Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tales of Technology Part III: A Short History of a CEGEP

I recently flipped through an old CEGEP textbook of mine.  It was the Reader’s Digest Great Events of the Twentieth Century… published in 1977 with an entire quarter century left to go.  The section on China ends with “…Mao has gone to enormous lengths to implant his ideology, and only time will tell how strongly its roots have taken hold.” This was a very different world.

According to Wikipedia, the CEGEP  educational system in Quebec began in 1967.  Six years later, a tiny new English CEGEP (Champlain College) started up in St. Lambert, my Montreal suburb.  My mom got a part-time job there, unpacking big boxes full of mixed-up library catalogue cards.  She had to sort them and put them into card catalogue drawers. It was the first time in my childhood that Mom had worked outside the home; but the new CEGEP was kitty corner from my elementary school, so she didn’t seem too far away. 

We all grow up and become more independent.  I soon went off to the high school down the street, and Champlain College moved into its brand new square brown brick building on the other side of St. Lambert, on the Seaway Park field.  Mom, the library, and the card catalogue moved there too.  The field was a good place to put a school. 
One could sit beside the window and watch ships go by and pavilions burn up. 

My brother was old enough for CEGEP by then. He signed up for something mysterious called “Data Processing”, which involved lying on the living room floor sorting hole-punched cards.  Apparently, once these card were in their proper piles with elastic bands around them, he would hand them in to his teacher, who would send them over to Montreal to be put through a big machine. 

High school zips by, and soon I was attending Champlain College too, enjoying the wild freedom it gave me to choose my own courses and steer clear of all sciences.  The Data Processing program must have existed still, because some of my classmates carried around those same stacks of hole-punched, elastic-band-bound cards.  After their trip into Montreal, these cards became  printouts, and my classmates would gather gloomily around them to analyze what went wrong.  Data Processing looked like a whole lot of trouble: another subject to steer clear of.  I was quite content to spend my CEGEP years reading through large books about centuries that weren’t even over yet.

But we can never completely escape technology.  In CEGEP, I made the shocking discovery that I wasn’t allowed to handwrite my essays.  I had to spend dreaded hours in the typewriter room at school, engaging with that terrible instrument.  But I managed to get through that and graduate.

 Meanwhile, upstairs in the library (where Mom still worked in her new job of ordering and receiving books,) the staff discussed the notion of automating the book catalogue.  Mom remembers that discussion.  In those days, the idea of setting up computers was treated like a luxury; as optional as the idea of getting a microwave for the staff room.  Fortunately, the library decided in favour of automation, and Mom became the first in the family to use a computer... unless you count my brother’s sorting sessions on the living room floor.  She found the experience frustrating, but she got through it and stayed at the library until the late 90s. I suspect that, by then, any program at Champlain College called “Data Processing” no longer involved hole-punched cards.   Also by then, the concept of “user-friendly” was fully developed, and I had turned into a happy technology user.

The card catalogue that Mom set up in the 70s was retired: dumped into the recycle bin.  But my out-of-date textbook lives on.



Saturday, November 9, 2013

Food Story: Beyond the Cliché

In 2006, my husband, kids, and I went to Disney World, where my husband’s American employer was holding its company-wide summer conference.  The company always invited the families to these conferences, and even organized evening events.  There were Mickey sightings.

One evening, the dinner event was “International Food”, featuring buffet-style stands from various countries.  One of the stands was “Canada”, and I immediately went to check it out; immensely curious as to what this Disney hotel thought Canadian food was.  After all, this is the organization that has a “Small World” ride in which Canada is represented by a Mountie.  I feared cliché.  But the Canada food stand featured nicely prepared trout, Yukon gold potatoes, and a fancy little crème-brulé maple dessert.  I was impressed.

With food stories we can actually escape the cliché.  Canadian food is as diverse as the people who live here.  Disney chose to focus on wild game (Trout, and all other things that residents of this country have caught and eaten since our millenniums-old beginnings), academic innovation (Yukon Gold Potatoes), and maple.

Maple: the product that is as close to Canadian cliché as we get (when there’s no rim-rolling involved).  It’s the result of Fantastic-Aboriginal-Idea-Meets-French-Innovation.  This is most appropriate since, from our distant unrecorded beginnings, our history is all about people-groups meeting in the wilderness, and then influencing each other.  When the Aboriginal people can take a European product like wheat and turn it into something delicious like bannock; and then an Ottawa Valley couple takes that bannock and develops a tasty pastry to eat with bare hands on a sunny winter day on the Rideau Canal, I am the one to gain. It makes me believe that cultures here absolutely must continue to meet.

Our food stories have always reflected this.  When traditional east-coast-catch met modern transport, interior Canadians got to enjoy lobster.  Bubble tea and sushi are now part of Canada’s vernacular.  Even Tim Horton has gone the way of the panini. We have a long way to go. I’m still waiting for cipaille to become common fare.  And the day that tadik makes it into our country’s regular cuisine will be a happy day for Canada.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Tales from the First Century Part III: Postcard from Geneva

The new League of Nations held its first General Assembly in Geneva in November, 1920.  My great uncle Loring Christie was there as part of the Canadian delegation, and wrote about it in letters to his parents.  Below are some excerpts, written in December, 1920.

Loring mentions the absence of the Americans; but it’s interesting to note that the concept of the League of Nations was championed by the US President Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson tried to convince his country of the value of joining the League, but was voted down in the Senate. 
I am writing this in the Assembly Hall & I hope you will forgive the pencil.  The speeches are not very inspiring this morning and I seize the moment to send love & Christmas greetings …
The Assembly has now been going since Nov. 15; people are getting fed up & tired of each other; there is a general determination to bring the thing to an end, and I think it certain that we shall be through by the end of next week i.e. the 17th or 18th. I shall be heartily glad.
It is an interesting meeting in many ways though it has no outstanding figures like the Peace Conference had. There are many good men but none of the very first rank. Still the way in which the session has worked gives fairly good ground for hope. Simply as a machine it is going, and that is a significant fact, for public institutions, once they get going, have an inertia that carries them a long way in itself. What is produced by the machine is another matter and depends upon what people want it to produce.

Canada has taken a prominent place through Sir George Foster, Mr. Doherty & Mr. Rowell. The United States not being here we have had to carry the burden of representing the North American view point. I do not think any delegation whatever has contributed more to the best work of the Assembly than the Canadian. Our men by training and experience show up with the best and far outrank the great majority.


I am so sorry I did not get off more letters from Geneva. It was not that the work was so hard; it was simply continuously confining - an unending succession of Assembly & committee meetings. I shall not attempt to prophesy about the League. It has a terribly hard task to justify itself; there is so much bad will between nations, and without good will on the part of the peoples no machinery or governmental organization can do much. The results of this meeting give some small ground for hope, but it will be a long slow growth before the League takes a really effective place, if it ever does, in the governance of mankind.


Loring observes that without “good will on the part of the peoples”, the machinery of a governing institution is ineffective.  We can certainly apply this observation to our current contentious Canadian political culture, in which parties would rather oppose one another than co-operate.  This problem is even worse in the US at the moment.  As in the case of the League of Nations, we can have excellent democratic institutions in place, but they aren’t enough.  We still all have to be willing to get along.



Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tales from the First Century Part II: Postcard from Paris

Loring Christie wrote several letters to his parents from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. In this excerpt, Loring focuses on what he perceives to be a bad attitude from the Germans.  However, the allies were clearly setting out to humiliate the Germans, so there was plenty of bad attitude all around.  Loring’s triumphalist words foreshadow the way things unfolded in the next twenty years.  Everybody was spoiling for another fight, and that’s what they got.
Loring uses a derogatory term for the Germans.  I made the editorial decision to replace it.

“The Preliminary Treaty was handed to the Germans in the grand dining room of the Trianon Palace Hotel at Versaille. (They will not be allowed in the wonderful Versailles Palace itself until the day of signature). I had the fortune to be "among those present". It was an arresting moment when the German delegates were brought in. Clemenceau did his part with splendid courtesy; so did everyone else except the Germans. Broekdorff-Rautzan {?} remained sitting while making his speech; some say he is ill, but he did not begin by saying so & asking to be excused if he sat down. Possibly all this sounds petty, but combined with the tone & substance of his speech, it was significant. The [German] remains the same old thing.  And after all, one couldn’t expect anything else in so short a time.”

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Guest Blogger: Tales from the First Century

My great uncle Loring Christie  was a Canadian delegate to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.  In those days, Canada’s presence was as part of the entity of the British Empire, rather than as its own country.  When Loring says “our people”, he’s really talking about that entity.  The Peace Conference was the beginning of a change in that status.  This is an excerpt from a February 1919 letter that Loring wrote to his parents:

 “The Preliminary Peace Conference -- that is the proper name of what is going on now -- is getting some things done, but very slowly -- too slowly to suit my feelings about the matter. The world outside is in too precarious a condition to trifle with. Of course the task is almost staggering.  And if the time seems long, one has to remember the great difficulties of reaching agreement among so many Governments, so many peoples, with differences of language, custom, outlook and fundamental beliefs.   Even when one statesman has reached a definite conclusion as to exactly what he thinks on a given question, and that is hard enough in itself, the simple business of making his view point understood to the others is incredibly difficult. Multiply that by dozens of statesmen and dozens of questions and you see the result.

Wilson has gone back home for a while trailing clouds of glory. They are largely American newspaper clouds. It was useful having him here, but he has not been running the show by any means. British statesmanship has unquestionably taken & held the lead. The famous League of Nations Covenant was, for instance, really put in shape by our people.  And this is so in almost every other case.”

Coming soon… excerpts from Loring Christie’s 1920 letters to his parents from Geneva: The League of Nations.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Big Canadian Stuff

“Big Canadian Stuff” could refer to the large fun things that we like to build in our towns; like turtles, lobsters and potatoes. But there’s no need for me to do this since Canadian author Will Ferguson has done a perfect job already in the article “Wawa to Black Diamond: A Cross-Canada Tour of Big-Assed Objects by the Side of the Road”, in his book Canadian Pie.  I’m content to have forced my son to accomplish that Canadian rite of passage: getting your picture taken with the Wawa goose. 

My “Big Canadian Stuff” has to do with industry; the kind of thing I notice only thanks to friends and family.  My childhood would have been one endless daydream—paddling contentedly in the Seaway pool in St. Lambert near Montreal, watching giant ships go by without ever wondering where they came from—were it not for my parents’ expeditions to the St. Lambert Locks.  These were the first on the Seaway, and we went there for no better reason than to watch a big ship rise or fall.  Left to myself, I would never even have wondered why there were a set of giant gears and pulleys so close to my house.

My parents also took us to a vantage point to watch the Expo Islands being built, and went riding with us on the new Metro, just for fun.  If the Big Stuff was there, we all had to see it.  Many years later, it’s thanks to my parents that my kids rode every glass elevator in downtown Montreal.

Daydreaming doesn’t end when adulthood sets in, and I still need the help of friends and family to notice the Big Stuff…even in one of my favourite places in Canada: the Tantramar Marsh.  The Marsh is the final leg of the train trip from Montreal to Amherst, Nova Scotia; a trip my family often took.  Whenever the train crossed the Marsh, I was aware that there was a Thing there; a Big Thing.  But my attention was taken by the vista of green, the grazing cows, the tidal river and its tantalizing toe-sucking mud.  Years later, while travelling there by car and gazing just as lovingly out the window at the Marsh, I was surprised when my husband (formerly a ham radio operator) turned our car into the Thing’s driveway: “It’s a radio tower; I want to see it”.  Not only was it a radio tower, it was the shortwave relay station for Radio Canada International.  We knocked on the door, and the friendly guardian of the place happily showed us around. This site has since closed, so I’m pleased we saw it when we did.

Many years after that, my husband and I took our kids to Foymount, Ontario, near our home in Ottawa.  Foymount is noted for being the highest populated point in Ontario; also formerly the site of the annual Labour Day weekend Black Water Factory outlet store sale (which is why we were there).  Foymount also has fields-full of concrete slabs on its hilltop, fun to have a picnic on…and that’s where my interest in the region would have ended.  But my husband (formerly a military radar technician) knew that this was the site of one of the stations on the Pinetree Line.  I had heard all about the DEW Line from my history teacher in high school.  This teacher had even helped build it; going north every summer with a work crew and making enough money to pay his way through university.   But I had never heard of the Pinetree Line.  I was glad that my kids and I had a chance to explore the ghost-town-like remnants of this obscure historical site. 

Friends and family continue to make me aware of industry.  An Iqaluit-dwelling friend of a friend goes further north every summer to work on the cleanup of the DEW Line.  Another friend, when our little kids used to watch “Theodore Tugboat”, recognized the scale model of the Halifax Harbour where she once worked as a civil engineer.  My Alberta rock-climbing niece had a job that involved scaling industry smokestacks to test their emissions.  Another friend grew up in the shadow of the Sudbury Superstack.

Left to myself, I will continue to require my son to be photographed with large roadside objects.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Iron Road

On a brutally hot Montreal summer morning in 1975, my Dad, siblings, and I rode our bicycles by bridges and backways into downtown Montreal, and left them at the railway station.  They, along with us (and Mom), were to board the train that night and head west.  A trip diary written by a 13-year-old reliably reports the important things; my diary chronicles the fact that, after checking our bikes onto the train, “Dad treated us to an orange drink or milkshake.”  It also declares the weather for the next three days “air-conditioned.”

Overnighting in coach seats is a great adventure when travelling the short distance to Nova Scotia.  Four nights of it would have been onerous.  Roomettes or berths for everyone were too expensive, so my parents booked two coach seats, two roomettes, and two berths, and we all took turns using them.  That, at least, had been the theory.  “Took turns” quickly settled into sharing.  My sisters and I easily fit two to a railway bed (trip diary quote: “I woke up this morning to find [sister] Kathleen’s feet in my face”), and my parents established a schedule in which each of us four got a roomette to ourselves on one of the nights. Our coach seats were there if we wanted them, but were mostly ignored. 

For the journey, we were armed with books and card games.  My artistic older sister took the conical paper drinking cups from the water fountains and drew faces on them.  We soon had an entire collection of paper-cup people, every one of them unique.   Since bedtimes don’t matter on a train, it was also our habit to stay up till 10 PM for bingo in the dining car.  Between the four of us, we won CN coasters and CN matches.

Our other favourite activity was to stand between the rail cars and watch the scenery go by.  We weren’t really allowed to do this, but soon found out that it all depended on who caught you at it.  If a train-employee saw us there and ignored us, we stayed; if they ordered us back in the train, we went.  It was worth risking a scolding to stand outside and watch Canada go by: shield then prairie then mountain; exquisite.

The scenery most firmly lodged in my memory came on the first day: Sudbury.  It was a moonscape. Somewhere out there in that city was a girl my age, no doubt swimming in one of Sudbury’s lakes even as my nose stayed glued to the train window, drinking in the desolation.  This girl eventually moved to Ottawa and became my friend.  I told her about my fascination with that moonscape, and she told me that everything improved in Sudbury when the nickel smelter installed the superstack; adding, with some irony, “…so that the fumes spread out further and we could share the joy.”  Thirty-six years later, I drove through the region again, and to my surprise it was all green and forested. 

This train took the northern route through Edmonton.  There, we picked up a dome car and used it fully to watch the mountains coming; then Jasper and the Yellowhead Pass.

Then night fell, and we didn’t get to see the rest of Beautiful British Columbia.  I guess the schedulers at CN considered this a human transport trip and not a sightseeing excursion.  That night was my turn to have a roomette to myself.  I woke up early in the morning when the train made a stop beside a still lake surrounded by mountains.  I’ll never forget opening the blinds and seeing this sight.  It was another extreme of beauty. 

I don’t know where that early-morning mountain-bound lake was, but we arrived in Vancouver a couple of hours later.  Three days of walking up and down a narrow, rolling world must have made me careless and disoriented, because on the bike ride to my relatives’, I sideswiped a bus.  The kind, anxious, attentive bus driver was very relieved that it was not the other way around. I suffered nothing worse than a black eye, but my diary glumly reports that “I had to stay in bed most of the day while the others [siblings and cousins] went swimming.”

I was all better by the next day and able to enjoy my West Coast holiday.

We were in BC for almost a month, and took the train home again.  The only thing I remember about the return trip is that, because our train crossed Ontario on a Sunday, my parents couldn’t order beer.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Whenever my parents took the family to our relatives’ exquisite cottage in Tidnish, near Amherst, Nova Scotia, we travelled by overnight train.  Boarding right at our Montreal suburb in the evening, we arrived in Amherst the following afternoon.  It was always a fun train ride, and we could count on three things happening sometime during the trip: a crying baby, a loud talker, and a drunk.  In the summer of 1973, a rail strike forced us to travel home a different way.  We discovered that what the Greyhound lacked in drunks and babies, it made up for in pot-smokers.

Strikes are a common feature of our western culture, so there’s nothing unique about that aspect of my Montreal childhood.  Teachers’ strikes were frequent and welcome.  When I could stay home and read my books, instead of sitting in a classroom surrounded by a bewildering array of subjects and socializing, I was just as happy.  My education wasn’t affected by the strikes, and I have the high school diploma to prove it.

The Montreal Metro workers were another bunch of habitual strikers; but these didn’t affect me in my all-accommodating suburb.  The only Metro strike I clearly remember occurred one summer when I was in my teens.  Many, many years later, during the demoralizing 2008-2009 Ottawa Transit strike (known to me as “The Winter of Perpetual Driving”) I realized that if a city transportation company wants to prove its point and truly inconvenience its customers, it should strike in the middle of winter.  By contrast, in the middle of this fine, 1970’s summer strike, my mom, sister and I decided to walk across the Jacques Cartier Bridge into Montreal.  The bridge’s fenced walkway was like a Sunday in the park, packed with people walking, laughing, talking, and enjoying the splendid view of the city.  Wherever the Metro-drivers were picketing, I hope they were having as good a time.

The 1973 Quebec rail strike began just as our train to Nova Scotia was leaving the province; and it was ongoing while my cousins, siblings, and I were busy swimming in the Northumberland Strait, and playing “Fox and Geese” on the mudflats just down a grassy path from the little cottage.
 From my perspective, there were many, many worse fates than being stranded in Tidnish for a few more weeks. 
 But I suppose one must eventually go home. 

And so we packed ourselves and our luggage into the overnight bus to Montreal, which was driven by a pale, solemn young man.  He looked tired; already weary of the extra work foisted on him by the rail strike.  I thought about him again, years later during the Ottawa transit strike.  I knew exactly how he felt.  Our bus was comfortable enough, but you couldn’t get up and walk around, or stand outside between cars watching the unique scenery.  It wasn’t nearly as nice as the train, but it was getting us home.

Somewhere in the wilds of New Brunswick, a young mom at the back of the bus complained about the pot-smoker.  The smoke was making her kids sick, she said.  The pale bus-driver stopped in the middle of that empty, forested Trans-Canada highway and ordered the man to stop smoking.  A short time later, we pulled over again.  The pot-smoker had gotten up to go into the bathroom, and the bus driver stood at the front and declared that we would wait right here until he came out. We did.  The man was most displeased.  It was dark by the time we got to the next town, and there were police waiting.  The pot-smoker did a lot of yelling as he was led away.  Some other drivers came over to talk to our driver, and it was the first I’d seen that solemn man smile. 

We made it to Montreal.  Our luggage did not; but that’s just another common feature of our western culture. The rail strike no longer affected me, so I stopped paying attention and have no idea when it ended.  But it must have come to some conclusion; because two years later we all boarded the train again, going the other direction….



Monday, May 27, 2013

Guest Blogger: Tales from the First Century

The following story was written by my Mom.  In 1941, when she was 13, she and her three younger siblings were often alone in their house in Horseshoe Bay, up the coast from Vancouver.   Their older brother was away at school, their father in Scotland for the war effort, and their mother at work in Vancouver, an hour away by the old coastal road.

The day after Pearl Harbour, we got off the homebound school bus as usual in the dark.  It was December.  We went home, turned on all the lights, and as Mother was not home, began to make supper.  We were startled by a loud knock on the door and a peremptory order to turn off those lights right away, that there were Japanese submarines off shore and there was a black-out in effect, that we could be shelled or maybe bombed, and who was in charge?  Well, I was, until Mother got home.  That was not satisfactory.  He let us know what he thought of Mothers not being home when there was a black-out and he was going to keep an eye on us.  He didn’t.

We were all four of us immensely excited by this news from the man with a helmet and a badge and a large flashlight.  We had no experience of war so were not at all frightened.  We went out immediately so we would not miss anything that was going to happen.  Darkness had been achieved, but the stars were out and were reflected in the bay.  So we walked through the village to the beach not to miss any submarines that might be about. 

We really did not have a clue about anything, but I put that down, in my case, who was supposed to be in charge, to being 13.  Mother, constantly annoyed with me, later demanded to know “Why on earth would you take those children out if you were expecting bombs?”  Well, I really didn’t know.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Food Story: Two Cars at the Bottom of a Garbage Can in Stittsville

Every spring, Canadians go through the same ritual: it starts in February on the West Coast, and ends sometime in June in the far North.  We remove clothing-layers and breathe easier.  We remove boots and step lighter.  We enjoy the nimbleness of unlocking the car without mittens.   And in the midst of all this, Tim Hortons provides us our annual flirtation with gambling.

Some don’t call it gambling.  They rightly point out that Canadians will buy their double-doubles whether there’s a rim to roll or not. But speaking for myself, spring is the only time that I experience all the agony of a gambler.

Stittsville is the Ottawa suburb that is as far west of Ottawa as my suburb is east.  The year that my son had a weekly three-hour science-and-history class there, I got to know Stittsville’s cozy library.  I hung out there, poking at my laptop until I got bored, and then I would go to Tim Hortons for my steeped tea.  When it was time to pick up my son from class, the cup went in the garbage.  The arrival of spring-and-rim season didn’t change that habit.  I wouldn’t even think about the fated cup until I was hurtling down the highway toward my far eastern suburb.

They say that gamblers go through a lot of what-ifs: what if I leave this slot machine and the next person wins?  What if my lucky number wins the one time I don’t use it?  What if there really was a car in that Tim Horton cup I forgetfully threw away in Stittsville?  What if there was another one in the cup I discarded the following week?

Along with such gambler’s agony comes the power to resist.  I’m proud to say that I did not drive back across town to raid the Stittsville Tim Hortons garbage can.  I’ve managed to hang onto enough cups over the years to give me plenty of free coffee and cookies.  I’ll be content with that.



Saturday, March 16, 2013

Trouble and Lots of It (just not much here)

In October, 1970, my biggest problem was that Halloween in Montreal might be cancelled due to terrorism.  Canada’s brush with serious internal terrorism was blessedly brief.  It began that October and was over by the New Year.  The crisis wasn’t serious enough to unsettle my world, but lasted long enough to claim a victim.  Even a shallow 9-year-old like me could see that this was unspeakably sad.

My only other memory of the October Crisis is surreal: soldiers patrolling the streets near my house. There was nothing frightening about them.  When we walked past them to get to the metro, my mom wasn’t fazed by them- -- so I guess they didn’t faze me.  But their presence was unnatural. 

It’s great to be able to say that about the place you grew up.  Because meanwhile, in other parts of the world, lived other little girls; girls who would grow up, move to Canada and become my friends.  While our crisis came and went, they suffered lengthier and more onerous oppressions. 

Also meanwhile, my relatives in Ireland were dealing with their own troubled times.  I didn’t pay any attention to that, because in 1970 I barely knew that I had Irish relatives.  My immigrant Irish grandmother died when my Dad was a teenager, and my generation had absolutely no connection with the family over there.

But my Dad remembered his Irish cousins, and in 1972, he and his sister Anne went to see them.  They stayed with their cousin Basil on his family property in the far north of Ireland, anxiously close to the border.  Basil suspected that his farm foreman belonged to the IRA.  One evening, Dad and Aunt Anne decided to walk over to the village pub.  Basil warned them not to talk about the upheavals in Ireland.  At the pub, he said, you didn’t know who was on which side and it was best to just not bring it up. 

So they didn’t.  Instead, there in that pub on the border of Northern Ireland in 1972, the eager Irish people were full of questions for Dad and Aunt Anne.  They wanted to hear all about the “troubles” in Montreal.



Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tales of Technology Part II: Purple

I grew up in the pretty little suburb St. Lambert, across the Seaway Canal from the Island of Montreal.  At the end of my street, I had a clear view of the canal and its ships, the Expo Islands, and then the city.  Mount Royal loomed behind them all.  At night I could clearly see its brightly-lit white cross; one of my favourite views.

To reach another favourite view, my family occasionally rode an overnight train to Amherst, Nova Scotia; and then drove twenty minutes out to our relatives’ cottage country.  My Maritime relatives spent their summers perched above the Northumberland Strait, near the tiny community of Tidnish.  From a grassy perch over the beach, I could see out into the Strait; the view changing from ocean to tantalizing mud flat, depending on the tide.   

While in Tidnish, there was nothing to make me want to go back to the city.  But during my 1978 trip there, Pope Paul VI died.  I found out that the cross on Mount Royal was now purple.  By the time I got home, a new Pope had been chosen and the cross was white again.  In my shallow 17-year-old mentality, I was less concerned about the death of a Pope than I was about the fact that I had missed out on seeing the purple cross.

A short time later, the new Pope was dead, and the cross on Mount Royal was purple once again.  This time I was home and got to see it.

What amazes me most about the Year-of-Three-Popes-and-two-purple-crosses is the technology.  In 1992, The Mount Royal cross was converted to fibre-optic light, allowing for easy changes to purple (also to red or blue).  In 2008, it was converted to polychromatic LEDs, allowing for easy changes to any colour.  But back in 1978, city-workers would have had to change every light bulb from white to purple, and then back to white again…twice. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Natural Disaster

The September 20, 1977 Montreal blackout has been forgotten. Even the internet can’t remember it. But that event and date are stuck in my head because it was my 16th birthday. I’m not sure what exactly caused all of Montreal to go dark that day, but it must have had something to do with the wonderful raging windstorm. I remember the wind because I was out in it under black, brooding, rainless clouds—reveling in the dark dramatic weather. I also revelled in the fact that I wasn’t in school; cancelled because of the power failure. Best Birthday Ever.

I stood in the wind at the end of a street near my house, enjoying our view of Montreal.  It was dark in the middle of the day, and the downtown cluster of buildings were uncharacteristically unlit; mere rectangles (like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey) against a dark Mount Royal. Meanwhile, my mom was shopping in the dark for my birthday present at the local department store; using the subdued daylight coming through the windows to pick out a set of cute sheets. She had already made my cake. Icing didn’t require any power. My family and I had fancy sandwiches and birthday cake by candlelight for my 16th birthday.  

There haven’t been many natural disasters in my part of Canada. In our country, “we don't have...world-famous volcanoes” (to quote “The Arrogant Worms”, in their introduction to a song that explains what we do have, which is lots of rocks and trees and water), but there have been a few debilitating blizzards, house-swamping inundations and disastrous hurricanes…just not around the places I’ve lived. The Montreal/Ottawa area seems to be a bubble of calm in an anxious world of natural phenomena.  

By the time Montreal suffered its major ruinous natural disaster, I had long since moved to Ottawa and was safely ensconced, with children, in a small house in a neighbourhood with buried power lines. Everywhere else in the ice-storm-affected regions, power lines were becoming coated in thick ice, and crashing to the ground.  If the power lines didn’t crash, ice-coated tree branches crashed into them.

The 1998 ice storm affected Ottawa, but not me.  My house never lost its power, and my four young children had fun sliding outside on the ice with neighbourhood friends whose school had been cancelled. But back in Montreal, things were much worse. The internet well remembers this particular blackout. The Canadian Encyclopedia even suggests that it was Canada’s greatest natural disaster. By the time I realized how serious it was, the highway between Montreal and Ottawa was closed, and my parents couldn’t even have escaped to my house. But that didn’t matter, since they always roll with what comes their way. They were experienced campers, and spent that January week in front of the living room fireplace, heating up spaghetti sauces and soups from the freezer.  They even walked the neighbour’s dog.

My parents and the rest of Montreal were without power for about six days, and gradually limped their way back to normalcy. They managed to escape the bigger disaster that occurred in a region just south of Montreal-- an area that became known as “The Black Triangle”. This was the place of utter ice-storm disaster. Infrastructure there was completely ruined, and the people were without power for many winter weeks.



Thursday, January 10, 2013

Elsewhere Part II: Extremes of Beauty

Growing up in Canada, I took a lot of things for granted: peace, education, health, plenty, hope. Included in these Canadian benefits is easily-accessible natural beauty.   As a Montreal-dweller, I could touch it during forays into the Laurentians, or into the Eastern Townships (and, by extension, into Vermont: different country, same glorious mountain range).  Living in Ottawa, a small city perched on the edge of a wild forested river, I experience natural beauty constantly.  There is plenty more of it to be seen just by travelling in Canada; like beaches on Prince Edward Island and gigantic rolling hills in the British Columbia interior.  But my most memorable engagements with extreme beauty were in two of the extremes of the country: Vancouver Island and Newfoundland.

In August 1975, my parents, siblings and I spent two weeks with relatives on their piece of land beside the Strait of Georgia near Courtenay, on Vancouver Island.  There was, of course, natural beauty to be enjoyed daily on our doorstep; but occasionally the whole group of us liked to go farther afield.  We were nine cousins (ages 7-17), four adults, and one Grandma.  To get around, the cousins all piled into the back of Uncle Johnny’s pickup truck; and the adults distributed themselves among the truck cab, the small car, and Grandma’s little red Volkswagen beetle.   Riding around Vancouver Island in the back of a pickup truck is one of my best childhood memories; and one that I would never let my own children do!  I’m very glad I got to do it; I’m also very glad that we all survived.

The longest trip that the group of us took was across the Island to Long Beach; a place of extreme beauty.  I’ve been further south to the more popular California beaches.  They’re too sandy, too crowded, too developed, too ordinary.  This beach was wild and cold.  Even as a restless 13-year-old I loved standing there and watching the gigantic waves roll in.  I loved clambering over gigantic rocks.  In fact, “gigantic” seems to characterize all the beauty of the west coast.

To get to the beach, we drove through an extremely beautiful place:  Cathedral Grove with its gigantic ancient Douglas Firs.  Seen from the back of the pickup, those trees were especially splendid.  It was dark when we drove home from Long Beach; and my cousins, siblings and I all managed to position ourselves like a jigsaw puzzle, lying on the bottom of the pickup covered in blankets.  As we drove through the grove, we saw the trees towering above us, stars twinkling at their tips.  Such extreme beauty makes for extreme memories.

Two years later, my parents, siblings and I were at the other end of the country visiting another set of relatives.  There was plenty of natural-ocean-beauty to see on the ferry to get there; and St. John’s-natural-beauty is accessible by walking.  My most memorable bus trip is the one that took us across Newfoundland to its west coast; a day-long trip full of a variety of rugged beauty. 

Our bussing destination was Gros Morne National park, where one of my cousins worked as a naturalist.  She took us on a hike into the glacier-carved freshwater fjord. This extreme beauty is jaw-dropping.   I had never seen anything like it.  If I never ever get to see fjords in Scandinavia, I’ll still be happy. 

I’ve been to the extreme south of Canada:  Point Pelee in all its natural Great Lakes beauty.  One day, it would be nice to go in the opposite direction to Ellesmere Island.  I hear the north is extremely beautiful.