midst of these tragedies it was an occasion to speak candidly about the despair that can lead to suicide and acknowledge times in my life when I have felt those demoralizing feelings.

Yet there I was, last year like this year, trying to keep my emotional head above water by talking about it, them, vague ideas, trying not to raise alarm - ich!

CBC Radio’s Tapestry began an exploration of “coping” last week and it seems likely that a telephone comment I left may be aired either this week or next.

Producers narrowed me down to what, for me, was the liberating diagnosis of bipolar II several years ago.  I emphasize “narrowed down” because my original email was a long list of things, familiar to my readers, I check off as having coped with:

*-childhood bullying by an elementary school principal/head teacher*
*
*
*-bullying by peers in high school*
*
*
*-alcohol abuse beginning in college*
*
*
*-coming out as a gay man, as fully as possible, in 1981*
*
*
*-contracting HIV no later than 1989*
*
*
*-leaving paid work in 1990, to which I have not returned*
*
*
*-surviving AIDS-related infections (while caring for a few – and mourning
the deaths of – countless peers)*
*
*
*-believing that “if anyone deserves AIDS, I do!”*
*
*
*-being involved in political actions, HIV/AIDS-related and otherwise*
*
*
*-surviving a taxi-pedestrian (me) accident  in 2003, with a broken femur
and right radius, hospitalized for five weeks at the height of SARS in
Toronto*
*
*
*-being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes (despite being alarmingly
under-weight)*
*
*
*-being diagnosed with bipolar II (which may turn out to be the best
thing that ever happened!)*
*
*
*-losing my older brother (a mentor who was also gay, also HIV+) in a
freak fall on the sidewalk in 2007, resulting in traumatic brain injury (he
was on life support for about two weeks)*
*
*
*-personal work and therapy intermittently on all of the above.*

I don’t expect I’ll hear Coping: Part 2 over the air this weekend, which is probably just as well given the family gathering which may find me underneath a giant pile of leaves!  However I never miss the weekly Tapestry podcast.

Rest in space, Neil Armstrong: and where were YOU on July 20, 1969?


No one can say they’ve had the life of Neil Armstrong, who has died at 82 – my mother’s age.

I will never forget that night, July 20, 1969, the way people just a little older than me remember where they were when JFK was shot. I was a few months shy of ten years old and was spending some time at “the lake”, the cottage of Auntie Dot and Uncle Homer near Portland, Ontario. I remember sitting – more likely sprawling – in front of Homer’s old TV set (and he had probably needed to go out to the mosquito and cobwebbed back of the house to turn the antenna beforehand). I remember Auntie Dot, and me in turn, being amazed that we could hear the astronauts that far away, let alone see them.

Speaking to Mom tonight, she remembers us all heading outside after to look at the moon which is fitting since today’s statement from the Armstrong family urges us to do just that in Neil’s memory – oh, but with a wink to him as well!

For a young peoples’ video look at the history of the Tay Canal please click the link below, by which I mean…


this one!

I am so proud! Not that I had anything to do with this (and I didn’t) but because the video shows how the appreciation of Perth (Lanark County, Ontario, Canada) history is, and will continue to be, alive and well!

Congratulations to everyone, particularly the young people and their mentors, who made this possible.

College sports governing body slams Penn State post-Sandusky, Paterno


The NCAA has handed down its sentence on Penn State University’s football program, as outlined in this news release:

By perpetuating a “football first” culture that ultimately enabled serial child sexual abuse to occur, The Pennsylvania State University leadership failed to value and uphold institutional integrity, resulting in a breach of the NCAA Constitution and rules. The NCAA Division I Board of Directors and NCAA Executive Committee directed Association president Mark Emmert to examine the circumstances and determine appropriate action in consultation with these presidential bodies.

“As we evaluated the situation, the victims affected by Jerry Sandusky and the efforts by many to conceal his crimes informed our actions,” said Emmert. “At our core, we are educators. Penn State leadership lost sight of that.”

According to the NCAA conclusions and sanctions, the Freeh Report “presents an unprecedented failure of institutional integrity leading to a culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human decency.”

As a result, the NCAA imposed a $60 million sanction on the university, which is equivalent to the average gross annual revenue of the football program. These funds must be paid into an endowment for external programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims and may not be used to fund such programs at the university. (emphasis mine)

The sanctions also include a four-year football postseason ban and a vacation of all wins from 1998 through 2011. The career record of former head football coach Joe Paterno will reflect these vacated records. Penn State must also reduce 10 initial and 20 total scholarships each year for a four-year period. In addition, the NCAA reserves the right to impose additional sanctions on involved individuals at the conclusion of any criminal proceedings.

The NCAA recognizes that student-athletes are not responsible for these events and worked to minimize the impact of its sanctions on current and incoming football student-athletes. Any entering or returning student-athlete will be allowed to immediately transfer and compete at another school. Further, any football student-athletes who remain at the university may retain their scholarships, regardless of whether they compete on the team.

To further integrate the athletics department into the university, Penn State will be required to enter into an “Athletics Integrity Agreement” with the NCAA. It also must adopt all Freeh Report recommendations and appoint an independent, NCAA-selected Athletics Integrity Monitor, who will oversee compliance with the agreement.

Effective immediately, the university faces five years of probation. Specifically, the university is subject to more severe penalties if it does not adhere to these requirements or violates NCAA rules in any sport during this time period.

“There has been much speculation on whether or not the NCAA has the authority to impose any type of penalty related to Penn State,” said Ed Ray, Executive Committee chair and Oregon State president. “This egregious behavior not only goes against our rules and Constitution, but also against our values.”

Because Penn State accepted the Freeh Report factual findings, which the university itself commissioned, the NCAA determined traditional investigative proceedings would be redundant and unnecessary.

“We cannot look to NCAA history to determine how to handle circumstances so disturbing, shocking and disappointing,” said Emmert. “As the individuals charged with governing college sports, we have a responsibility to act. These events should serve as a call to every single school and athletics department to take an honest look at its campus environment and eradicate the ‘sports are king’ mindset that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators.” (emphasis mine)

Penn State fully cooperated with the NCAA on this examination of the issues and took decisive action in removing individuals in leadership who were culpable.

“The actions already taken by the new Penn State Board of Trustees chair Karen Peetz and Penn State president Rodney Erickson have demonstrated a strong desire and determination to take the steps necessary for Penn State to right these severe wrongs,” said Emmert.

On “Killing Jerry Sandusky would not be enough…”


My response to this blog post:

While violence as vengeance is not my style I can appreciate a good fantasy in cases such as this.

Even if the thought was in jest, the most compelling argument against capital punishment, to me, is that it deprives victims of at least knowing that their perpetrator is languishing in prison – be he remorseful or pathologically innocent in his own mind, as seems to be the case with Sandusky.

When it comes to Penn State the institution, killing one mere season of football, with efforts made to atone publicly (and with an educational/advocacy component) in as many creative ways as possible, doesn’t seem to be too much to ask, above and beyond whatever might be wrung out in justifiable civil lawsuits.

Jerry Sandusky guilty, now what?


In the hours following the conviction of their once-revered Jerry Sandusky, Penn State is most anxious to move on.

After my exclamation on Facebook of “Yes! Yes! Yes!”, attached to a media account of the guilty verdicts on Friday, I wondered how the victim-survivors were feeling. Having invested my emotions, and my own survival story, by proxy into the trial I can say I was elated.

One of the most galling things about Sandusky, as evidenced in his Bob Costas interview, was his supposed naiveté about the gravity of things he was being accused of. Whether a defense or a pathology, why is it that so many pedophiles believe they can justify their crimes? (Don’t try to Google for answers. You’ll be disgusted.)

It has been a long journey for me just beginning to talk about the anonymous sexual abuse I encountered as an adolescent following long-term bullying by an elementary school principal. Anything to do with sports reminds me of that teacher, the coach of half of the sports teams in school, who harangued those of us who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, participate more than we had to. So Jerry Sandusky, for me, embodies the characteristics of both my abusers.

I did not begin even the most minimum of therapy about this until I was about thirty, shortly after testing positive for HIV in 1989. At first it was difficult enough to connect the dots, as I still like to say, let alone getting in touch with the feelings of trauma – so it was an issue I set aside fairly often when I didn’t feel I could cope.

Yet the void never goes away and, untreated, nothing fills it.

Another occasion which pointed me towards more healing was after I was hit by a cab in 2003, fracturing my femur and wrist. In the course of post-traumatic stress counselling I was encouraged to peel back the veil of any previous traumas so, naturally, my childhood came up again. One of the tools my psychiatrist tried, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, was to recommend Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Like anything that might hurt before it feels better I put off reading the book for quite a long time. But read it I did and it unleashed a hunger in me for similar books of real-life terror and, in some cases, survival – think Elie Wiesel, Viktor Frankl and many others.

When the Penn State scandal first erupted I was triggered quite sharply and found myself engrossed in news coverage as if in a trance. I mentioned this to a fellow survivor and mentor when we met for a coffee last fall. Our chosen coffee shop was quite crowded and so, it being a colouful fall evening, we opted to take a walk with our beverages. He literally walked with me in my distress. Something he told me, and it is echoed by valuable resources such as MaleSurvivor.org, is that we are well advised to avoid anything more than cursory coverage of such news stories or, at least, be self-aware to know when enough is enough.

There’s not much more I want to hear about the main perpetrator of Penn State. His future doesn’t seem to included anyone he can harm. I wait to see how other officials at the university fare in this.

Above all, I hope the completely vindicated survivors can continue their healing journeys with whatever help or compensation is deemed fitting.

Prom Night and Father’s Day


Skimming my home-town newspapers’ web sites I noticed that this is Prom weekend for some of the high schools in the area. Tomorrow is Father’s Day. I’m not sure if the two occasions shared the same weekend in my time.

Some quick math, all in my head mind you, and I realized that it’s a long thirty-five years since my own Prom. To protect the innocent I will not show my date, T.F.

Mom convinced me that renting a tux was not practical when a good suit would last for a number of years.

High school in Quebec runs from grades seven through eleven, with another one-to-two years of Cégep prior to university.

Of course the very idea of asking ANYone to the prom was going to be a challenge for me, although I don’t recall considering the option of not going.

One of Mom’s piano students was in grade seven, was very good-looking, and our two families were on very good terms. (My brother performed the first marriage of her older sister and her parents got along famously with mine.)

I was fairly certain that she would agree to go, since it’s not too many in grade seven who would be asked. She accepted. Paying the highest of compliments to my parents, and to me by implication, her mother said that she had no reason in the world to worry about her daughter going with me.   (I lacked the self-knowledge enough to know just how right she was!) She knew she would be safe with me, a stand-out son of my parents, and I was virtually certain that I would not be required to defend my honour!

Just to be sure, or perhaps to have a little fun while the kids were at the dance, a small party of our parents was assembled at the home of one of my fellow graduates – just a dip and a curve in the road from the school. So, yes, parental couples rode in the front seat while nervous Prom-goers were in the back.

Perhaps because of my own misgivings about the whole night, I do not recall feeling cramped by any of this close chaperoning.

I remember little about the dance, other than that we left our parents at the house party, and then we drove across the countryside to Valleyfield where we had made a group reservation at a restaurant downtown. I don’t remember how we killed so many hours – a little wine, maybe? – but, at closing time, we set out for the traditional (for recent grads anyway) viewing of the sunrise at Fort, or more accurately, Fortifications Coteau-du-Lac.

Did we then go for breakfast? I can’t recall but we stayed out long enough so as not to return to our respective homes at too ungodly an hour.

Was it Father’s Day? Quite possibly but I’d be lying if I said so for sure.

To think that thirty-five years ago my father was a spry 50 years old (I’m now 52) bursts any self-deception as to my age relative to those now experiencing their prom, their university graduation or, hell, maybe even the purchase of their first home!

Wherefore art thou, Cardinals? – Oh!


This was a landmark day in the lives of Ontario high school students who have been exercising their democratic rights, without the vote even, for the passage of Bill 13, the Ontario provincial government’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) initiative.

It passed in the Ontario Legislative Assembly with 65 votes in support, from the combined efforts of Liberal and New Democratic Party members, and 36 votes against from the Conservatives.

No thanks to the Cardinal!

Of course, besides the horrors of bullying, I empathize strongly with victims of sexual abuse, be they school children or the prey at Penn State, where the nightmare continues with today’s farcical early developments in the trial of accused coach Jerry Sandusky.

As I’ve written before, my greatest personal bully was in elementary school, a teacher (who would become principal), but my peers picked up where he left off, particularly on the 40-minute bus rides to and from high school.

So I have “issues”, many of them similar to those at the heart of the GSA debate. The work continues – which makes me so happy that GSAs are growing in popularity.

While their red-capped overlords protest, it is wonderful to know that Catholic teachers back GSAs!.

Order in the Court!

A school trip to London with a Kodak Instamatic camera


I think I’ve posted these scanned photos before, but today’s festivities along the River Thames brought back wonderful memories of a class trip to London which took place during March Break in 1976. The camera was a Kodak Instamatic – not very sophisticated – and the prints have not fared well in the ensuing years, stuck – literally – in photo albums which featured a lot of plastic and glue as I recall.

How fortunate I was – what a privilege – to have been able to go on such a voyage as a high school student! We flew out of the then-brand new airport, formerly known as Mirabel, just a few months before Montréal was to host the Olympic Games, as a much different London is now preparing to do in mere weeks.

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Newspaper clipping from Mom: “A GAY JOCK TAKES OFF THE MASK”


It was on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen’s March 17 “Saturday Observer”  section.

The paper sat on a table beside Mom’s comfy chair, where she keeps anything she wants to pass along to me.  She knows that, like Jamie Hubley, whose passing touched me so deeply, hockey stories wouldn’t normally need to be on that pile.

Beneath the headline a full one-third of the page is a picture of a hockey goaltender, his mask flipped up on his head.  21-year old Scott Heggart looks confidently into the camera and smiles, his right hand holding one of the goal-posts.

The online version does not include what is, for me, a very moving picture of Scott and his family, including boyfriend Brock – a picture large enough to fully cover “above the fold” on the third page – sister, father, boyfriend, Scott, mother and brother.

Scott has been chronicling his story by posting videos to YouTube here for a long time and one of his featured playlists “Coming Out” includes “First my take on coming out to my family, then my family’s take; final note on the interviews with my family, followed by my advice to those looking to come out.”

But it’s the video of his appearance on CBC’s “Q” with Jian Ghomeshi that opens his main page and summarizes what’s been going on – fantastic!  What an inspiration!

No sentence could undo the harms caused by Graham James


I join the outcry today over the sentencing of convicted serial pedophile Graham James to two years in prison for the sexual abuse of Theo Fleury and Todd Holt. Counter-intuitively (because I knew it would just get me stirred up) I watched the news coverage of the lawyers’ statements and victims’ reactions.

Graham arrived at court wearing his best perp ensemble:

Following sentencing, which The Globe I think rightly criticized for its lack of nuance, Todd Holt spoke on behalf of cousin and fellow victim Theo Fleury.

“I stand here today, on behalf of not only myself and my cousin Theoren Fleury, but as a voice for every man.

For all the young boys, the old men and the ones that got stuck somewhere in between because of the most devastating type of abuse; sexual abuse inflicted on us by someone in a position of trust and authority. Theo and I were two of those who got stuck in that middle place between boy and man; we made some terrible choices and watched the life we were meant to lead spiral down the drain.

No longer.”

It was, for me, a powerful and meaningful beginning to an expression of feelings – I even heard myself in his words - which later criticized the justice system.

This was where I switched to thinking, “Hmmm…”, and I’m sure it will take me some time to sort out why.

As my headline reads, and as legions of all types of crime victims can attest, the length of Graham James’ sentence, while still shocking (considering that two years probably won’t last two years), is secondary to the horrors, and their after-effects, that James inflicted on Theo Fleury, Todd Holt, Sheldon Kennedy and who-knows-how-many-other young hockey players I would otherwise not know, let alone relate to.

They are still recovering, having taken the familiar route of spiralling downward before they were fortunate enough to make it back without ending their lives.  Theirs, as mine, is a life-long journey.  Every time I/we think we have reached another air-pocket of resolution, something takes it away – or at least I let it be taken away.

There’s a tough-on-this-kind-of-crime demon whispering inside me thinking Graham James and his ilk should be chemically castrated, if not as a barbaric punishment then at least as a preventive measure.  Or is that just the wolf of murder by lethal injection in sheep’s clothing? And would that alone take away his predatory impulses?

My self-image, a work in progress, was moulded in part by a monster or two in my childhood.  I continue to try to make sense of so much, even the crap in my own past that makes no sense at all.  But I persist, with your help.

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.