A companion piece to the post you are now reading is entitled: Many changes have occurred in Cartierville where Malcolm Campbell High School was located from 1960s to late 1980s.
This post concerns an early 1990s documentary about the history of Montreal. A leader in the English rights movement in those years, Graeme Decarie served as a historical advisor and on-screen commentator for the film.
You can access the film by clicking on the You Tube link immediately above the sentence you are now reading.
In the course of preparing this post, I learned (by checking online using Google) how to take screenshots of selected areas of my screen. As a result, I’ve been able to prepare some screenshots from the 1993 documentary.
Resigns as high school teacher; pursues graduate degree
As I’ve noted in previous posts, Graeme Decarie resigned in September 1963 as a History teacher at Malcolm Campbell High School (MCHS) to pursue a career as a university professor.
I didn’t know Graeme as a classroom teacher, but I got to know him because he had dealings with the MCHS student council during the 1962-63 school year when I was president of the council. I’m really pleased I got to know him then.
I’ve been in touch with him in recent years while helping to organize a Malcolm Campbell High School Sixties Reunion which took place in Toronto on Oct. 17, 2015.
In August 2016, I visited Graeme in Moncton, N.B. where he’s lived for many years:
After completing a Ph.D. in History at Queen’s University, Graeme Decarie taught History at the University of Prince Edward Island and later became a professor at Concordia University in Montreal. He also worked as a broadcaster with CBC and later with a CJAD Radio. Graeme resigned from high school teaching in September 1963; thus 30 years had passed, from 1963 until he appeared in the 1993 documentary.
1940s and ’50s Montreal
The Rise and Fall of English Montreal (1993) was directed and written by William Weintraub, who has written several books about Montreal including City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and ’50s (1996).
Research for the film was by Terri Foxman and Graeme Decarie served as historical advisor.
The film now serves as an archival resource concerned with Montreal in the 1990s.
When watching this film, I viewed each sequence separately, as is my standard practice as a film reviewer, rather than watching the entire film from start to finish. I also made notes.
I like to have a sense how a sequence strikes me the first time I see it. The first viewing is the most important one. The second time I see a sequence, although a second or third viewing has value, it’s never as powerful or evocative as what I see the very first time.
In a message of Aug. 20, 2016 Graeme Decarie wrote:
A friend sent me a copy of this film – which I had forgotten I made. It was at the height of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, and I was the chairman of the board for the English rights group, Alliance Quebec. It was a very tense and dangerous time.
The film was made for National Film Board. I haven’t looked at it yet but, if I recall correctly, I also did a few of the interviews in it – one in front of my elementary school – maybe one in front of my flat as a child – and maybe one in the director’s house.
[End of text]
Graeme has also reflected, in recent emails, about the changes that have occurred in Montreal since the 1990s. He has noted the language tensions aren’t as big a concern. He visited Montreal recently for a funeral, and stayed at a location not far from the building where our high school was located from the 1960s into the late 1980s. He spoke of a lot of changes in Cartierville, where the school was located.
Blurb for the film
A blurb for the YouTube link for the above-noted 1993 film reads:
In the past 20 years, some 300,000 English-speaking people have left Montréal, convinced they had no future in a Québec that had become increasingly French, increasingly nationalistic. In this video we meet some of the people who are moving away and recall the days, in the last century, when there were more English-speaking people than French in Montréal. The video poses a controversial question: Will the city, with its youth leaving in great numbers, become a community of the elderly, unable to renew itself?
[End of text]
Role of the National Film Board in Canadian film history
The post you are now reading will provide an overview of the opening scenes of the 1993 film and some highlights based on segments that I found particularly interesting or compelling.
Related topics concern the role of the National Film Board in Canadian history, and the role of the Film Board in the history of documentary filmmaking.
A recent post addresses the historical tensions that have existed between independent Canadian filmmakers and the National Film Board; the post is entitled:
The opening of the 1993 documentary notes that the year 1992 was the city’s 350th birthday. [It may be noted, in turn, that in 2017 Montreal will celebrate the 375th anniversary of its founding.]
We see people talk about how much they love Montreal and we see people moving belongings out of their house.
As the titles come on-screen, a voice over intones: “They are moving away from Montreal, away from Quebec, away from the tension between English and French.”
The voice over notes that: “It’s one of the great migrations of Canadian history.”
The French-Only sign laws is discussed, at the footage proceeds. An official of the Quebec government comments, in good English as she sits comfortably behind a desk, that from now on the signs outside of stores will be in French.
A range of scenes follow in which the effects of Bill 101, the Quebec language legislation mandating French-only signs for businesses, are documented. A voice over comments that the thought can arise that the legislation has the intent of making the English language vanish from Quebec. For Sale signs appear on the screen.
Scenes of students at McGill University are accompanied by a voice over that notes that “many anglophone students are completely bilingual but there’s a belief that that’s not quite enough.”
A comment follows that possibly the anglophone community will in time not have any young people left, given that many are moving to Toronto or Vancouver. Scenes are also screened showing decay of buildings in Montreal’s English business areas.
A sequence shows opulent 1860s-era scenes from an era when anglophone businesses were in there ascendency; the voice over refers to rich Anglos “who lived in a house with 14 servants, most of them imported from England.” The house was situated in the legendary “Square Mile” stretching from Dorchester Blvd. to the slope of Mount Royal.
The voice over notes that: “By the end of the nineteenth-century, the men who lived here [in The Square Mile] controlled three-quarters of the wealth of Canada,” At this point we see historic photos of English captains of industry and socialites of the era.
There’s also a Then and Now discussion of the St. Andrew’s Ball, which since 1843 had been the “highlight of Montreal’s social season and a frolic for the rich.”
The voice over notes that in more recent years, attendees at the St. Andrew’s Ball find themselves as members of an “anxious minority, because the language they spoke was English.”
Large families living in a single room; no running water; no indoor toilets; rampant disease
The documentary notes that only a fraction of Montreal’s Anglos lived in The Square Mile. Many thousands lived well down the hill in Point St. Charles, Griffintown, and Goose Village [see second Comment, at the end of this post].
Photos are displayed depicting poverty among Anglophone Montrealers. The voice over notes that:
“Large families slept and ate in a singe small room. There was no running water, no toilets inside. Disease was rampant, and the infant mortality was among the highest in the world. Children who lived here often worked in factories 12 hours a day. Dock workers and other labourers earned wages that were among the lowest in North America.”
Those are words that certainly paint the scene, in the event a person has the occasion (as I do, since I’ve made a transcript of much of the sound track of the film, and can read the words at my leisure) has a moment to ponder them.
The words remind me of a summer vacation that I spent in rural, francophone Quebec with my family, when I was five years old having arrived in the spring of 1951 as an immigrant from Sweden, where my family had arrived as refugees from Estonia during the Second World War. I was born in Sweden after the war.
During that summer, I learned of the extreme poverty that some families in rural Quebec were experiencing.
Among other things, they had little food to eat. As a child, it was the first time that I had learned about the fact that some people, including families with young children, are very poor – to the extent that their health, and indeed survival, is at risk.
My knowledge of those families, in my experience as a five-year-old, was just a fleeting thing but the image of poverty has stayed with me. Reading the passage about poverty in English Montreal has brought the fleeting memory of a glimpse of the 1950s Quebec countryside back to my awareness.
Thinking about my experiences as a five-year-old has also prompted me to remember stories that my mother shared, years later, of the starvation that she and others had experienced in Estonia during the German occupation of Estonia during the Second World War.
“Quebecois mythology,” according to the voice over, “holds that the English grew rich by exploiting the French, but those robber barons up on the hill were all equal opportunity employers, quite happy to exploit their fellow anglos as well as the French.”
The first commentary by Graeme Decarie follows.
“We were English,” he notes, “but we didn’t entirely think of ourselves as English and French. That really wasn’t the way it was divided.”
Graeme refers as well to “a really deep resentment of the English, because the way Quebec has traditionally operated, the rich English and the rich French ran it between themselves, and the rest of us were expected to follow behind.”
A sequence of shots and a narrative follows that emphasizes that some homeless and poor people in Montreal are Anglos. A voice over notes that “for most Anglos, those bygone days were not all that good.”
The foregoing overview of the opening scenes from the film provides a sense of how the film begins. I will highlight two sequences that I found of particular interest.
Roman Catholic Church
The first sequence is concerned with one of several commentaries by Graeme Decarie about Montreal history. In a sequence leading up to one of his comments, the film outlines successful efforts, starting in the early 1960s with anglophones leading the way, to preserve the Papineau House and other historic buildings in Old Montreal.
“With anglophones leading the way,” the narration notes, “Old Montreal with its rich French heritage came to be preserved.”
The film next turns to the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the history of Quebec. For more than three centuries, the narration notes, the church dominated the life of the province.
“To it,” a voice over asserts, “goes much of the credit for preserving the French language in this corner of North America. But there was a price to pay. The church urged its followers to stay on the farm, to look inward, to avoid contact with the English. Thus, by largely withdrawing from the field, they left the way clear for the anglos to dominate industry and commerce.”
After this setting of the scene, Graeme Decarie appears (starting at 27:00 minutes into the film) in two interview sequences. In the second sequence (starting at 27:32) he speaks in a close-up.
The transition from medium shot to close-up works well. The close-up underlines the point that Graeme is making.
The film almost never uses to identify people who appear on the screen. However, in this case there is a two-line caption reading: “Graeme Decarie, Historian.”
“Education in Quebec,” Graeme notes (at 27:00) in a medium shot, “was based on the values of seventeenth-century Catholic France. Those who were born to lead, the children of the rich, got excellent education in private schools.
“Those who were born to follow – the children of the poor – well, there was no point in wasting education on them. The result was that in Quebec, [for] the rich, the only interest in public schooling was to keep the cost down.
“Even after the Quiet Revolution, when the education system was democratized, the private school remained very important for the children of the rich.”
Close-up sequence at 27:32 minutes in the film
The screen switches to a close-up of Graeme who remarks:
“The French often blame the English for the educational problems of their society, buy the fact is that it was their own elite that did them in.”
Effort to save an English school at 41:34 minutes
There is also a scene toward the end of the film where a woman – who was a key spokesperson for an effort to save the English section of a public school – speaks eloquently about the injustice of a forced move of English children from the school that they have shared, without problems, for many years with French students.
There’s a level of coordination, between her words, her body language, and her tone of voice that strongly holds a person’s attention.
It’s clear at once why she ended up as a leader in the efforts to keep the English students at the school that they had much enjoyed attending.
That is a part of the film, starting at 41:34 minutes, that can readily stand on its own, separate from whatever scenes appear before or after it.
I very much like this sequence, which begins with a shot of children chanting “Save our school.”
“Save our school”
St. Kevin’s School is the name of the school and the plan is for the children to be bussed away to another school. “They won’t permit us to share the school with the French children,” a leader of the anglophone school community says, “because they feel our language, English, is a detriment; they feel that we will contaminate the French children.”
The speaker notes that the French parents at the school had been surveyed. They had no objection to sharing the building. She said if the matter were taken out of the hands of politicians it would better.
“The common people,” she says, “have absolutely no objection to sharing buildings, French and English together.”
She is a highly articulate speaker.
Resources related to Quebec history
I arrived in Montreal as an immigrant in 1951 at the age of 5. I left to go to university, returned for a short time, and then settled in Toronto starting in 1975. I like the idea of learning a bit more about the history of the city.
The interviews featuring Graeme Decarie have given me a sense, more than any email conversation can do, of the role that he played as a leader in the English rights movement in Montreal.
As a result of viewing the film, I’ve made a list of online references, primarily from the Toronto Public Library – about the history of Quebec and about documentary making – that I would not otherwise have had the motivation to find out about.
Among the books I’ve begun to read, from the public library, is Language, Citizenship and Identity in Quebec (2009).
Among things, the book notes that anglophones and francophones have made some measure of progress in getting along. The book refers, as well, to the time when English Montrealers played an elite role in society.
I’ve also been reading The History of Montréal: The Story of a Great North America City (2007), which has enabled me to learn of the distinction between Saint-Laurent (the suburb) and Saint-Laurent (the ward), as noted at another post.
As well, I’ve had a look at Opening the Gates of Eighteenth-Century Montreal (1992). The book is concerned with architectural history with a focus on fortifications and other military installations associated with North American military history. The capitulation of Montreal in 1760 after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 is highlighted, as is the expansion of Montreal beyond the original fortification walls the surrounded it at an early stage of its history.
The book notes that people who could not afford to build houses within the fortified boundaries began to build them along roads heading west, north, and east of the walls. The suburb that developed along the road leading north was called St. Laurent.
Also of interest for me, given that I’ve begun to read overviews of the documentary format by Bill Nichols, is a Sept. 17, 2015 No Film School article entitled: “Nichols’ 6 Modes of Documentary Might Expand Your Storytelling Strategies.”
Previous posts about documentary filmmaking
Previous posts, which among other things talk about the history of the National Film Board, include:
More details about St-Laurent
From the Montreal Memories Facebook Page, I’ve found this great link, from http://www2.ville.montreal.qc.ca :