Frontlines

Point counter Point

Wayne Grigsby August 6 1979
Frontlines

Point counter Point

Wayne Grigsby August 6 1979

Point counter Point

Frontlines

Wayne Grigsby

About 150 of the more active, vocal and respected citizens of Point St. Charles had just seen a preview of The Point, a National Film Board documentary-profile of their home turf—an insular, close-knit and cockily English-speaking working-class district in the underbelly of Montreal. Here in the veneer-panelled dining hall of Magnan’s Tavern, sitting on rows and rows of stacking chairs, they had seen themselves as film-maker Robert Duncan and thousands of other Montrealers see them: tough, independent, self-sufficient, wise-cracking, poor-but-proud and, sadly, disappearing. As the last images flickered across the portable screen, these citizens of the Point reacted with typical panache: warm applause, two fights and 15 simultaneous arguments.

Commenting on the film’s emphasis on the $6 million in welfare payments a year that fuels the Point’s economy, an ample, waspish matron sniffed, “It’s the truth. Even if it is unpleasant.” Tommy Burton, a member of the board of management of the Point St. Charles Boys and Girls Club, was so incensed by disparaging comments made in the film by one Ron Toohy concerning the drinking and spending habits of the citizens of the Point that he invited a rattled Mr. Toohy to step outside into the alley.

“The. Nipper,” Ron Choules, was looking for Walter (Lammy) Budnick, a former organizer for the ward-heeling, onetime political voice of the Point, Frank Hanley. Choules was out to settle a six-year-old grudge concerning a roughing-up given to a friend—who, coincidentally, was a political opponent of Hanley’s. Budnick’s presence in the film—and now in the hall—was enough to rekindle old flames. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed in the two main bouts, but elsewhere in the hall, over canapés, sandwiches and cold ale, the film was hotly debated.

It is a season for hot debate both in and about the Point. English Montreal

is clutching at its roots, desperately hoping to weather the storm of language laws, school closings and headoffice moves that seem to portend a cultural fin-de-siècle. And it is this search for roots that makes many English Montrealers, some of whom have never set foot in the neighborhood, look to the Point in hope. The Point, in turn, looks inward. David Fennario writes suc-

cessful plays about it; Tim Burke mythologizes it in the sports pages of Montreal’s Gazette; and now Bob Duncan has devoted 48 minutes of film, at a cost of about $120,000, to the Point.

“I wanted to make a film that showed that not all the English in Montreal live on the hills of Westmount or in the suburbs of the West Island,” he explains. “The guy who cut the sound for the film, he’s French, he’s lived in Montreal all

his life and he didn’t even know there was a poor English community. There are 600,000 English-speaking people in Montreal. I say that to people in Vancouver and their jaws drop. I tell that to a girl from Quebec City, pointing out that that’s more than the population of Quebec City, and she won’t believe me. She can't believe me.”

At the preview, critics of the film, in the best blunt-spoken traditions of the Point, took their challenges to Duncan and threw them in his face. Some felt the poverty had been overemphasized; others wanted to know why only boarded-up tenements, and not some of the lovely homes, were shown. And where were the successful native sons? Hockey oldtimer Gump Worsley, construction magnate Ernest Eaman, or Montreal Alouettes’ general manager Bob Geary? Others wanted to know why more hadn’t been made of the innumerable community self-help projects, the halfway houses, the senior citizens’ food co-op, the housing co-ops, the meals-onwheels plans, the sports and recreation programs.

“I’ve had enough of this negative garbage,” barked the scrappy Tommy Burton. “Every time they say anything about the Point, it’s the same old stuff. I don’t live in a ghetto. It keeps hitting you in the face, in all the stuff you see about the Point—‘You’re no good, you live in a slum.’ How do you explain it to your kids?” “It’s a lament,” sighed native son Fennario. “Duncan only talked to the establishment Irish, the old bad boys. He didn’t talk to none of the new bad boys. Leo’s Boys (a sports association) gave him the Chinese tour of the Point. He only saw what they wanted him to see.”

CLOSEUP

But even the critics had to admit that Duncan had captured the indomitable spirit of Point St. Charles: the rowdy clatter and chatter at the annual Leo’s Boys awards banquet, so loud that the guest speaker, hockey star Bob Gainey, couldn’t be heard for the noise; the traditional Victoria Day bonfires set in sheds, alleys and streets all over the neighborhood and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse with the fire department; the cheerful admissions of ballotstuffing and vote-rigging in bygone elections; the gaggle of teen-agers proudly crowing the Point’s unofficial theme song:

We don't care for all the rest of Canada

All the rest of Canada, all the rest of Canada

We don't care for all the rest of Canada

We're from Point St. Charles

And the film comes squarely to terms with some of the tragedies of Point St. Charles: empty factories and warehouses; the unused Lachine Canal— wryly nicknamed “The Riviera”—its stagnant and muddy waters home to rusting hulks and an open invitation to disaster for the children of the neighborhood; the widowed mother of five for whom welfare has become a way of life. Joe Mell, treasurer of Leo’s Boys, admits there could have been worse publicity for the Point in the film: “Sure there’s negative stuff in the film. But it could’ve been worse—Thursday nights at the taverns, the kids in the pool halls, the fights, none of that’s in there.”

Meanwhile, back at the preview, an-

other Point St. Charles tradition had reared its head. In an attempt to defuse the tension in the room, insurance agent Frank Monroe had commandeered a microphone, and as he has over the past 25 years, poured the oil of entertainment on those troubled waters. He called Roger (0 Canada) Doucet up for a couple of songs, and the crowd was soon singing and clapping along to McNamara's Band. That was followed by a haunting Irish ballad from a breathtakingly beautiful soprano from Dublin. Chills ran up and down the spines of even those

who understood not a word of the Gaelic she sang.

“The Point’s a lot like Elvis,” said Fennario as he stared misty-eyed at the girl while commenting on her juxtaposition with Doucet. “Either very good, or very bad.” Even Robert Duncan took a turn at the mike. “I tried to refuse,” he grins wryly, “but someone said ‘Stand up and be counted.’ You don’t back away from a challenge like that in the Point.” So, throwing back his head, closing his eyes and clutching a bottle of beer for dear life, Duncan sang Tramps and Hawkers, a venerable Scottish ballad if there ever was one, and claimed his right to respect. The crowd murmured, clapping its approval.

The Point may be down, as Duncan’s film implies, but it’s a long way from out. The fighting spirit is as fierce as ever, and many of the inhabitants are prepared as never before to do battle in order to clean up the neighborhood. “People are upset by what they see around them,” explains Joe Mell. “We wanna be masters in our own house.” Then he laughs at the irony of an English Montrealer borrowing a phrase from the Québécois nationalist lexicon. “Point St. Charles is where I’m from, it’s where my family’s from. The Mell family’s been here since the 1840s. People care here. They’re interested in other people’s problems. And they get things done about them. We’re not ones for committees and studies. We’re doers here, not talkers.”