Closeup/The Nation

Tight little island

The sun has not set on Westmount, at least not yet

Graham Fraser August 21 1978
Closeup/The Nation

Tight little island

The sun has not set on Westmount, at least not yet

Graham Fraser August 21 1978

Tight little island

Closeup/The Nation

The sun has not set on Westmount, at least not yet

Graham Fraser

West along Sherbrooke Street, past the glossy new high rises being bought one by one with nervous European capital that still comes to Montreal, past the stately greystone apartments, the trees begin. Gardeners work on the flower beds in the parks, the church spires are suddenly square and Protestant and the stores that line the small commercial cross-streets have the comfortable, gentle look of a New England village main street, or the high street of an English town.

Westmount. The word conjures up one of the most durable images of Canadian social isa code word for the wealthy English of Quebec—rooted, colonial, comfortable, and rich. Almost 20 years ago, when he was a socialist MP, Douglas Fisher called them “those fat pigeons from Westmount”; five years ago, when he was commissioner of official languages, Keith Spicer called them “Westmount Rhodesians.” Everyone knew what they were talking about.

Like all stereotypes, this one is only partly true. Westmount has always had, at the base of the mountain along Sherbrooke Street, a considerable number of modest houses, duplexes and apartment buildings. In this part of the community, by the absurd standards of Canadian real estate,

Westmount is inexpensive. Comfortable four-bedroom row houses sell for less than $50,000; large near-mansions sell for less than $80,000. These days some, though far from all, of the stores carry glistening, new all-French signs conforming with the new language regulations. But in a Quebec where the English sometimes seem traumatized by the changes since Premier René Lévesque came to office, Westmount is still relaxed, quiet and comfortable.

In summer, the community slows to an amble. Stores close for holidays, businessmen become summer bachelors and commute weekends to the gentle old houses of Brome Lake or Magog in the Eastern Townships or what the English still call Murray Bay—properly La Malbaie—on the lower St. Lawrence. Among some, there are contradictory rumblings. Standing on the lawn of a magnificent white-pillared house in the Brome Lake community of Knowlton, at an auction to raise money for the boat club, an investment counsellor chats about how he loves Montreal, has no plans to leave. Moments later, he gestures at the other guests on the lawn: “There are at least 20 guys here who are now commuting up from Toronto. Bill 101? Language has got nothing to do with it. It’s taxes. That last budget really bit into

salaries over $30,000. If something doesn’t happen to that tax rate, I’ll be leaving in 1979.”

Subtly, in little glimpses like that, the economic shift to Toronto and west becomes visible. Since the shock back in January of Sun Life Assurance announcing its plans to move, it seems nobody wants to talk about leaving.

Certainly, Sun Life has provided a classic case study in how not to move. A symbol of traditional English capitalism in Montreal, Sun Life had one of the worst records for hiring francophones—and suddenly, without even waiting for the head office language regulations, announced it was moving. Now, the company is suffering. It has seen the defection of between 20 and 25 per cent of its sales force in Quebec and there are reports that its life insurance sales in the province have dropped as much as 40 per cent. The great irony is that so far only 23 people connected with Sun Life have moved to Toronto—a far smaller number than have been involved in “routine” shifts of personnel in companies like the Royal Bank.

Now, although rumors still swirl about other major head offices, their replies are routine denials. “I get a call every month,” chuckles Stan Conder, public relations director for the Bank of Montreal. “No, we have no intention whatsoever of moving our head office to Toronto. Our chairman, Fred H. McNeil, has said we have been here 160 years, and in all probability we’ll be here another 160 years.” But while there

is no reason to doubt McNeil’s sincerity, the banking industry is centralizing in Toronto, with key offices in all the banks quietly moving to the huge towers at Bay and King streets. And just what constitutes a head office is a matter of definition. Quebec’s Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau often points out that the head office of the Bank of Nova Scotia is in Halifax — but the executive offices are all in Toronto.

It's one of the stranger ironies of modern-day Quebec that the very uncertainty that is causing some to leave is making others all the more determined to stay. Bilingual, comfortable, these people find the challenge and excitement that comes from grappling with the political situation a constant exhilaration, and a refreshing change from what often drove the brightest of the English community out of Quebec in the past: the sometimes stifling conservatism of traditional English Montreal. “I have never been happier in Quebec than since November 15; I’m loving every minute of it,” says Reford MacDougall, a retired stockbroker who is general manager of one of the unity groups, the Positive Action Committee. “Because of the separation threat there is more of a feeling of communion between moderate anglophones and moderate francophones. The English are making more of an effort and in the case of French Canadians, I think they feel less threatened.”

Brian Gallery, a publisher, active Progressive Conservative and Westmount alderman whose great-grandfather was mayor of Montreal, is equally enthusiastic. “This is still the best place to live in Canada,” he says. “A person like me, with family here, roots here, accepts the fact that Bill 101 will not be substantially changed with the Liberals or the Union Nationale. That ball game is over. The province is going to be a very French place. Those who have accepted that will make it. Those who haven’t will leave, or will have a tough time.”

So far, that change is felt only in small ways in Westmount. More French is heard in the park and at the pool, and one of the first schools to have a French immersion program, Roslyn School, may become entirely French. But the adjustments are gradual, barely noticeable.

What local controversy there is, Gallery is cheerfully at the centre of. He stirred up some amusement last month when he successfully moved that Westmount stop sending the Queen maple syrup every year because she neglected to say thank you for the last shipment. A compromise was reached later and Her Majesty will be receiving a smaller shipment from now on. The royalist tradition remains strong.

Westmount Park, along with the public library and Victoria Hall on its northwest corner, was planned as Westmount’s commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897. The park is the public centre of Westmount—a beautiful 26-acre tract stretching south from Sherbrooke Street with playing fields and tennis courts, play-

however since the pool is restricted to cardcarrying Westmount residents, many of whom retreat to summer cottages in the Eastern Townships, it is rarely crowded and seems more like a private club than a public pool. As the few stay-at-home lie by the pool, children from the working class, francophone Saint-Henri district across the tracks to the south ride their bicycles up the hill to splash about in the artificial stream, making the sedate park seem incongruously reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. Beside Victoria Hall is one of the traditional summer landmarks of Westmount, a flowered clock, carefully maintained year

after year. But this year, it seems somehow appropriate that behind the clock is the noise and dust of the only major construction project in Westmount, a senior citizens’ home. As power shifts from English to French (from Westmount to Outremont) in Quebec and on a national scale from Montreal to Toronto and Calgary, it seems as if Westmount is becoming more like Victoria than Toronto’s Rosedale or Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park: a place to retreat or retire to rather than a place where the powerful congregate. So it is in this atmosphere— evocative of the last days of an empire, with angry and frightened individuals and companies

packing to leave—that many anglophones with roots in Quebec going back many generations are finding that their ties and loyalties remain with the province. Their response is to get involved. where the houses are still attached and look, if not modest, at least never ostentatious, Reed Scowen is sitting on his back

Up the hill from Westmount Park,

porch. Bright, talented, bilingual, well educated (Bishop’s University, Harvard Business School, London School of Economics) and well-off, the 47-year-old Scowen is typical of the kind of English Quebecker who used to gravitate naturally to Ottawa; only the rare exception saw his future in provincial politics. It is a sign of the times that this man has come to feel that his commitment is to Quebec, rather than Canada: on July 5 he jumped into the provincial political arena with an impressive victory for the Liberal party in a provincial byelection in Notre-Dame-deGrâce, next door to Westmount. “I have certain reservations about Canada and certain reservations about Ottawa, which have been reinforced by being up

there for a couple of years,” Scowen explains. (He worked for the Anti-Inflation Board and the Task Force on National Unity.) “To me, an awful lot of the reality, the problems and the possibilities for people are in units the size of Quebec rather than units the size of Canada. Canada is and always has been to me more of an arrangement of convenience than an ideal nation. To me, the basis for a political society cannot and should not be Canada. The basis is here.” While those feelings are commonplace coming from even the most devoted French-Canadian federalists (before July 1

this year, Jean Marchand said he did not expect to be celebrating Canada Day since “it is difficult to celebrate a juridical arrangement”) Scowen’s remarks are unusual for an English Quebecker. The floral clock remains, a symbol of this scepter’d isle, and so does that fine old tradition of lawn bowling (below)

There is a group of people with backgrounds similar to Scowen’s who have become involved in the current debate in Quebec—the leaders of the Positive Action Committee. In fact co-chairman Alex Paterson, a Montreal lawyer, is a close friend since their days together at Trinity College School and Bishop’s. Avows Paterson: “Even separation isn’t going to drive me out of this province. My contribution has been to say, in effect, ‘Some clown is not going to come into power for four years and cause me to pick up everything I’ve put into this place and leave.’ ”

So in March the Positive Action Committee ran frankly emotional newspaper ads, headed, “A Time to Come Home, Not to Leave,” and saying in part: “This is your homeland, whether you came here yesterday, or 200 years ago. You belong here. No one can make you leave except yourself. There may be heat. There may be swallowing hard and the clearing of throats. But what happens here in the next few years will determine for the world whether people can ever learn to get along. Stay. Stay home.”

One of the conundrums of the situation, however, is that people have always left Montreal—partly because of the conservative nature of the old Anglo-Scot business community that is now identified with Westmount. The old established families of English Montreal had been wealthy for three generations when Timothy Eaton opened a corner store in Toronto. Graced with the ease that comes with several generations of wealth, it was a class that excluded not only the French but the innovators, the speculators and the nouveau riche.

Thus, in the 1820s, the directors of the Bank of Montreal recorded some discomfiture in their minutes when, to stave off collapse, they had to accept onto the board a newly rich brewer named Molson. And a century later, Sir James Dunn was kept out of the Mount Royal Club for years because the members disapproved of his speculative fortune.

In fact, it is only relatively recently that the old, wealthy families of Montreal moved to Westmount. As journalist and local historian Edgar Andrew Collard points out: “Westmount is not really the history of the old families; the old families lived in the Square Mile (the elegant district between Mount Royal Park and the city centre). Examine Westmount’s large houses; you can see at a glance it is the architecture of the 1920s, imitating old English houses.” It was after the crash of 1929, when the expansion of downtown began to take its toll on the bourgeois mansions of the Square Mile, that the old families began to move west to the hillside mansions they had so scorned a generation before.

The move did little to change what was largely an isolated group, remote from what was happening in the rest of the province. With large family compounds in the

Eastern Townships, the Laurentians or the lower St. Lawrence, the old English Montrealers had few dealings with the French majority. “They dealt with Quebec City the way the British dealt with the Raj in India,” one old Montrealer said. “They struck a deal.” In some circles, the attitude persists. One scion of an old family only recently told a friend that his wife was settling a problem with the gardener. “I’ve learned from my ancestors that if you don’t learn the language you don’t get involved with these hassles,” he said with a satisfied smile.

Strangely enough, many of those who decided to adapt 15 years ago and went to university at Laval or the Université de Montréal have left for Ontario. Conrad Black of Argus Corporation, Peter White of The London Free Press, lawyer Michael Meighen, all studied at Laval in the early 1960s, and are all in Ontario now—not because of problems with French, or the Parti Québécois, but because the economic action is no longer centred in Montreal. The ability to adapt that led them to learn French in the 1960s led them to Toronto in the 1970s.

After months of apparent indifference, the Lévesque government has realized that a too-strict application of the language laws will force the most dynamic parts of the English business community to leave. Thus his concessions last month to head offices, permitting the use of English in companies that do 50 per cent of their business outside Quebec.

It is only a straw in a changing attitude to business. Business Week magazine recently suggested that “the tide may be turning ... Montreal, if not in the full flush of a boom, is beginning to emerge again as a robust city.” And Bernard Landry, the ebullient Quebec minister of state for economic development, joked with reporters that he had received a study showing an expansion of head-office activities in Montreal and was so surprised he sent it back to the researchers to make sure. Certainly, American-based corporations seem to have regained confidence. General Motors not only spent $36 million converting its car-assembly plant in Ste. Thérèse in 1977, it is building a bus-assembly plant at St. Eustache; Haley Industries Ltd. and Bendix Corp. are building a $16.5-million auto brake-casting plant at Farnham near Montreal.

These are signs of a revived economic attraction to Quebec, perhaps enough to convince some would-be refugees to stick around. But on top of all that, there’s always the legendary stubbornness of the stereotypical denizens of Westmount. A member of one old family, whose wealth and Quebec roots go back to the early 19th century, was asked after the Parti Québécois victory if his family firm was thinking of leaving. “No,” he snapped. Under what conditions would he consider moving? “We move,” he replied slowly, “when the mountain moves.” O