Can city unemployed be reestablished on the land? After six years of battling virgin bush the settlers of Montbeillard are divided on the answer
SIDNEY M. KATZ
ONE DAY last May, when the proprietor of Montbeillard's only store looked out the doorway and saw a group of fifteen or twenty men marching down the gravel road toward his premises, he knew trouble was brewing. It was the worst possible time of the year for the back-to-the-land settlers; the fields would not yield crops for many weeks to come, and the Government had discontinued winter relief work.
Outside the store, the group stopped, and their huskyleader, formerly a laborer in Montreal, conferred with the owner.
“Our families are starving,” he said in a low, grave voice, “and we must have food. Either the Government gives us work at once, or else we’ll take what we need.” And he waved menacingly at the shelves stocked with provisions.
The shopkeeper phoned to the nearest colonization inspector, who happened to be at Rouyn, and explained his predicament. No, the inspector couldn’t do anything. But the men, with the cries of hungry children still fresh in their ears, persisted in their demands and refused to depart.
Desperate, the store manager got in touch with officials of the Colonization Department in Quebec City, and received definite assurance from them that a few thousand dollars would be expended in the Montbeillard district within the next few days.
Back in the provincial capital, the administrators of the land settlement scheme were once again made keenly conscious of the great drama—just completing a six-year run—which is being enacted on the thirty-square-mile, back-to-the-land colony at Montbeillard, Quebec. Cast in the principal roles are the 165 carpenters, clerks, shoemakers, laborers, and tailors off the relief lists of Hull, Quebec. Montreal and Three Rivers, who, with their families, were transferred from the pavement to the land to build a new life for themselves.
And today, after six years at Montbeillard, are the settlers prospering? Is the Government of Quebec succeeding in making habitants out of urbanites? Are the people happy?
For days I trudged along the colony’s dirt roads, seeking the answers to these questions. I have discussed their problems with them. I have listened to their troubles, and many of them I have personally witnessed.
Some Happy, Others Aren’t
BRIEFLY, what I learned was this: Some of the colonists were satisfied, a large number were not. All of them have an extremely low standard of living. The discontented who stayed on. did so because a return to their former city abode was either impossible, or would mean no great improvement in their living conditions. The more fortunate have found that, with the combined generosity of Mother Nature and the Quebec Government, they can lead a modest, isolated existence. To others, with large families of young children and with luck against them, the years have brought only discomfort and a deep concern for the future.
As an example of a contented colonist. I give you Mondoza Mil jour. Lean and bronzed, I met him one afternoon while he was hiking over to his cousin’s farm. For years he had worked for the C. P. R. In 1932 he was laid off, so he took advantage of the Government’s grant of money and land to make a career of farming.
“Are you happier here than in the city?” I asked him.
“Happier!” he exclaimed. “I certainly am. Back in Montreal there was nothing to do, unless you had money and plenty of it.” For emphasis he traced an imaginary full locket with a gesture of his hand.
“On the farm,” he went on, “it is different. Money has greater value. Five dollars here is worth twenty. My father, my brother and I, have worked hard. Now go and see what we have to show for it.” He was referring to his neatly whitewashed homestead and his farm.
Soon after our conversation I took advantage of Mondoza’s invitation and visited his home, which consisted of one average-sized room, from which a narrow strip had been partitioned off for use as a bednx)m. Meagrely furnished and drab, one could only conclude that the reasons for Mondoza’s complete satisfaction with pioneer life were psychological rather than material. In Montreal, he was shuffled about as a nobody, on public relief. Here, he is a landowner, with a feeling of independence.
Mondoza is probably more fortunately situated than the average settler, because there are three grown men in the household, all eligible to augment the income from the farm with Government relief work. There are neither women nor children to supix>rt. Bored with the enforced idleness of the city, his new career came as a breath of life. Ilis day is full of work, he eats regularly, the simple pleasures available suffice; in brief, he is enjoying life at Montbeillard.
Not so Paul Cordeau, ex-carpenter from Quebec City, who has eight small children to look after. All winter he suffered with his feet because he wore rubber lxx>ts. If he could afford leather ones, as the doctor advised, he would get better.
“But how can I?” he asked me, shrugging his shoulders in despair. “The kids haven’t anything to wear, not even enough to send them to school in. And food? There hasn’t been fresh meat, milk, or butter in the house for weeks. We live on fish, beans and potatoes.”
I stepped inside the home. Newspapers lined the walls to keep out the draughts; heat was supplied by an old oil drum pressed into service as a stove. And around the large room, which served as the kitchen, dining room and
living room combined, ran the eight tattered Cordeau children, the youngest half naked, all apparently quite happy.
“But,” I reasoned with Cordeau, “the Government gave you land and a grant to start with, and they have been providing you with work ever since, each year; surely, you should get along on that.”
“What you say is right.” he answered, “but the grant was all spent within a few months after we got here. As for relief work, it only lasts a month or two. And the pay is insufficient, especially if you have a flock of youngsters. I am not doing very well here.”
“Then you are going back to the city?” I suggested.
“Go back? How can I, with all these?” He pointed to his offspring. “Things are bad for us here, but they would probably be worse for us there.”
Not as happy about it as Mondoza Miljour. nor as unhappy as Paul Cordeau that, as I was later to discover, most accurately describes how Mr. Average Back-to-thelander feels about his new rural home.
OF' THE 165 families at Montbeillard, only two thirds of them have been there since the colony’s inception in 1931-32; the others have been sent out in place of settlers, who, according to an official in the Colonization Department, “discouraged by their inaptitude, abandoned their cabins and lots.”
One morning, caught unexpectedly in a heavy shower. 1 sought refuge in one of these forsaken homesteads, which hapixned to be conveniently near by. Inside, one could detect the strong, musty odor of disuse. Empty cans and bottles lay heaped on the Hoor; the thick cardboard which covered the interior hung, half st ripped, from the walls. All that had been left in the way of furnishings were a crude kitchen table, a heavy old stove, and on the wall a religious paintingelipped from an illustrated pajx'r. It was a perfect display of the wretchedness and despair which must have Hik'd the hearts of the people who formerly liver! there.
Why is it that one out of every three families fail so miserably that they leave the colony? Do the physical features of the country make success unattainable? Is the settlement scheme inadequately financed? Will the colonists ever lx; self-sustaining?
Up at Montbeillard, with the passing of the years, the colonists are learning the answers to these questions.
Situated about 600 miles north of Toronto, the climate of Montbeillard is considered temperate, though it is much more severe than in the Central Ontario region. Snow comes in October and lasts until May; very often, there are sudden freeze-ups.
The land allouai to the settlers, except for small rock-infested sections, jxrmits a great diversity of farming enterjirise. Composed of glacial lacus clay, it can grow forage crojis, potatoes, vegetables, beans, jieas and buckwheat. In many cases, only a small jxirtion of the lot is clear of trees, and the settler must carry on the laborious process of défrichement felling the trees and pulling uji the roots to render it lit for cultivation.
It was in this country that the Government decided to place the new “synthetic” habitant. I íe was given $600 (subsequently increased to almost $1,000), a 100-acre plot, and was promised additional bonuses for défrichement and for breaking the soil. With this initial cash grant, he had to bear the travelling charges to the colony for himself and family, build a home which cost a few hundred dollars, acquire necessities such as a jilow, a horse or an ox, and in addition sujijxirt his family for approximately a year, until the first crop was harvested.
The effectiveness of this amount in establishing the settler is offset by the high prices jirevailing. A colonist from Three Rivers showed me a stove that cost him $30. It was a very ordinary stove that could be bought at a fraction of that juice in any large centre, and if the settler did not need it at once he might have arranged a more satisfactory purchase elsewhere, notwithstanding extra transportation charges; but he required a stove immediately. so he paid the price.
Similarly with food. Butter and meat are often forty-five cents and twenty-four cents resjX’Ctively jxx jxnind. Small cans of condensed mill;, selling elsewhere at three for a quarter, are only two for a quarter at Montbeillard. Flour, a basic necessity, is exjxmsive. Clothes wear out quickly in the rough-and-tumble surroundings of the settlement, and are costly to replace, Shirts selling at $1.75 are the type you can pick uj> in the bargain basement of a downtown Toronto department store for fifty or seventy-five cents. “They wear out after a few months of wear,” a housewife complained.
Thus we find that during the first year, the settler employs his cash grant in acquiring bare essentials and in making both ends meet, leaving him without livestock or modern efficient machinery. These two factors lack of adequate imjilements and livestock jilus the additional fact that as yet not enough land has been cleared for cultivation, drastically limit the amount of saleable farm jiroduce that Montbeillard can raise for the market. For the colony has two potential customers who, if world conditions grant continued prosjx-rity, will be in a jxisition to buy. Rouyn and Noranda. both thriving mining centres, with their jxijnilation of 10.000 jx-ojile. are only twenty-five miles away. To date, little has been sold to these places, because Montlx’illard can produce only enough to satisfy its own requirements.
Low Standard of Living
' PH F human element involved may also be regarded as a cause for this “underproduction."
Consider the settler as a jiroduct of his environment, and you immediately see how his former manner of living gravitates against his future success as a farmer. In the city, he earned his livelihood by jxtforming a jxirticular tyjxof work; in a sense, he was a specialist. Later, he lost his job and depended entirely ujxm the state to provide him with the necessities of life.
Then he is jilaced on the land. New virgin land, still, for the most jiart, bush. Lacking a thorough knowledge of agriculture and isolated from his accustomed conveniences, he is given a few hundred dollars and told to manage. Immediately he is forced to take on a thousand new tasks and resjxmsibilities. It sjx»aks well for the pioneers of Montbeillard that they
are managing their farms as well as they are, and that they have adjusted their lives to these radically new conditions.
Not since the inception of the settlement have the settlers been self-dejx-ndent; the jiaternal hand of the Quebec Government is ever present.
For at least two months of the year, the entire male adult jxijnilation are given relief work.
Seeds of all sorts jxitatoes, cabbage, turnij), lettuce are generally distributed without charge.
Allowances are granted to encourage the jnirchase of livestock. If you buy a horse or cow, a twenty-dollar cheque from Quebec City helps pay for it; or for a pig, two dollars.
\'outhfui Dr. Paul Claveau, fresh from medical school, lives in a Governmentfurnished home, and is paid by the state to protect the health of the pioneer community.
Yet. even with all this assistance, after six years Montbeillard's settlers can boast of no high standard of living. Their dwellings are small and meagrely furnished. Adequate clothing is commonly regarded as a luxury. In a family I visited, five children were absent from school due to lack of clothing. 'This was not an occurrence uncommon in the settlement, as reflected by the school attendance.
Typical are the Lafontaine youngsters. Little childish feet that must walk miles to go to school or to church or on errands, are provided in the fall with a jiair of shoes that must last for an entire year. Naturally enough, the shoes wear out in a few months, and the children run about, months on end, in bare feet. During rainy and cold weather which discourages even the juvenile longing to go barefooted they must wait until the autumn harvest rolls around again and a few jirecious dollars can be found for the purchase of footwear.
T—TAVING no money for clothes, many exjxx'tant mothers have to depend on the generosity of friends or charitable agencies in other places to make sure that their newborn will not go cold. One mother tells how. a month before her baby was exjx’cted. she had no idea where its clothing was coming from. Her well-meaning neighbors were in no position to help. An aj)jx*al she mailed to an acquaintance from the community in which she formerly resided. elicited a response, and the clothes arrived only a few days before they were needed.
“Save, save, save!” is the motto regarding food. The settler’s diet is often reduced to the monotony of bread, fish and beans. Butter on bread is considered a luxury at certain seasons, and a cheap shortening grease is used. I sat in the kitchen of one of the cabins, chatting to the housewife and watched her jirepare the evening meal. Some of this same shortening, sizzling on a hot frying pan. was giving off a most disagreeable odor. The dog. lying on the lloor. sniffed the air. got up and quickly trotted out of the kitchen. “The smell is had; it is not very gixxi stuff,” the housewife confided. “The dog always leaves the room when we use it for frying.”
At times, fresh milk is very scarce. Some infants have been nourished on the water drained from lioileri rolled oats and have not tasted milk until they were many months old.
Even the simjilest luxuries are not found at Montbeillard. During my entire tour of the countryside, the only radio I saw was in the frame post-office building. There is no electricity, and economy forbids the general use of battery sets. For the same reason, only a small minority of the inhabitants subscribe to newspapers and periodicals.
Or consider the youngsters, unused to the little extras that often gladden the heart of most other Canadian children. I entered the shanty of one of the colonists with whom I had become quite friendly, and handed the mother a bagful of chocolate fishes for the youngsters. They swarmed around her, surjirised, noisy and excited. I could plainly see that this was an event! Candy was something they received but once a year, at New Year’s. And even then, Santa Claus is an unknown stranger.
Hope springs eternal in the settler’s breast. He lives for the future, confident that he can wrest a living from the soil of his newly adopted home. His jiresent and jiast life at Montbeillard is and has been a struggle; six years of fighting with unfamiliar weajxms for an existence in an unfriendly virgin country. Ahead of him lies further struggle. He knows it and remains undaunted.
The sjfirit of Montbeillard is aptly expressed by a dear little old woman, an ex-Montrealer who, in gratitude to the Quebec Government, has painted the jirovincial motto. Je me souviens, over the entrance to her home in bright green letters.
“We are working for our children, not for ourselves,” she told me. “Even if we have a little trouble here, in a few years we will have something to show for it. They have something to look forward to; they will not have to worry about the future.”
Progress Slow But Sure
U VER Y morning at seven, exactly one hour after he has tolled the church bell summoning the Montbeillard jxipulace to mass, Father Robert casts aside his clerical robe, dons his overalls and goes to work. All day, jiijx; in mouth, wearing a huge straw hat, his earth-soiled hands guide the horse-drawn plow, breaking the stubborn ground. For, like everyone else in Montbeillard, the parish priest wforks in the fields.
And not only men. Everywhere you see women and children busily employed— little boys and girls carrying jxiils of water, trudging to the distant store, or helping burn the wood off the land. An attractive young wife jilanting vegetables in the green garden in front of her home. A mother, hoe in hand, taking her place in the field beside her husband and two sons.
The vanishing home of the city has made its reappearance at Montbeillard. Gone are the movies, the bowling alleys, dance halls, taverns and clubs that kept mother, daughter, father and son ajiart, each pursuing their own interest. Once again lias the. home regained its position as a recreational centre. The whole family goes to the socials given at the various settlers’ cabins
And gay gatherings they are. They sing, play games and dance. Some of the games, like chômeur, meaning unemployed, are of their own invention. Square dancing is the vogue, since the round dance (fox-trot) is frowned upon by the older women of the community. One wonders what they would think of the Big Apple, the Susy-Q, the Jeep, the Lambeth Walk, and other terpsichorean variations popular in the cities.
The music is homemade. The ensemble consists of a mouth organ. Jew’s harp, violin, piano and guitar. All the musicians are self-taught. Bernard, a lad of twenty who plays the jiiano, learned how to read music, and was ambitious enough to secure a book of classical selections and learn them off by memory. True, his rendition of Schubert's “Serenade" is a little ragged, and the tempo of "Gypsy Rondo” isa bit
slow, yet his jilaying is a notable achievement when we consider that he has had no exjx-rt advice and had never heard the pieces jilayed before.
A quaint picture a settlers’ jiarty presents the city slicker returning to the simpler forms of enjoyment. And they do appear to find genuine satisfaction in the things they do. Perhaps it is because they are not surrounded by people with more money than they have, who can afford pleasures that they themselves must forego. The pangs of envy, so often aroused in an urban centre where the jxior rub shoulders with the wealthy, here lie dormant.
Hardest on the Mothers
TOOK at any family in Montbeillard, and you will notice that being back on the land ajijxars to be hardest on the mothers. To them, the experience of bringing up children in pioneer fashion has been a strenuous one. At twenty-five or thirty, one can detect weariness on their faces, a weariness caused by strain and solicitude.
Colony life is proving very enjoyable to the children just growing up. They can dimly recall their days in the crowded city. Here, they are in the wide open spaces, near lakes and bush. In summer they help with the farming and drive teams; in winter they assist in cutting wood and ice. Then there is dog-team mushing, snowshoeing and skiing. True, sometimes they grow wearied of an unvaried regimen, or they may be even a little hungry or cold; but for the most part it is a life which satisfies the innate childish yearning for adventure and the romantic setting of the great outdoors.
Among the young jxople who have reached maturity before coming to the colony, contentment is not so general. The city was their first home and, as a rule, they continue to crave urban society and urban institutions. If they succeed in adjusting themselves, then a certain amount of jxace of mind ensues. This is particularly true of the girls who marry young, because there is never a shortage of husbands; soon children come, and the vague longing to be somewhere else is overwhelmed by the urgency of everyday family problems.
But in young men like Emil, whom I met shortly after coming to the colony, a certain inquietude persists. He knows what it is to make $25 a week in the city, and to have more than the necessities of existence. Arduously he toils, day after day, from dawn till dusk, with what to show for it? He has been living with his family and would like to get married, but this he cannot do. because the parental farm is not productive enough to supjxjrt his wife and the many extra mouths that would follow.
Discouraged. Emil quits the farm and seeks employment in the near-by mining towns—Rouyn, Kirkland Lake or Noranda. He generally lands a job. W hen times are slack, he comes back to the colony to live. Or perhaps he gets steady work and ultimately settles elsewhere and marries.
There are not a few Emils at Montbeillard disheartened young men who can see no future for themselves on the farm, and who finally drift into the neighboring centres of population.
Yet. encouraged by the progress, however slight, made by their fathers, more numerous are those who stay on. They are convinced that their adventure is going to end happily. The future alone knows whether or not their confidence is justified.
Meanwhile, the pioneers of Montbeillard reinforced by their newly acquired exjx;rience, nursed and fostered by the Government, bravely continue the battle to establish themselves on the soil of Northern Quebec.