The Back Page

Dateline: Westmount

LISA VAN DUSEN March 25 2002
The Back Page

Dateline: Westmount

LISA VAN DUSEN March 25 2002

Dateline: Westmount

The Back Page

LISA VAN DUSEN

Westmount is one of those loaded datelines, like Tijuana or Lourdes, that

conjures a montage of preconceived notions and weary clichés—many of which, at least sometimes, turn out to be true.

Outside of Quebec, it is still known primarily as the city’s original Establishment enclave—like Toronto's Rosedale or Vancouver’s Shaughnessy —only with a twist. In the early 1960s, when Doug Fisher, the bluntspoken long-time politician and journalist, wanted to describe a certain kind of Canadian, he used the words “those fat pigeons from Westmount.”

At about the same time, Peter Gzowski, in this magazine, wrote “Westmount, adj. means rich, stuffy, usually Presbyterian, and always anti-French.” Then, of course, there was René Lévesque’s famous 1970 reference to “Westmount Rhodesians.”

Locally, it is still arguably the last place in Quebec where people speak English first, ask questions later and don’t apologize in between. It is still beautiful, chic and wealthy. It is still, in a town where the neighborhood you choose makes a statement about where you stand on the language issue, as Anglo an address as an Anglo can have.

But there are big differences between now and yesterday, not least of which is that, since the start of this year, the City of Westmount is no more—in law, if not spirit. As of Jan. 1, a municipal merger bill pushed through by the Parti Québécois has had the effect, among other things, of reducing one of the country’s most famous symbols to a demeaned status as one of the many boroughs of the new Montreal megacity.

In many ways, that’s simply the latest in a series of indignities that have lowered the Great Wall that always divided Westmount and the rest of Quebec. Most Westmount Anglos, for example, now can speak French. But still, they haven’t become Quebecers “comme les autres” in the eyes of the majority. Which creates, at the official level, a sort of mercenary codependence between the Anglo rights groups, like Alliance Quebec, and the Parti Québécois, each of which feeds off indignation toward the other.

On the street level, it has produced what may be the only palpable sense of oppression to afflict a group of well-off white people in North America. I arrived here last spring, after nine years in the United States, most of them spent immersed in

watching over foreign news at wire services in Washington and

New York and at ABC News. After I’d dealt with ethnic conflicts measured in daily body counts, Westmount held the calm, dreamy appeal of a wellmanicured sanatorium. There was, at the time, an impassioned anti-merger campaign underway. But the campaign seemed hamstrung by the irony of its own message: after all, it’s not easy to sound convincing in defence of a culturally distinct minority enclave after years of balking at the label “culturally distinct minority.”

I grew up in pre-immersion rural West Quebec, where I went to French schools, spoke English at home and had friends in both camps. In the

Outaouais, Anglo culture was Kraft Dinner, and the French kids were the ones with money. So, to me, Westmount is Anglo Disney—a brilliantly twee theme park of twinkly mansions up the hill and the muffled clacking of lawn bowling played by white-haired old men at dusk behind the ivy-draped limestone city hall like a P.G. Wodehouse mirage.

It is probably the only place west of Penzance that stocks jars of Marmite at the hardware store checkout. It is not so much defiantly Anglo as unashamedly Anglophile, and undeniably wealthy. It’s population is 17 per cent francophone and the average house costs $510,000. That made it easy for PQ politicians like Louise Harel to slag off the Westmount antimerger campaign as a bid to preserve the “old, foul stench of colonialism,” as she did last June, knowing that the lawn bowling, the Marmite and the Land Rovers double-parked on Greene Avenue would come immediately, reflexively, to mind.

Meanwhile, the No. 24 bus that goes east from Westmount along Sherbrooke Street into downtown Montreal at morning rush hour is like a rolling waiting room for an oppressed minority neurosis support group. There, you’ll see the lawyers still kicking themselves for turning down Toronto; the empty nest, back-at-work housewives plotting their next trip to see their grandchildren in Vancouver; the McGill and Concordia students feeling cool for being from such a place but wondering nevertheless how to get the hell out.

And everyone, especially the shell-shocked older ones, bracing themselves to debark into a world where change has come at the price of a sense of comfort which, in other Westmounts elsewhere, still comes with the territory. El