A Maclean’s writer returns to his Montreal roots

October 20 1992


A Maclean’s writer returns to his Montreal roots

October 20 1992



A Maclean’s writer returns to his Montreal roots

Maclean’s Senior Writer Peeter Kopvillem was born in Montreal in 1954. His family moved to the Toronto area in 1969, when he was 15. He recently visited the city of his birth—and discovered that it still tugs at the heart. His report:

Montreal makes me nervous. It should not be that way. I was bom there 38 years ago on Chomedey Ave., one block east of the Montreal Forum, in a fourth-floor apartment that my family shared with another Second World War refugee from Estonia. I spent the formative years of my life on King Edward Ave., a tree-lined street of four-plex apartments in the west-end neigborhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. My father’s mother, the only one of my grandparents to survive the war, is buried in a cemetery on the West Island. My sister and her three children still live in the West Island community of Beaconsfield. I have roots in Montreal, as well as connections firmly rooted in the present. But the city still unnerves me.

Part of that is the result of emotional baggage. The anglophone community within which I grew up is disappearing—some would say legislated out of existence. My family left Montreal in 1969, when the bombing campaign of the Front de libération du Québec had already jarred the city. Others soon followed. For many, the memories remain bitter, the reactions extreme. I remember a moment in the late 1970s, on a visit a few years after the Parti Québécois came to power, sitting at dusk on the front porch of an older acquaintance’s cottage in the nearby Laurentian Mountains. Estonianborn, he recalled what it had been like to lose his homeland, then said, “It feels as if it is happening all over again.”

That past comes flooding back every time I travel to Montreal.

And, over the years, I have had

enough unpleasant confrontations in the city, usually the result of my poor French, that I approach each visit with a sense of trepidation. It is that way now as the plane touches down at Dorval airport. Across the lowlands, Mount Royal seems somehow ominous as it squats under grey clouds. I gather my bags and prepare to disembark. Home again.

Beneath a sky the color of poured concrete, a cold wind sends leaves scraping across the pavement as I walk through my old neighborhood. Something always draws me back to these streets—an impulse akin to a child’s fascination with picking at a scab. Three East Asian girls pass me on the street, chatting in

fluent French. Before the enactment of Bill 101 in 1977, which forced the children of most immigrants to be educated in French, they would likely have attended an English-language school. The Shaare Zedek synagogue, around the comer from where we once lived, is still there; across the street lies my old elementary school, Sir Arthur Currie.

It closed in 1980, the year of Quebec’s sovereignty referendum. When I last saw it, the building was being used for storage; I stood in the schoolyard, disoriented, wiping away the dust from a window to see nothing but a jumble of old desks and chairs in a darkened classroom.

Now, children’s voices again ring out from the playground—but they are French voices. The school has reopened as part of the French Catholic school board, and is now called the Ecole Les Enfants du Monde.

I am a stranger here; faces peer suspiciously through windows as I walk along King Edward Ave. for a second time.

Even the street signs have not escaped the turmoil of the past years—although there have been compromises. In French,

King Edward Ave. should be Avenue du roi Edward, assuming that a British monarch’s name would be acceptable. Instead, no doubt due to the cost of manufacturing new signs, the “Ave.” has simply been covered over. King Edward still reigns—but he does not mangle French syntax.

A short walk to the northwest, the small mall where we once shopped remains largely English-speaking. But most of the shoppers are old. It reminds me of parts of Florida—without the heat.

“The past is the past,” says interior designer Tiiu Poldma, 32. “You can’t change it—you have to look forward.” We share a common history: both of us were bom into Montreal’s small but vibrant Estonian community. Both of our families moved to the Toronto area, hers in 1974. But in 1985 she returned to the city of her birth when her husband, Alar, a Torontonian of Estonian background, accepted a job there with a British-owned insurance firm.

It was not an easy decision. “At first I was afraid I couldn’t handle it because I had such a strong emotional attachment to the city as a child,” she says. The first three years were difficult; it took time, she says, to accept the changes. Some of her personal landmarks had disappeared, among them her public school. The city’s Estonian community had become a shadow of its former self. And, above all, she had trouble coming to terms with the city’s linguistic tensions.

Part of the problem stemmed from her

childhood experiences. She grew up in the West Island community of Roxboro, on a street that was a mix of anglophones and francophones—

and untroubled. “It was a lit-

tie idyllic,” Pöldma recalls.

The confrontational politics of language that she encountered upon her return unsettled her. Her reaction may have been “a little bit naive,” she acknowledges. But, Pöldma adds: “It was bred by a street where there was acceptance.”

Since then, she says, Montreal seems to have become more accommodating. She regularly speaks French in stores; often the clerks switch to English. “I’ll ask, ‘Is my French so bad?’ ” she says. “Usually the response is, ‘Not at all—I just want to practise.’ ” She has learned to see the city from a different perspective—largely because of her exposure, through her work, to a new generation of francophones. For them, she says, ability, not language, is the overriding issue. “They ask, ‘What are you capable of—can you get the job done?’ ” Pöldma says.

Some things remain painful. She has not been able to bring herself to visit her childhood home, which her father built. And, she recalls, “When I first came back, I no longer considered myself a Montrealer.” But the city leaves an indelible impression on most people bom and raised there. While living in Toronto, Pöldma visited Montreal frequently—and always felt an emotional stirring. After her re-

turn, she says, “I realized that that tug at the heart was what made me a Montrealer.”

If Montreal can seduce

those who return, it certainly

continues to enchant firsttime visitors. At the Pöldmas’ apartment, I meet Mati Sörmus, the director general of the Estonian Civil Aviation Administration. He has spent almost three weeks in the city, attending meetings of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which has its headquarters in Montreal. Of the many cities he has visited, Montreal has impressed him most favorably, largely because of the way it has balanced history and modernity. “Montreal seems to have the greatest potential for balanced development,” he says.

The city gradually begins to work its charm on me as well. There is much that I have forgotten: the graceful architecture, the languid sweep of the streets as they rise from StCatherine St. towards Mount Royal. The mountain now becomes what it has always been—a benediction in the heart of the city. Twilight somehow seems more luminous in Montreal, as if the streets, trees and buildings radiate with the stored light of day. Even the seeming anarchy of the road system is strangely liberating to a mind too long imprisoned by the north-south, east-west grid of Toronto.

Added to that are the moments of sheer surrealism that only Montreal can provide. In a quiet, dimly lit cafe on Rue de la Montagne,

golden oldies playing over hidden loudspeakers, my fellow diners include two smartly dressed older women. They speak animatedly in Italian, pausing to give their orders to the waitress in fluent French. Two anglophone businessmen sit at a table against one wall. Seated alone at the window, an elderly francophone woman chats with a francophone businessman two tables over. She interrupts her conversation to sing along, loudly and in English, to Petula Clark’s This Is My Song.

Among the anglophones who remain in Montreal, a common refrain is, “I can think of no place else I’d rather live.” Murray Sang stayed. He lived a few doors down from me; for a while we were best friends. His parents were Polish Jews. Every Friday night, at sunset, his mother fit the sabbath candles and they remain one of my enduring childhood memories, flickering at the end of the Sangs’ long front hallway. Together, we inched towards adulthood. “Who do you hate the most?” we once asked each other during an intense conversation in his basement. He said Hitler, I countered with Stalin. “We were both right,” he now laughs.

I ask him how it has felt to live through the changes. He says that his experience has gone against the statistics. About 70 per cent of his close friends still live in Montreal. A graduate of McGill University’s Master of Business Administration program, he has always been able to find employment, and now works as the assistant director of Concordia University’s Centre for Continuing Education. He acknowl-

edges that anglophones, no matter how bilingual, can experience difficulties in the job market. He recalls a time when, after a series of promising interviews for a management position, he was told outright that he would not be hired because he was anglophone. But apart from that incident, he says, “I have never felt discriminated against.”

For him, the old neighborhood remains home. For a short while he and his wife lived in Lachine, just west of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Now, with a three-year-old daughter and another child on the way, they own a home four blocks east of King Edward, where Murray’s family still lives. That is a pattern among many who have stayed, he tells me: children buy homes close to their parents. And although he worries about his daughter’s future, Murray says simply: “If I can work and my standard of living is not going to be reduced to something like Yugoslavia, I’ll be happy—regardless of language.”

On a warm autumn morning, the air like velvet against our faces, we walk to our old school. Michel Racette, the principal, listens to my stumbling French and graciously switches languages—apologizing for his English, even though it puts my French to shame.

Racette gives us permission to wander the halls. For a halfhour, Murray and I become like the children we once were, peering into the classrooms, laughing at memories that suddenly crystallize in our minds.

But they cannot override the present. Everything is French—the signs, the voices echoing down the hallways.

One door features a drawing of Quebec’s fleur-de-lys flag, signed by a girl with an East Asian name.

Racette tells us that 90 per cent of the school’s students are the children of immigrants. Here, they receive a one-year, intensive welcoming course in French before passing onto the regular curriculum. I ask him whether the children have any concept of themselves as Canadians. “Québécois avant tout,” a teacher interjects—Quebecers above all. Racette considers the question, then answers carefully: “Quebecers first, Canadians second.”

He listens to our reminiscences and laughs. “It was the best school then, and it is the best school now,” he says. He asks for my impressions. I tell him that I am saddened by what I have seen at the school because it represents the continuing disintegration of the world in which I grew up. On the other hand, I cannot deny the vitality that is evident among the students. I point out that if my parents had arrived in Montreal recently, and not 40 years ago, I could well be receiving a French-lan-

guage welcoming course in these classrooms.

Racette smiles, as if nothing would be more natural.

Our childhood was insular. French-Canadians were nothing more than a grey, faceless mass at the periphery of our experience. They were the people who spoke English with a distinctive accent; when we thought of them at all, it was as the butt of jokes. Is it any wonder that the backlash, when it came, was so virulent?

From the window of his office near the comer of St-Laurent and Mount Royal avenues, Jean Pierre Viau, 32, can see the house where he was bom. Some of his childhood memories are unpleasant—the award-winning

interior designer can remember being taken to restaurants where francophones would not be served in French. Such experiences have left their mark. Viau says that he rejects Canadian federalism and favors Quebec independence. He also supports the province’s language laws. Viau acknowledges that the legislation has been “drastic,” but he adds, “Quebec has to promote and protect the French language.” Still, like others, he notes that Montreal has changed. Viau grew up in a neighborhood that was largely French, Italian, Greek. Newer immigrants have made the city “even more international-looking,” he says. Within that context, the old anglophone-francophone divisions appear less relevant—and are crumbling. Viau says that he appreciates the efforts of many anglophones to learn French. He, in turn, has taken courses to increase his knowledge of English. Why? Viau shrugs, laughs, then answers, “To communicate.” But he also ac-

knowledges that English is a “tool” with which he can further his career, both within the province and outside of Quebec’s borders. “It is an international language,” he says.

The young architects who share office space with Viau are similarly outward-looking. Michel Langlois, Daniel Smith and Stephan Vigeant are partners in the firm that bears their names. Patrick Harrop works for the company. All are proudly bilingual, fiercely urban—and almost frighteningly self-confident. “We see the potential of our culture, our ideas,” says Vigeant, 26, who grew up in the South Shore community of Otterbum Park. “We can expand in the world—somehow that has been recognized in the past five years.”

They profess a profound dissatisfaction with Canadian politics. All point out that there are pressing issues to be addressed: education, racism, the economy. “The constitutional debate seems like such a convenient thing,” says Smith, 33, the son of a francophone mother and anglophone father. “The politicians can ignore social issues.” They say that they are not concerned about the country’s future. “I feel very secure here,” Harrop, 32, tells me. An anglophone Montrealer, he adds: “I don’t think it would make any difference to me if Quebec separates or stays in Canada.” Langlois, 33, a francophone native of Ottawa who moved to Montreal six years ago, expresses a similar sentiment. “I can adapt to any situation, outright independence, g whatever,” he says. “I’ll alo ways stay in Montreal—that’s £ the number 1 thing.”

Something in their optimism, confidence and openness stays with me as I leave their office and walk west towards Mount Royal. “They are the future,” Murray tells me later. More importantly, they, and the others I have met, all appear to have placed linguistic tensions behind them. Granted, the zealots remain: francophones who refuse to let a word of English pass their lips, anglophones who consider it a badge of honor not to speak French. But Montreal seems a far friendlier place than I remember from previous visits.

Dwelling on the past is counterproductive. It is like a small boy prodding with a stick at a dead squirrel—the squirrel remains dead. I walk south along Parc Avenue, the swell of the mountain to my right, covered with trees whose colors are just beginning to turn. Downtown lies ahead of me, the autumn sun is warm on my cheek. A student on a bicycle rushes past and brushes against me. “Sorry,” he yells over his shoulder, long brown hair whipping behind him. “It’s OK,” I shout after him.

It really is. □