The French, the English, the Jews......and what's bugging everybody

MORDECAI RICHLER August 22 1964

The French, the English, the Jews......and what's bugging everybody

MORDECAI RICHLER August 22 1964

The French, the English, the Jews......and what's bugging everybody

Thi3 is a highly personal and utterly outspoken account of what it’s like to come home to Canada■ in 196f and feel for the first time the interesting but inflammatory new mood the rest of us are already beginning to take for granted

MORDECAI RICHLER

GOING HOME has become increasingly difficult for me, because not enough remains as I remembered it. It's not a question of new styles in architecture — the Place Ville Marie in Montreal or Toronto’s city hall— for we’ve come to expect that of cities. It’s happening everywhere. What’s so disturbing is the clash of illusion and reality. Montreal’s Peel and St. Catherine Street, for instance, is clearly not the centre of the world, but after years of living in London it’s still the centre of nty world. I’m a provincial. I've been to Jerusalem. I’ve had my year in Paris and a season in Rome. But only when I’m staying at the Mount Royal Hotel in Montreal, a drummer’s stopover, do I get that rare feeling of inner pleasure, of having, as they say, made it. I feel I’ve come as far as a man can decently expect when I can phone down to the desk at the Mount Royal, order anything I please, and simply sign for it. So the short answer to those who have asked me why I quit Montreal is I’ve never left. I always live there.

The last time I stayed in Montreal for a lengthy period, in 1960, I spoke at two or three synagogues. It was the question periods that made for most of the action. One evening a lady rose and said, “1 read your last so-called novel and want to ask you why you called the boy Duddy Kravitz?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Such a hateful creature. Couldn’t you have given him an Italian name?” A man was next. ‘Tm a dentist,” he said.

“Good.”

“One of your cousins comes to me.” May his cheques bounce, I thought. “You probably don’t remember me, you think you're such a big shot now, but I’m from St. Urbain Street too.”

“What’s your question, please?” “Now why in your book did you write that we called the FrenchCanadian kids frogs?”

“Didn’t we?” I asked.

“That’s not the point. It isn’t very nice. In fact it’s very bad publicity for us with the frogs.”

That was 1960. Duplessis was no longer with us. Paul Sauvé, his successor, had died of a heart attack and Jean Lesage was fighting his first provincial election as head of the Liberal Party. René Lévesque was a candidate on the slate. I sat up until two o’clock on election night to watch the returns come in on TV. It was an intensely dramatic occasion, the slender lead passing to and fro, and the Liberals finally coming in with a small majority. I, for one, was glad to see the Union Nationale done for, but hardly suspected we had entered into a revolutionary era in Quebec.

I was born and brought up in Montreal but my experience of the French was a pathetically limited and distorted one.

Our street was called St. Urbain. French for Urban. Actually there have been eight popes named Urban, but ours was the first. Urban I. He was the only one to have been canonized.

St. Urbain led ultimately to Routes 11 and 18, and all day and night big refrigeration trucks and peddlers in Chevvies and sometimes tourists used to pass going to and from northern Quebec, Ontario and New York State. Occasionally the truckers, usually French Canadians, would pull up at Tansky’s Cigar and Soda for a breather. Some of the truckers had tattoos on their arms, others chewed tobacco, and usually they called Tansky “Pop.” The regulars would whisper about them in Yiddish.

“I wonder how long that one’s been out of prison?”

“The one with all the holes in his face probably hasn’t changed his underwear since the depression.”

When the regulars carried on like that, nervously belittling the bigger French-Canadian men, Tansky, the sufferer, the would-be assimilationist, would look at them reproachfully. He would put out little feelers to the truckers. Peering over the rim of his glasses, Tansky would say, “Isn’t it a shame about the strikers in Granby?” Or looking up from his newspaper, pausing to wet a thumb, he’d try, “And what about our brothers, the Blacks?”

“It’s a hell of a life,” one of the truckers might say and Tansky would reply fervently, “We can change it. It’s up to us.”

If, as I wrote in an earlier article for Maclean’s (August 27, 1961), the French Canadians were our enemies, they were not entirely unloved.

It was the English who were truly hated and feared. “Among them,” I heard it said, “with their porridge faces, who can tell what they’re thinking?” It was, we felt, their country, and who knew when — released by booze — they’d make trouble. But the French, like us, were poor and rough and spoke English badly.

uring the war years St. Urbain Street families used to club together to rent clapboard cottages with outside toilets from French Canadians in the Laurentians. Every week the farmers came to market with fruit and vegetables and I can still remember the bargaining and the farmers grinning when the women held up chickens to blow on them and see if they were truly fat or only thickly feathered. Once a summer a French-

Canadian strong man came to town and we all went out to watch him bend an iron bar between his teeth and swallow' razor blades. Then things went sour between the French Canadians and us. One day the kids fished and stole apples together and the next there were signs painted on the highway, ci bas les juifs. Adrian Arcand, the fascist leader, alarmed us. The Liberals in Ottawa called for a plebiscite on conscription and on a sleazy beach outside Montreal French Canadians and Jews fought with clubs. A popular Jewish sportsman lost an eye. French Canadians and Jews met to fight again outside the YMHA on Park Avenue. Duplessis published a pamphlet showing a Jew, with an elongated nose and a skullcap, raking in gold, and the caption underneath invited Abie to return to Palestine. Swastikas were painted on sidewalks here and there.

We were told the priests were preaching against the Jews in the churches and yet my grandfather, a Chassidic rabbi, used to receive priests and seminary students w'ho spoke Hebrew at his summer cottage in Piedmont. I must say those pale mournful figures in long black cassocks were as terrifying to me as, say, my grandfather, with his beard and sidecurls, must have appeared to French-Canadian kids. 1 was scared of being kidnapped.

Looking back, I can see the real trouble was that there was no dialogue between us. We went to one set of schools and the French Canadians to another. I’m sure many of them believed that there was such an order as the Elders of Zion and that the St. Urbain Street Jews were secretly rich and required gentile blood for the Passover ritual. On my side, I was convinced all French Canadians

were abysmally stupid. Frenchies, as I recall it, were for turning the lights on and off on the sabbath and running elevators and cleaning chimneys and furnaces. They were stinky, ridden with TB and rickets. Their older women were for washing windows and waxing floors and the younger ones were for maids in the higher reaches of Outremont, working in factories, and making time with, if you had the chance. Zabitsky, the most feared of Tansky’s regulars, said, “It’s not very well known, but there’s a tunnel that runs from the nunnery to the priest house — and it isn’t there in case of an air raid either.”

We fought them stereotype for stereotype.

If the French Canadians felt the Jews were running the black market, then I knew for a fact that carloads of priests drove down to the American border every weekend, shed their cassocks, put on natty clothes, and made time with the girls in New York. My typical French Canadian was a gum-chewer. He wore his greasy black hair parted down the middle and also affected an eyebrow mustache. His zoot trousers were belted just under the breastbone and ended in a peg hugging the ankles. He was a dolt who held you up endlessly at the liquor commission while he tried unsuccessfully to add three figures or if he was employed at the customs office he never knew which form to give you. Furthermore he only held this or any other government job because he was the second cousin of some corrupt backwoods notary who had delivered the family vote to the Union Nationale for a generation. Other French Canadians were speed cops and if any of these ever stopped you on the highway you made sure to include a folded two-dollar bill when

you handed over your driver’s licence.

Wartime shortages, the admirable Protestant spirit of making-do, benefited both Jews and French Canadians. Jews with clean fingernails were allowed to teach within the Protestant school system and French Canadians off the sandlots broke into the International Baseball League. Jean-Pierre Roy won twenty-five games one year, Roland Gladu also pitched for the Royals, and Stan Beard enjoyed a season as a stylish but no-hit shortstop. Come to think of it, the only French Canadians I knew of were athletes. There was Maurice Richard, and there was also Dave Castilloux, a clever welterweight, and, above all, the wrestlerhero, Yvon Robert, who week after week gave the blond Anglo-Saxon wrestlers what for at the Forum.

/believed that Montreal was the largest inland seaport and secondbiggest French city in the world, but only because my geography book said so. 1 also understood that French Canadians were hilarious. Our Scots schoolmaster could always raise a laugh in class by reading us the atrocious dialect verses of William Henry Drummond. Little Baptiste and Co.

I’ve offered up this mixed bag of remembered Jewish experience of what is now commonly called the French Fact in the hope that it may help to illuminate present attitudes. For when I returned to Montreal recently, after a long absence, I found the Jewish community alarmed about the present French-Canadian mood and gloomy about its own prospects. Relatives and old friends I spoke to felt threatened by the separatists in general and René Lévesque in particular. “He’s as much as told us,” I

continued on page 39

WHAT’S BUGGING EVERYONE

continued from page 11

“Get your money out,” said the merchant. “When Quebec blows up, the whole thing blows up”

heard again and again, "that we ve got to get off the fence. We’re supposed to come down with the French or against them."

Anxiety. I should add. is smeared with a patina of condescension that is shared with the larger and most poorly informed sector of the Englishspeaking community, which group feels that the French Canadians could no more manage a country than, say. the Egyptians could run the Suez Canal. Trouble is the Suez Canal works just fine these days.

A small businessman with a shop in a French-Canadian district told me, "It's not the people, the people are the same. It's the wild guys, the politicians."

“If it's no more than that." I said, “maybe it'll all come to nothing.”

“Don't worry, they'll educate the people. These things start slow, you know, and everyone thinks it’ll blow oveT. but it never does . . . ask the smart boys, they're not building here any more, they're even trying to unload what they have. You’ve got to get your money out and into a new country. The U. S. A."

"Why not Ontario?”

"When this blows up. brother, the whole thing blows up."

Like most of the Jews 1 spoke to he felt the separatist movement was potentially rich in anti-Semitic content.

"If anything starts who'll get it in the neck? Us. Why not?"

An old school friend, much better informed, told me ruefully. "1 was going to buy a place in the Uaurentians this year, but . . . well the truth is now I'm thinking of looking for something in Vermont. I hate to say this, but if 1 was going to buy a house here I'd get myself the biggest possible mortgage. Uet somebody else get stuck if there's trouble."

A Jewish refugee, fluently bilingual, somebody I know to be both sensitive and perceptive, said. "The separatists are right when they say this isn't a nation, it's a state, but if only they knew how lucky they were. They

haven't seen our European style of nationalism and what it does. This isn’t a country, but that's what 1 like best about it here."

An aunt said. "If they get their own country the standard of living will go down and first thing they'll do. the little Flitlers. is blame the Jews."

As far as I could make out. from my limited and necessarily stilted

dialogues with separatist leaders and students, there is no anti-Semitic content to the movement, in fact again

and again separatists ingratiatingly

quoted the Zionist analogy to the demand for their own state, but all the same 1 sympathize with Jewish apprehensions. Intellectually I can see little to fear, but when 1 drove out to Ste. Agathe, in the Uaurentians. 1 felt what must be the typical Jewish response

to the trouble. The French Canadians are writing on the highway again— true, this time out it was Québec Libre and not à bas les juifs — but when the French Canadians start writing on the highway 1 don't feel so good.

Separatists, and even less extreme but aroused French Canadians, seem to identify, conversationally and in written pieces, with the American Negro and the resurgent African. If I understand André Laurendeau’s theory of the roi nègre correctly, it runs that the real rulers of Quebec used a French Canadian (Duplessis) to govern the province for them just as the colonial powers used to install a compliant Negro chieftain to keep his tribe tranquilized.

The French corrupted Quebec

Well, if this is a problem you bring your own baggage and prejudices to. let me unload some of mine here and now. Unfortunately we didn't see the French Canadians as downtrodden Negroes, in fact within that particular contest we saw them more clearly as rednecks ready to fall in behind the first Tightest demagogue to come along and spread violence in the Jewish community. Sorry, but that's how it was. Je me souviens aussi. Then, while I agree that the role of the English-language press in Montreal during the Duplessis era was. to say the least, disgraceful, the French Canadians, unlike the southern Negro, had the vote, they were not kept from the polls, and so if I was brought up in a notoriously corrupt and reaction-

ary province, the realm of Messrs. Duplessis and Houde. it was (no matter how you slice it) a French-Canadian electoral majority that put that government in office and kept it there and kept it there. The English-speaking community may have been more than pleased about it, there is no doubt they behaved shabbily, even dishonestly. but the shame, such as it is. is French Canadian.

And pride and shame, not economics. is what the French-Canadian problem is all about.

Today French Canada is in an angry and insulted and militant mood, and it’s about time, it certainK is. The young people 1 spoke to seem to feel the same contempt for those who condoned Duplessis as. say. Russian young people must feel for survivors of the Stalinist era. and indeed to read Pierre Laporte's largely anecdotal book. The True ¡'ace of Duplessis. is to wonder how so many politicians, lawyers, judges -—the so-called pillars of the community —could have been so obsequious for so many years. Moscow, it seems, is not the only place where they danced the Copa for the leader. For the past year in London, reading newspaper reports about bombs in Westmounl mailboxes, armory raids, and fasting politicians. 1 must confess to a feeling of elation. Something was happening. At last something was happening. As luck would have it. I arrived in Montreal on Victoria Day and one thousand cops were required to put down a separatist demonstration. Flags were burnt, a defective bomb was planted on Vic-

toria bridge, and a wreath was laid at Monument aux Patriotes, which marks the spot where twelve men were executed after the 1837-38 rebellion.

The last time I remember such excitement in Montreal was when Maurice Richard was suspended and could not play in the first three games of the Stanley Cup series. Before that, French-Canadian students once demonstrated against increased streetcar fares. Going back even further I can remember housewives being aroused because margarine was banned in Quebec. As AÍ Palmer, then the hotsy gossip columnist for the Herald, put it day after day, with butter nearly ninety cents a pound, why no margarine? It was refreshing, then, to see our town (as Palmer still calls it) worked up over a real political issue for once.

A knowledgable journalist, an oldtimer not generally given to hyperbole, told me, “You know what I’d like more than anything, to be twenty and French Canadian. My God it must be exciting.”

He went on to say, “All my sympathies are with the French in this. They’re the best people in the country, aren’t they? I mean the Protestants are so guilt-ridden and joyless. The French have such a damn good case too, but it’s emotional not rational. I mean you can’t get them to sit down at a table and say I want this and 1 want that, you can’t bargain . . .”

The next morning, on my way to visit an old friend, I spied a lonely and defiant Red Ensign fluttering in a Westmount garden. Happy Birthday, Queen Victoria, I thought, and good luck to you too, Charlie. Not yet a separatist, I already felt pleased to think of the WASPs of Montreal in trouble. Maybe your time is soon coming, I thought, and we'll see how good you are at being a minority. A touchy minority.

When I was downtown the following day and dropped off at my old college, Sir George Williams, and asked to see a faculty member, 1 was told, “Sorry he can’t be disturbed now.”

“Really?”

“He’s having his French lesson.”

Elsewhere it was the same, and J got a picture of lots of big boys doing penance. Why, there was now even a French column in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle. The next step was difficult to predict. It could be a Racine Festival in Racine, Quebec, if there is such a place, or frogs legs replacing Super “K” on the breakfast tables of Westmount. We already have, as The New Yorker once observed, a Notre Dame de Grâce kosher meat market.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all as amusing as that. Somebody I know who worked at the National Film Board told me, “A very disheartening thing has happened there. Gradually the French have been moving their offices until now they’re all on a floor of their own. They sit in their own section of the canteen now too. Hell, I can speak French and I like using it. 1 used to speak a lot of French to some of the guys here, but I don’t anymore. I’m too self-conscious. The thing is it used to be OK, natural even, but now speaking French looks like appeasement, condescension.”

Another afternoon, strolling with

two friends on St. Catherine Street I saw a man-on-the-street interviewer from a radio station talking to a plump lady in a flowered hat. “And what,” he asked, his manner breathless, “do you think of the latest separatist demonstrations?”

“Oh they’re impossible people,” she said, “simply impossible.” Suddenly a man came running out of Ogilvy’s carrying an armload of dresses. A salesgirl screamed. People took off in pursuit. One of my friends said, “He must be a separatist. Ogilvy’s doesn’t hire French Canadians. It's a protest.”

We followed the crowd into a lane where two cops held the man against a garage wall. As it turned out, separatism wasn’t his problem. He was a junkie.

The Timmins troublemaker

A few days later I was in Timmins, and there I got a look at the French Fact as seen from a small Ontario town. I was present at a meeting of troubled farmers with the Ontario minister of agriculture and as we sat around, drinking beer, the conversation naturally turned to the flag issue.

“That new flag of Pearson’s,” one of the farmers said, “looks like a lousy beer label to me.”

Another man muttered, “We haven't even got any maple leaves out here.” Timmins is some ninety miles from the Quebec border and more than half the people who live there are French Canadian.

“Sure the problem’s reached here,” an official told me. “We’ve got a real trouble-maker in Timmins, Father Célestine.”

“What’s he done?” I asked.

“Well, before we had the dial system put in, I mean when you still had to ask the operator for a number, Father Célestine organized all the frogs to ask for their phone numbers in French.”

“But with more than half the town French-speaking,” I asked, “are bilingual operators too much to ask for?”

“Hell,” he said, “this is Ontario here.”

Father Célestine was also known at the local newspaper office.

“When we decided to conduct a public opinion poll on the flag issue the Red Ensign had a big lead . . . then suddenly we got a flood of votes for the Maple Leaf. Father Célestine got all the French-Canadian school kids to send in ballots for the Maple Leaf.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.

“They’re not even regular readers.”

From there, Toronto.

Toronto.

I first came to Toronto when I was eight years old and I began by thinking of the city as a latter-day Sodom. For, unlike Montreal, it was not required of me to be sixteen before I could get into a movie. I saw Modern Times, with Charlie Chaplin, and Here Comes the Fleet, with Dorothy Lamour and Eddy Bracken, and thereafter followed a run of parched years in Montreal when I continued to think of Toronto as the wicked city. For it was from Ontario that we teenagers obtained many publications that were either banned (sun-

bathing and girlie magazines) or simply not produced (Hush, Flash, Justice Weekly) in Quebec. I still think of Toronto as the home of farout magazines and on arrival my first trip is to a well-stacked newsstand.

Toronto, endearingly, remains a special-pleader’s paradise. A recent issue of the Jewish Press, published in New York, carries the following Canadian report: “ONLY JEW IN PRO HOCKEY PLAYS A ROUGH

GAME." “Larry Zeidel,” the story begins, “owns a scar for every one of the twenty years he marauded through organized hockey. ‘When you’re the only Jew in this bloody game,’ he said, ‘you have to prove you can take the rough stuff more than the average player.’ ”

Zeidel, now with the Hershey Bears and “reputedly one of the roughest skaters in the history of hockey,” is quoted as saying, “A psychiatrist could have fun with me. He'd say I

got that tough on account of having to fight for my rights as a Jew.”

I am also a collector of specialpleading headlines from Toronto newspapers and my favorite, which appeared in the Globe and Mail, runs, “1960 WAS A GOOD YEAR FOR PLAYWRIGHTS OUTSIDE CANADA.”

This trip I was not disappointed. “COHEN FINDS WE’RE A WORLD CITY," ran a front-page headline in the Star. “Milan was beautiful and

Tokyo the most nut Toronto

conies^oufExceedingly well’ he said on his return from a jet-age trip around the world in eighty days.”

I suffer from a recurring nightmare. I waken one day to discover that Mao Tse-tung has been declared father-of-the-year by the American Junior Chamber of Commerce; Nathan Cohen has landed on the moon only to find out he’s the one drama critic there who counts; Rex Morgan, MD, is pulled in for running an abortion mill; Lome Greene is run off the Ponderosa for poking cattle on Yom Kippur; the Mets take a pennant; Justice. Weekly wins a Canada Council grant and Irving Layton goes to bed one night without writing a letterto-an-editor. Hallelujah day. Then I land in Toronto, buy a newspaper, and the headline, as always, reads “FLAG DEBATE CONTINUES,” and inside, as ever, there is a supplement on playwrights — “CANADA MUST HAVE THEM.”

So it was when I landed in Toronto late in May, but other things in the city had changed and for the better.

Toronto, of all unlikely places, had become physically attractive, with streets that were a delight for strolling on, outdoor cafés, luxury shops that bespoke of a tremendous prosperity, and everywhere a visitor turned lovely girls swinging their summer handbags . . . and a troubled consciousness of French Canada. This ran from the taxi driver’s standard, “Who needs the frogs, let them separate,” to the hypersensitive concern of intellectuals.

Writing in the London Observer recently, Robert McKenzie saw the rise of separatism as a part of a world-wide revolt against WASP

domination. The Afro - Asians, he pointed out, now dominate the UN General Assembly and the once-British Commonwealth. There have been Castro and Martin Luther King and, most significantly, an Irish-Catholic in the White House. In Canada, he saw the French Canadians making their long-delayed challenge to WASP ascendency at the same moment as the Negros are demanding equality in the United States. Seen in McKenzie’s context, it must be said that Toronto is an astonishing place, one of the last WASP cultural strongholds anywhere. Publishing and broadcasting, education, newspapers and magazines are largely in white Protestant hands, which is clearly not the case in New York or even London. All this has made for a certain national style, a Canadian style. Our literature, for instance, is characterized by the earthbound but worthy novel, the rib-tickling but never cruel humorist, the sound biography and the essay like an honest handshake. We are not celebrated for flights of the imagination. It is not contingent on each nation represented at the UN, especially the younger and still underpopulated ones, to dazzle the rest with its art.

The most serious WASP cultural failure in Canada lies elsewhere and may not be the undoing of the country. After ninety-seven years it has still failed to provide Canada with a mythology, an inbred sense of nationhood, so that when the separatists say, emotionally, they are a nation and want to get on with it, all English Canada can muster by way of reply is a rational but uninspired plea. Yes, possibly, but the business of government, the gross national product, the CPR and the NHL, all work better

this way. 1 mean, would we have to pay tolis on your section of the seaway and would there be a tariff on prairie wheat? It’s rather like a husband being flung out of the house after too many years of marital failure only to ask in a small voice that it be remembered that half the record collection belongs to him. Furthermore, he’s willing to make some small concessions. He will bring flowers for lunch and not watch TV after dinner. The trouble is when you’re done with somebody you’re done with them, you don’t want to see them any more.

What this country cries out for, what it needs so desperately, is a hero, a happening, something to bind the people together, and the French Canadians may yet provide it. Unfortunately, they may provide it with violence. Meanwhile, the little compromises, the signs in French, this foolish flag or that one, even the offer of Donald Gordon’s head on a platter, will not cure the country. It’s like applying a Band-Aid to a hemorrhage. The two cultures have never really merged, they’ve only lived side by side with extreme discomfort, and it seems unlikely that they will ever learn to share the same house.

And yet I’m not a separatist. I think it’s too late for that. But how I wish somebody could come up with a better reason for this country, this Canada, than that it works. Yes it works. So does IBM. One thing more. Canada for the first time in years seems an exciting place. In Toronto and Montreal, wherever I went, young people were talking about their country. They were worried about it. This, I feel, is a tremendous change. When I was a student all we ever did was make jokes about Canada. ★