Archive for November, 2011

Hi everyone:

As many of you may be aware (especially if you follow this blog on a regular basis). I now live in Hamilton, Ontario and have done so since September 2002. Before that I lived in Mississauga (a suburb of Toronto). But I actually grew up in Montreal, one of Canada’s largest and most exciting cities and will always consider it my hometown. To be more specific, I am from St. Lambert. We’re located on Montreal’s South Shore, directly across the St. Lawrence river from the downtown core. If you take the Victoria Bridge off the island of Montreal, St. Lambert is where you wind up. We’re also known as the home of the first lock of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Indeed, when Queen Elizabeth II and President Dwight Eisenhower opened the Seaway in June 1959, the ceremonies were held at our lock. I was at those ceremonies along with my family – or so I’m told. After all, I was only two years old at the time, so obviously I don’t remember anything about that historic day.

Over the years, many people have asked me why I moved away from St. Lambert after graduating from McGill University in June 1979. Was it easy to leave your childhood home for a new city? There are many answers to the question, perhaps one of the most important was that when my father was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1975, he suggested to my mother, brother and I that we leave Montreal. I’ll explain why he felt that way later on in this series of blog entries.

As for whether it was easy to leave – that’s an easy one to answer. No, it wasn’t. It’s never easy for someone to leave the only city you have ever known for a brand new home and my experience was no different. In fact, I found the first year or so in Mississauga very difficult. Especially when everyone and everything you grew up with is suddenly replaced by a totally foreign environment. I didn’t know the Toronto region at all, and outside of my uncle and aunt and my three cousins who lived just down the street from us, I didn’t know anyone. There were more than a few times when I was awfully tempted to just give up and go back to Montreal. I knew of a few of my childhood friends back then who had in fact done the same thing. They had left Montreal for the Toronto area, but I guess they got homesick, or just couldn’t make the adjustment. Or maybe there were other reasons why they went back. In the end I decided it was best to stay in Mississauga and at least give this strange new place a good try. And if I felt that I was never going to fit in, I could discuss all this with my mother and brother and see if going back to Montreal was a better option.

But that discussion never happened and over time things got better. A major part of settling into my new home city and region was when I landed a job at Simpsons (a department store in downtown Toronto) during the 1979 Christmas holiday season, about 4 months after making the move. Although it was only a temporary position, it helped me make some friends, establish some roots and get to know the Toronto area much better.

A second element that helped solidify Mississauga as my home was when I joined St. Luke’s Anglican Church in early 1980 – which is still my home church today, some 31 years later. St. Luke’s has always had a strong sense of community and making newcomers feel at home. Everyone there was really loving and caring, and within a few months of joining the parish, it did feel like home. All these years later I still see those qualities at St. Luke’s today. It’s my spiritual home and there’s a lot of me wrapped up within those walls. That’s probably why I continue to maintain an association with St. Luke’s, even though living in Hamilton makes it much harder to attend than it did prior to moving here in 2002. Funny thing is that back in St. Lambert, our home church (St. Barnabas) was very much the same. It really felt like having another family, and I really hated to leave the parish when the time came to move up to Mississauga. Little did I realize that less than one year after officially leaving St. Barnabas I would find another church some 400 miles west of there with the same sense of community and fellowship. I thank God that He put me at St. Luke’s and hope to continue worshipping there for years to come.

The third and final element in making this part of the world feel more like home came in May 1980 when I was hired to work for the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod in downtown Toronto. To be more specific, I was working at the Anglican Book Centre and by the time I left there at the end of 1986 to enroll at the University of Toronto for my studies that ultimately led to my Master of Library Science degree, the journey was complete. I had now lived in Mississauga for over ten years and it was no longer that strange and frightening place it had been way back when. I was sufficiently rooted in the community that it was home to me. In many ways, it still is today. Yes, I don’t live in Mississauga anymore. But Hamilton isn’t all that far. Thanks to the GO Transit commuter system that serves Toronto and the surrounding regions, I can get from my apartment to Mississauga in about an hour. My mother and stepfather still live there, as well as my brother, sister-in-law and their children (just a few streets away in the Clarkson area of the city). My association with HAPPEN and our meetings every Tuesday in Mississauga also make sure that I am there regularly. And of course, my continuing involvement with St. Luke’s.

Now I am sure some of you are reading this and thinking that I haven’t really answered the question I raised in this entry’s title. And you’re right. I did talk about whether it was difficult to leave Montreal, and how over the years I gradually adjusted to life in the Toronto area to the extent that it’s my home now and has been for over 30 years.

But I haven’t talked about the factors that led me to leave Montreal in the first place. In order to do that, I invite you to continue reading. And to join me on a multi-part journey that will help explain why I made that decision along with my family to leave behind the city I loved (and still do today!) to build a new life here in the Toronto region. Stay tuned for part two – just scroll down the page and you’ll be there shortly!

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Hi everyone:

Welcome to part 2 of this ongoing series about why I left Montreal in 1979 and like so many others back then decided to start a new life in the Toronto region. In part 1, I focused not so much on this topic, but instead on the process of leaving my hometown of St. Lambert, how over time I began to adjust to my new surroundings and how today I feel very much at home here in southern Ontario, where I lived for over 30 years. But I did mention that I would now tackle this subject head on, and now is the time. What follows here and in the rest of this blog series is taken from a discussion held in November 2011 on the McGill University Alumni group on LinkedIn. I decided to adapt a couple of my submissions to the group and place it here on my blog. Fasten your seat belts, here we go!

Although it’s not as simple an issue as one might think, the main reason why I moved away from Montreal in the late 1970’s was because I just got tired of how everything in Quebec society would revolve around language and politics. And in particular the comments from those who seemed to be paranoid about losing French language and culture. Another key element of those days was the rise of Quebec nationalism, the increasing role of French in everyday life and a corresponding backlash against the English presence in the province and the anglophone population.

Some may read this and tell me that this is an over-reaction. That there was no backlash back then, or isn’t the case today. While I would concede that the climate in Quebec is much better today, I can assure all of you reading this that there was a fair bit of tension between the English and French communities during the 1960’s, 70’s and even well into the 1980’s. Another element in all this was the rise of the Parti Quebecois, a political entity whose sole purpose was to achieve independence for Quebec from the rest of Canada. They were elected as the new provincial government in November 1976 and while as part of their electoral campaign they had softened the independence idea, many of their policies focused on a greater use of French in Quebec society, which correspondingly made any sort of English presence in the province more difficult. They were also supported by groups who advocated the same thing, in particular the Societe St. Jean Baptiste. More about them in part 3.

If you read part 1, I mentioned that when my father was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), he felt that we should leave Montreal and move to the Toronto area. To be more specific, he felt that Mississauga would be best for us – especially since one of his brothers (my uncle Bob) and their family were living there and could play a key role in helping us get a new start in life. Like many people back in the mid 1970’s, Dad sensed that linguistic and cultural tension that I noted above, and felt that even though we were all bilingual, when you have a last name like “Brown”, that’s about as English as it gets. And that given the backlash against many elements of anglophone Quebec, we might have problems adjusting to the new reality that I talked about above.

But I should point out here that while I respected Dad’s advice and did indeed sense those tensions that I discussed here earlier, I always felt comfortable functioning in both languages back then and still do today. More about why that is true as we go along with this series of blog entries. I will concede that over the years since I left Montreal, my French is not 100% fluent anymore. But it’s still more than adequate and I think being bilingual is a great asset. And my ability to speak French always comes back very easily to me every time I return to Montreal. It’s really just a matter of getting my ear tuned to hearing French again, immersing myself in a primarily French speaking environment and just getting a feel for things again. Once I do that, I have few problems and can function easily in French.

Whenever I go back to Montreal for a visit (such as this past September), I speak English with my family and friends, but speak French everywhere else. When I am in a bar on Crescent Street or shopping in Vieux Montreal, I always speak French. It’s good practice for me, and I also like to do this out of respect that Quebec is predominantly a French speaking society. I have lost count over the years of how many people tell me that my French is excellent for someone from Ontario. Until I tell them that I am really “un ancien Montrealais” who is back for a visit. In fact, when this happened during my September 2011 visit, a woman overheard all this and then told me in French that she knew I grew up in Montreal because I spoke French with a Montreal accent 🙂

I don’t know if it’s ever been done, but it would be interesting to do a demographic study of all of us who left Montreal for the Toronto area and find out what parts of Montreal we came from. Depending on who you talk to, there’s something like 750,000 to 1 million people who moved from Montreal to Toronto and other areas of southern Ontario since the 1960’s. Much of it accelerated by that 1976 PQ election that I noted earlier. In my experience, I think that the majority of them probably came from the West Island. I can remember as a child whenever we went out to places like Dorval, Dollard des Ormeaux, Pointe Claire or Beaconsfield, I felt like I was in Ontario because all the signs were in English. Or going to a a shopping centre such as Fairview Mall in Pointe Claire and not hearing anyone speak French. I have always suspected that when laws were passed by the PQ government that enforced greater use of French in all aspects of society and which also made it harder to function in English, many West Islanders felt they couldn’t make the adjustment and instead decided to leave town.

On the other hand, St. Lambert was very integrated between English and French. In fact, we were the only municipality in Quebec that would alternate between an English and French mayor. As I have noted elsewhere in this series of articles, we were all fluently billingual and we had few problems getting along with each other. All of our neighbours were francophones and in many ways we were each other’s best friends. Issues like language, politics and culture rarely came up with us, and we thought nothing about switching languages all the time, often in mid-sentence. Even today, whereas many people from the West Island and other areas of Montreal left for Toronto and other places outside the province, many of my childhood friends from St. Lambert and the South Shore in general are still there. While I suppose I would have to ask them why they chose to stay, I suspect that it was because they were able to adapt and evolve along with the changing language and culture climates in Quebec.

Let me share a story with all of you that sums up our neighbourhood back then. Just before moving day, one of our next door neighbours came to see me. Francois was roughly my age and we had known each other for years. Although we were both bilingual, he took me aside and wanted to talk to me in English. As part of our chat, he told me that he was going to miss me. Now at this point, I should point that while I was a federalist and supported Quebec remaining in Canada, Francois and his family were “Pequistes” (the colloquial term used for those who supported the Parti Quebecois and their goal of Quebec independence).

He followed up by telling me that he would miss me because I was an anglophone who understood what Quebec was all about. That I knew we were very different from the rest of Canada, and that I understand what being Quebecois was all about and in particular the quest for independence that he and many others supported. I agreed with him, even if the two of us didn’t agree on what path those issues should take. And I promised him that I would always help others here in Ontario and elsewhere see what Quebec was really like.

Francois and I have long since lost touch with each other. But all these years later, I have tried as best I can to keep that promise and to be an ambassador of sorts for Quebec. Or as I said to someone just a few weeks ago in Montreal while discussing all this in French: “Je demeure maintenant en Ontario, mais au fond du coeur je suis toujours Quebecois”. Or to translate this into English: “I may live in Ontario now, but in my heart I will always be Quebecois”. Francois – if by some chance you ever read these words, I have always kept my promise to you and always will.

One last thing before we wrap this up. I run a LinkedIn group for former Montrealers now living here in the Toronto area. It’s called “A Taste of Montreal in Toronto”. Some of you reading this may already belong to the group. If not, you can find us via a Groups search on LI. Or you can find it via my Profile.

That’s all for part 2 of this blog entry. There’s still some more left to cover and we will deal with this shortly. Stay tuned, I will continue in a moment. Just scroll down the page to part three and you’re there!

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Hi everyone:

This is the second sequel (part 3) to a blog entry that I started earlier today about why I chose to leave my childhood home of Montreal, Quebec during the 1970’s. But since all this was a bit too much to do in one entry, I decided to break this up into multiple ones – three to be exact. The first part was designed to set the stage and offer an introduction. Just as with part two, what follows here is based on a discussion thread earlier in November 2011 on the McGill University Alumni Group on LinkedIn. I hope you enjoy it – feel free to share these blog entries with others as appropriate. So much for an introduction, let’s carry on.

Growing up in Montreal during the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was all about language, culture and politics. Those and related issues dominated every part of Quebec society and there was no getting away from it. As noted back in part 2 of this series, all this was a major reason why I left after graduating from McGill with my BA in 1979. I just found it very draining that people kept raising these issues over and over and over again. I rarely had any problems dealing with it all. That may have been because I grew up in St. Lambert – a place where both English and French were used freely and everyone in our neighbourhood was bilingual. To this day wherever I go in Montreal I always speak French when given the choice and this has always been appreciated.

Let me offer a few comments about Quebec language and cultural issues – while fully realizing that some of you who share my heritage might take offence with these remarks or have a different interpretation. I have always found it sad to hear some people, especially the Parti Quebecois, the Societe St. Jean Baptiste and others sympathetic to them who always complain about how we need to protect the French language and culture because if we don’t it will disappear. Or that through the centuries it was always the English that kept the French in check and made them feel like foreigners in their own land. To hear them tell it, all this goes back to 1759 and a certain battle that led to the fall of New France. To me, it’s xenophobia or paranoia on steroids, with little evidence to back their claims.

As many Canadian historians will tell you, the battle of the Plains of Abraham just outside the walls of Quebec City in September 1759 and its subsequent events may have actually saved the French language and culture. And based on my knowledge of the events, I definitely agree. After all, France didn’t care about their colony. I think it was Voltaire who called New France “a few acres of snow”. The French crown and aristocracy of the day felt the same. When the Seven Years War ended in 1763, the French ceded NF to the British. They could have kept it, but when offered the choice France opted to keep Guadeloupe in the West Indies. The British, on the other hand, passed laws such as the Quebec Act of 1774 that protected the French language, the role of the Roman Catholic church and the rule of civil law that we now know as the Napoleonic Code. Even now, legal codes are different in Quebec from the rest of Canada.

When I was growing up, I kept hearing over and over from francophones that the English had been their colonial masters and had subjugated their people for centuries. Indeed, a popular book of the 1960’s was called “Les Negres Blancs d’Amerique”. Or as it was known in its English translation: “The White Negroes of America”. Written by Pierre Vallieres, a Quebecois nationalist, he argued this exact subject. The title came from his theory that the Quebecois had been subjugated and discriminated against in the same way as the black people of the American South (who we now refer to as “African-Americans”). And while I don’t know for sure, it’s an interesting historical parallel that his book was published during the 1960’s, a period of political, social and cultural upheaval in the United States that featured the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which was designed in part to help end the discrimination of African Americans. Maybe Vallieres was trying to play off on that in publishing his book.

But I have never bought this argument advanced by Vallieres and others regarding a so-called English “dominance” in Quebec. Yes, it was true that up until the 1970’s, much of Montreal’s business and culture were primarily expressed in English. Or that you didn’t see a lot of French signage in downtown Montreal. I would argue that it was really more the Catholic Church that restricted francophones until the early to mid 1960’s and the start of that part of Quebec history known as “Quiet Revolution” (or “La Revolution Tranquille” in French). Not to mention politicians such as Maurice Duplessis and the Union Nationale who in conjunction with the Church silenced opposition and ruled the province with an iron fist. People sometimes talk about “banana republics” that have existed in tropical countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere. Hmm – how about Quebec under Premier Duplessis’s rule in the 1950’s? Pretty close to one in reality if you ask me. I would argue that rather than the English being the oppressors, it was really their fellow Quebecois, in the persons of the Church and governments such as the Duplessis regime who ought to be held responsible. A classic case of neo-colonialism in action.

There’s another element to this issue that often gets overlooked. If you look at Montreal’s history, much of the city’s business and economic growth was really led not by the English, but by the Scots. One good example is the founder of my home university, James McGill. And many of his fellow Scottish-Canadians helped get our University started, and who named many of the buildings that are located on our Lower campus. Indeed, much of North America was opened up and explored by Scots from Montreal, especially those involved in the fur trade on behalf of the North West Company, which was headquartered in Montreal before it was eventually absorbed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. People such as Simon McTavish (for whom McTavish Street was named), David Thompson, Simon Fraser and Alexander McKenzie just to name a few. The drive to complete Canada’s first transcontinental railway was also led by Montreal’s Scottish-Canadian community. As an example, how about Donald Smith (aka Lord Strathcona) who drove home The Last Spike at Craigallachie in 1885 to complete that grand adventure? You guessed it, another Scot from Montreal. Complemented, of course, by the earlier efforts of other Montreal explorers such as Champlain, La Salle, Brule, La Verendrye and many others. American cities such as Detroit and St. Louis can owe their beginnings to explorers from Montreal who explored the continent in search of fame and fortune.

Of course, one could write for pages about the whole issue of Quebec’s language, cultural, political and other issues. But I don’t feel much like doing that. Instead, let me finish our discussion as well as this blog entry by saying that I like the way Montreal is today, in that there seems to be a “reasonable accommodation” in terms of English/French relations. The tensions that did exist back in the 1960’s, 1970’s and beyond seem to have disappeared. Or at least that was my experience when I returned for a visit this past September. Maybe they are still there, but just lying under the surface. Instead of that climate, what I saw a few weeks ago was a vital, exciting and wonderful city. The Montreal I know and love still exists, even if it’s not quite the same as what I grew up with. But to be fair, Toronto and the surrounding area is very different now from what it was when I first moved here in July 1978.

Most Montrealers, both English and French, can function in both languages and feel comfortable doing so. And in my experience, if people at least make the effort to communicate in French, they will switch to English if they see that it’s easier for all concerned. The so-called “war” between the two sides that everyone in English Canada loves to talk about really doesn’t exist, and I’m not sure it ever really did. Sure, there were tensions between us back in the day which are still there today, some 50 years after the Duplessis regime was defeated and the Quiet Revolution began. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Then as now, I think we’re all big enough to rise above that and find solutions that work for everyone. I have always seen that in Montreal and throughout the entire province. I noticed it again when I was back in September. May it always be so!

Well, that’s it. Thanks for reading these three entries about why I chose to leave Montreal for the Toronto area. I enjoyed writing all this and it certainly brought back some interesting memories. Given the nature of the subjects I talked about, it’s probable that I may write about all this again. Not sure when, but we’ll see when the Spirit moves me to do so.

As always, I wish all my readers the very best of everything and I will be back again soon. Or as they say back home: “A la prochaine fois”.

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