Frankly, I was not against Quebec independence, though I kept silent about it except with close friends, particularly Peter Sauvé, who wrote our Quebec Notebook column, which contained news items about what was happening in the Anglo-Quebec political sphere. He agreed with me that there was little hope in expecting Canada to defend us against the ever-encroaching French.
First, the French had taken over much of the federal government itself, not simply the 26 per cent they were entitled to. This was not just a product of Mulroney's so-called Conservative rule. The heavy lifting had been done over the decades from the 1970s under Pierre Trudeau's Liberals by insisting that more jobs required fluent bilingualism, whether it was needed or not.
Thus, the French learned English from childhood because they wanted to understand American cartoons on TV. That made them naturally bilingual so qualified them for these jobs and, increasingly, subsequent promotions.
But the English had no reason to learn French except to pass tests. Mother-tongue French speakers would use French at home if they were in English Canada. There were more English speakers living between the 60 miles from downtown Montreal to the Ontario border than there were French speakers living between the Ontario border and Vancouver on the Pacific Ocean, 3,000 miles away.
Given these realities, I began to explore the option of Quebec independence. To my mind, if Quebec became independent, shorn of its access to the Canadian larder, Anglo Quebec would become a useful interface between Quebec and the rest of the world and not merely a hostage population the French could threaten for greater fridge-raiding rights in Canada.
Of course, if I were wrong in this assessment, we could still find refuge in Canada, as we were already doing according to the evil Canadian population transfer plan: expelling Anglo Quebecers by creating a hostile environment and encouraging Francophiles to replace them.
Years earlier, I wrote a letter to the Gazette, suggesting that Anglo Quebec "keep our political gun well-oiled with particular attention to the swivel"—that is, not to always blast away at the separatists, but save ammunition for equally culpable federalists to induce them to make some concessions to win our vote so we would no longer be regarded as Canada's Pavlovian dogs, relied upon to hear our master's voice no matter what. Of course, no one would listen to me except Peter Sauvé, so I kept my mouth shut.
When a plainly disappointed Prime Minister Brian Mulroney bitterly spoke of "consequences" following his Charlottetown referendum defeat, he might well have been referring to the Quebec independence referendum of 1995. This was the second such referendum. The earlier one was in 1980. Instead of seeking outright independence, the earlier one sought something called "sovereignty association." I was in Ireland at the time and not much involved. I had been there for the separatist electoral sweep, which gave the Parti Québécois a handsome majority in the renamed National Assembly, and so they confidently went ahead with their referendum, which was roundly defeated by 60 per cent of the voters.
Despite that defeat, the PQ, won the next election handsomely, and, fully flushed with victory, decided to beat the independence drum again. Unfortunately for the PQ premier René Lévesque, he had made the wrong speech to the wrong audience, namely the New York Economic Club, a collection of bankers and financial institution CEOs. Instead of calming these excitable Americans, who expected nothing angrier from Canada than an occasional blizzard, Lévesque went on to excite them still further. He spoke of the American Revolution and how, like Americans, the Québécois yearned to be free of the Saxon yoke, when he should have prosed on boringly about hydroelectric power, the soundness of provincial bond issues, and what a great market Quebec was for US products and services. Bankers don't find that stuff boring at all.
Conversely, sometime Quebec minister without portfolio Robert Burns made himself available for interviews when I was the editor of Dublin's Northside News. At the time, I had no professional interest in him as he had nothing to say about Northside Dublin.
But out of interest, I listened to his interviews on national radio and was disappointed by what he said. He said exactly what his leader should have told the bankers in New York. In Ireland, Burns had his audience yearning to be free of the Saxon yoke, but instead he spoke of hydro and how abundant it was in Quebec.
In the cab ride home, the driver heard the broadcast too, and we talked about it after I identified myself as a Quebecer.
Said the cabbie: "Your man says you got lots of hydro—and it’s mighty fine stuff."
I agreed and said we made lots of money selling it to the States.
Somewhat embarrassed, he said: "Do you mind telling me, what it is—hydro, I mean?"
In Quebec we don't much use the word electricity, except when speaking of actual electric current. Most of the time we talk about paying our hydro bill or whether the house has the hydro connected. It seemed that Robert Burns' mission to Ireland was for naught, as no one could understand what he was saying.
In Ottawa, there was a situation akin to what existed before World War I in London. The Irish National Party with 80 seats held the balance of power between the Liberals and the Conservatives, allying themselves with Liberals, or threatening not to if they did not get what they wanted for Ireland—Home Rule. Such a party was the Bloc Québécois, elected in 1993 to the Canadian parliament.
The Bloc was attempting to do what I wanted the Equality Party to do in Quebec—support one bill in exchange for concessions for Anglo Quebec. But in Ottawa, the Bloc did not have the electoral clout to entertain such ambitions. The Liberals swept in and Mulroney was swept out after disturbing the national peace with the damned Charlottetown accords. So the Bloc Québécois was in no position to effect what the Irish Nationalists were able to do. Also blocking the Bloc was the socialist New Democratic Party, which represented 13 per cent of the house and would not have supported the breakup of Canada or joined a party bent on such a course. Still, I thought the Bloc had value as a squawk box and might well have gained more seats from Quebec in future elections.
Despite my elastic views on Quebec independence, I publicly backed the No side in the coming 1995 referendum, as my views had no chance of support. There was still a huge reservoir of Canadian patriotism, with many people putting up Canadian flags the way Americans put up their Stars and Stripes, even covering their suburban rooftops. While I robustly backed the No side in unsigned editorials, I took a more distant analytical approach in my op-ed column. That one was killed by Avi as too scarifying, when I suggested how a Yes win might lead to civil war.
I posited that the PQ had won its referendum and the victorious Quebec government did what it said it would do—make a unilateral declaration of independence as Rhodesia had done. The Quebec government would say that no further federal taxation would be permitted, and Quebecers would be forbidden to pay tax to Canada.
But there were no accompanying changes in personnel in the wake of my imagined victorious Quebec independence victory. No one moved to rub one another the wrong way. Life went on as usual. Ships came and went in the Montreal harbour; Canada Customs exacted duties through Quebec customs brokers, who supposedly remitted taxes to Revenue Canada but didn't.
I imagined one customs broker collecting the duties and keeping them. This eventually ended up as a court order from the Federal Court. In the face of this, my imaginary broker called the Sûreté du Québec and asked if he could have protection if federal authorities came to arrest him. The Sûreté sent an armed guard to his office, which I imagined to be in the old Board of Trade Building on St Sacrement St. Eventually the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived to arrest the customs broker but were greeted by armed Sûreté men. Both called for reinforcements and soon there were up to nearly 100 men on each side. Somehow the shooting began. Angry separatists filled the streets to threaten federal buildings. Ottawa was reluctant to send in the army, and a political crisis roiled the country.
Anyway, Avi pulled the column, saying I was just trying to scare people into voting No, which was hardly the case since I was not fond of the No side, though I went along with it. I was merely exploring an option.
I was hopeful the Yes would win because we would stand a better chance in an independent Quebec than we would as a hostage population led by a timorous Canada forever fearful of offending Quebec, all the while advancing French interests in the federal sphere and anything it touched. I lost interest once I saw the referendum question. I expected something stirring like: "Do you believe as a Québécois, your nation, Quebec, has come of age to take its place among the nations of the world?"
Instead we got: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"
I thought they would lose on the grounds of boredom alone. I had noticed this before, the malapropism of so many of their forays. The separatist PQ leader and Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau was always on about being astute, and this question was supposed to be the epitome of his insight and acumen. But I thought he was being too clever by half.
I was sure that with my referendum question the separatists would have won the day, but they lost it in October 30 1995 by the slenderest of margins: 50 to 49 per cent. What's more, had the Anglo-Quebec vote been subtracted, the French would have won with a clear majority. This close result, of course, led to much gnashing of teeth among French nationalists.
And such gnashing aroused fears in Anglo-Quebec of renewed violence, or at the very least, further official discrimination. There were all sorts of commotions back then. My brother and his family had gone to Hong Kong in 1985, a year after a deranged army corporal, Denis Lortie, arrived in the National Assembly wielding two Sterling submachine guns and a Browning 9mm. He shot at whoever was there and killed three. No one of importance was in his line of fire, because all the members and ministers were at lunch after their morning session and not expected back for an hour or two.
Lortie was in one of those new demilitarized units, the Royal Canadian Logistics Service, with a cap badge that looked like two crossed paper clips. Army units are called regiments or corps, or names referring to the traditional specialty—fusiliers, rifles, dragoons, etc. Even Britain's Special Air Service is not its full name, which is the Special Air Service Regiment. With rare exception, the SAS being one, the word "service" tends to civilianize anything it touches and make the army more girl-friendly.
The army was being feminized in those days, and morale was abysmal. Only the Afghan war stopped the rot, and the army came back to what it was. We probably did no good in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan did wonders for the Canadian Army.
So after few murderous bursts from his Sterling, Lortie in his combat gear lolled about in the Speaker's chair in expectation of taking a sniper's bullet. There were still a half dozen people lying low in the chamber, hidden behind desks and chairs. At which point, enter René Jalbert, the sergeant of arms of the house, still in his raincoat fresh from lunch. He came straight in, two or three feet from the muzzles of Lortie's twin Sterlings. Every now and then Lortie fired off a burst into the empty chamber.
No one was ever more deserving of the Cross of Valour he received than Jalbert, the ex-Vandoo major, as you can see from the link below. What I found intriguing, viewing a tape that I had never seen before this writing, was that Lortie and Jalbert, two mother-tongue French speakers, conversed entirely in English—in this legislative temple of the French language. Curiouser and curiouser!
My brother Joel was most alarmed by this, figuring that if had Lortie been English, we would have all been murdered in our beds. When a job offer in Hong Kong came up, he left avec famille—a wife, two sons and a daughter.
* * *
But there was more. In 1989, there had been the Marc Lepine misogynist killing of 15 women and wounding of 14 more at the Ecole Polytechnique. Lepine felt himself victimised by affirmative action against men and arrived with his M-14 semi-automatic rifle at the school where he had been rejected. He divided the women from the men, shot all the women and then shot himself.
Of course, the Polytechnique wasn't in our circulation area and the incident was a French-on-French crime, which was beyond our rules of engagement. We covered Israeli issues and French versus English events. Otherwise, we restricted coverage to matters on our turf—Westmount to Dollard des Ormeaux—or anyone from our turf doing anything anywhere. So we did not cover the massacre in detail. However, one of the new reporters, Gisela McIvor, an experienced woman from Britain, was already doing a story for Reuters, so we ran what she wrote, as it was just over the border.
* * *
Then came the Mohawk crisis. Back in 1990, the town of Oka unilaterally approved plans to expand a golf course and build on land the Mohawks considered sacred. The town, where the Trappist monks made the world-famous Oka cheese, permitted the developer to proceed despite protests. So the Mohawks barricaded a road to prevent the cutting of trees. After three injunctions against the barricade and efforts by the Mohawks to place a moratorium on development, the Sûreté du Québec raided the area and were later joined by a unit of the Canadian Army, notably the French Canadian Royal 22nd Regiment, which began a 78-day armed standoff between the English-speaking Mohawks wielding AR-15s and French-speaking police and army units. The nearby Mohawk reserve at Caughnawaga (lately renamed Kahnawake) erected a barricade on the Mercier Bridge. Which brought in more French Canadian troops. The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights said that neither the provincial nor federal governments acted in good faith during negotiations, according to Wikipedia. That was our reading of the situation too, as if the authorities were entitled to break their word when convenient.
The Mohawks had first sided with the British against the French in the 18th century Seven Years War (known as the French and Indian Wars to Americans) and again in the Rebellion of 1837, when they sent 200 war canoes to reinforce the Montreal garrison. Nor have the French forgotten this. In the Papineau Metro station, so named to celebrate Louis Joseph Papineau, the leader of the failed rebellion, there is a huge mosaic depicting "Les Patriots," as the rebels fashioned themselves, arrayed against the British red coats. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the British in the mural are ranks of Mohawk warriors.
But it goes deeper than that. The Indians’ preference for English undermines the logic of the French argument that justifies their linguistic cleansing, which is that the French were there first, thus obliging the English to conform to French norms. Of course, the Indians were there first, so logic dictates that their preferences should come first. But with all the media—except the Suburban—against the Mohawks, and federal and provincial governments against them too, the Mohawks surrendered, and the golf course was delayed for a time.
* * *
Then in 1992, one local Côte St Luc resident, Valery Fabrikant, a Concordia University professor of mechanical engineering, earned his place in infamy by killing four professors and wounding a departmental secretary. He came to the Sir George Williams campus with the oddest assortment of his wife's hand guns: a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38, a German 6.35mm Meb and an Argentine 7.65mm Bersa. His wife had been a crack shot in the Russian army and continued to shoot targets after coming to Canada in 1979.
According to Fabrikant, ironically enough an expert in elastic limits, his colleagues in the mechanical engineering department had taken his ideas as their own and were being listed as co-authors on papers to which they had not contributed. In the midst of an email campaign against numerous university officials, Fabrikant went to court to try to have the colleagues’ names removed.
That case, still pursued while he served a life term for the murders, was not concluded until November 2007. It was first dismissed by Quebec Superior Court under a provision designed to treat cases found to be frivolous or unfounded. It was later reopened and eventually dismissed in March 2011.
At the time, I was serving as the secretary of the Montreal Pistol Club, rejoining my old Black Watch comrades, some of whom had been officers in the regiment. We met Thursday nights at the Black Watch armoury, where we happily fired away at targets with .22s. At one point, the US Consul General became a member with his 1911 Colt Automatic re-chambered to .22, a very odd gun indeed. During the height of the First Gulf War, he was accompanied by a two-man no-nonsense RCMP bodyguard. Despite our cajoling, they would not show their shooting prowess on the range, remaining the Dudley Dorights we expect them to be.
After the Fabrikant shootings, the anti-gun lobby stepped up pressure to restrict firearms. What we thought protected us, the fact that we were army, turned out to make us more vulnerable than most gun owners, because the federal government had the power to shut down the ranges of the reserve regiments throughout Canada. With an evil deceptiveness I have since come to expect from the Canadian government, it did not shut down the ranges per se but instead mandated the installation of costly ventilation systems of such exacting standards that it would require structural changes to the armoury itself with no provision to fund it. Instead, the troops ended up training on rifles that were modelled on the real thing but attached to wires, as they might be in a video arcade.
The ostensible reason for shutting down the ranges was fear of lead poisoning. Being foolishly confident that the federal government was genuinely concerned about lead poisoning, we presented a half dozen of our number who had been shooting at that range for as long as 40 years. If anyone had lead poisoning, it would have been one of us. But no one would listen—the idea was to shut down the ranges and have the guys train with video arcade weapons that didn't even go bang. I had sent Gisela McIvor to interview Fabrikant in response to the email storm he was raising at Concordia University. I had hoped for his side of the story, but Gisela came back, saying what everyone else said—that he was impossible to talk to. She said he would break out into an incoherent rage when triggered by the mildest of questions. As I was still doubtful of most journalists' narratives, which usually trended with the politically correct, even the radical chic, I suspected he had a raw deal. There had been stories about corruption at Sir George in several related STEM fields. But when I was told by someone, I cannot remember who, that he would call me from jail before his trial, I stood ready, notebook in hand. He called on time and we got off to a smooth start, but not for long. There was a point he made that I wanted him to clarify, but he blew up at my stupidity, ranting on about the stupidity of the Suburban. So that ended that. But I got enough for a story about how he hated the Suburban, which suited everyone.
An odd footnote to the Fabricant story came after they shut down our range at the Watch. The club moved to a private range in Ville St Pierre, where we could shoot serious weapons. We were now sporting .357s, .45s and the like. I bought a 9mm Beretta to go with my .22 Colt Woodsman. It was fun, but we were always breaking the law in an effort to replicate what we had at the armoury. We had always broken the law, but to a minimum extent, as we took our guns to work before going to the Watch. What we were supposed to do was go to work without our guns, return home to collect our guns, then take them to the range, then take them home and then meet for a drink. The idea was that the gun had to be on a direct route to the range and back with no stopovers.
And we now were carting serious weaponry about—not only to the office and to the range, where we fired our piddly little .22s, but to a pub across the Lachine Canal, instead of going to the officer's mess upstairs. Going home, it made me feel like a Battle of Britain pilot, ever wary of ME-109 cops on my tail or around the corner.
But at the Ville St Pierre range, where we had a good relationship with the owners and from whom we bought our far more expensive ammunition, we heard another aspect of the Fabrikant tale. Because we were there on Thursday nights, we were never there on weekends when it was a common sight to see women and children waiting for a half hour or so while their menfolk fired off a few rounds. Well, the range managers saw something of the reverse situation when Fabrikant and his wife came in so she could shoot for a half hour or so while he waited with the women and children outside until she was done.
One reporter, a closet socialist, was causing disaffection against me, as he utterly detested my capitalist views. It was said I should fire him, but I said No. That's because Avi, ever cost-conscious, wanted to fire everybody at one time or another—even Joel, of all people, on the grounds that what he produced largely came from town council meetings and anybody could do that. Of course, Joel was easy to defend because it was clear that he pleased affluent taxpaying homeowners who were customers of our advertisers. And they liked Joel with a passion. Avi was always swayed by arguments like that. Others were harder to defend, but defend them I did, with the odd exception.
But Irwin was a perennial problem. I wanted him on staff, but Avi refused. My arguments should have worked because they became entirely monetary. Despite his $25-a-story rate, Irwin was turning in so many stories he was earning more money than the staffers. Avi accused me of favouritism in publishing so much of his work. So I printed out all the stories I was planning to use that week without bylines so he could make the selection himself. And he chose all of Irwin's stories, as they were obviously the most interesting.
Then one day came when Avi wanted to fire the reporter who was bad-mouthing me around the office, and I was unable to think of a reason why not.
* * *
Another young reporter, one of those predictable university men Avi preferred, I heard mouthing off about how stupid our readers were and how we as journalists really knew was going on. I think he objected to my insisting we use honorifics, Mr, Ms and Mrs, in our stories. It was a practice that had gone out of fashion in Canadian newspapers since the 1970s.
I asked the reporter to leave our basement lair and look out the window upstairs, to view the array of houses. I asked him where he lived. He said in an apartment he shared with others. Out the window we could see the handsome bungalows, neat lawns, sometimes with two cars in the drive. These are our readers, and not even the most wealthy of them. Don't you think they deserve a Mr and Mrs? I asked him. I think it did me more good telling him that than it did him, but I have always felt that it was the readers I was beholden to as a journalist. Maybe it sunk in—or would someday.
* * *
Avi, probably bitten by the Watergate bug, wanted the glory that results from successful investigative reporting, something I deplored as a métier. I wanted things investigated that appeared in need of investigation as they cropped up in life, but I did not think we should have a looking-for-trouble team constantly searching for things to investigate. He prevailed. He also wanted to have us enter into the Quebec Community Newspaper Association journalism competition, particularly when he saw that the winner of that year's investigative journalism award won it for a pathetic "investigation" of how one might use a provincial park. I kid you not. Avi was determined to show that we could do better.
But this was the sort of thing the Quebec Community Newspaper wanted—hard-hitting exposés that do not offend anyone.
Even when I disagreed with Avi, I carried out orders with a will. If he was wrong, we'd find out sooner. And if he was right, he'd be pleased as punch, and a pleased-as-punch Avi was easier to deal with than one that wasn't. Some of the stories were not all that bad, so it was hardly a waste of time, rather a seredipiter's journey in which things of value were discovered along the way to something else.
I wrote most of one "investigative" piece myself, though I did not mean to. I asked one reporter to investigate home schooling, not as a problem for bureaucrats but an opportunity for parents. Sadly, he ignored my instructions and came up with the bureaucratic angle. I was determined that it would not see print, rolled up my sleeves and re-researched it, called home-schooling parents and fixed it up as best I could. But I only listed my participation with the tag line "Additional reporting by Christy McCormick."
We submitted our work, the least of which was a million times better than the weak-kneed submissions from these much smaller papers. But it was a sheltered workshop contest in which everyone gets a prize. We got a prize for our story that doctors were leaving Quebec, which I thought was one of our more pathetic entries, because everyone was leaving Quebec, given the linguistic cleansing.
* * *
On a lighter note, one of our reporters, Terry Levine, a handsome young man, was so fond of how the Remembrance Day red poppy looked on his dark blue overcoat that he took it to be a permanent fashion accessory. But by November 20, well after the 11th, it was looking silly.
I cannot remember who it was—it might have been the investigative reporter Gerry Wagschal—who disguised his voice and called Terry from another distant phone in the office.
After identifying himself as being the enforcement branch of the Canadian Department of Veterans' Affairs, he went on about Terry being observed wearing a poppy after November 15, which was an offence under the Veterans' Commemoration Observance Act 1922 and under subsection B2 liable to fines of $200. People listening to the fake bureaucrat and watching Terry squirm across the room held in their mirth until they could bear it no longer, and laughter broke out in the office. A good time was had by all but Terry.
* * *
One of my greatest triumphs at the Suburban was saying Yes to Sandy Wolofsky. It wasn't that anyone said No to her; it was rather that they had said No to me when I came up with similar proposals years earlier. The first was when I wanted to retrace my civil rights trail in Mississippi in 1974, ten years after my sojourn there ended up in a Starkville Jail. The Montreal Star wasn't interested. In 1979, I tried to get the NDG Monitor interested in my trip to Ireland and my experiences in making a new life there. There was a strong Irish current in Notre Dame de Grace and I thought my experiences would go over well. Again, no takers.
One day a brash Côte St Luc girl came into the office saying she had had it trying to find a job in Montreal. She was going back to her homeland in Russia to root about for her roots; could she write a column about her experiences? It was easy to say Yes, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made there. Hers was not so much a column but a travelogue with spicy commentary. It was illustrated with a big black map of Russia with a little white dot and arrow showing where she was writing from.
It wasn't long before her little computer broke down far from any place she could have it repaired. After an initial panic and hysterical statements that she couldn't do without it, I wired back "Use Tolstoy software."
"What?!" she said.
"Longhand," I replied.
And with her curses ringing across the Russian steppe, she did just that, and we proceeded very well with the Tolstoy Software and fax machines thereafter.
Sandy travelled far and wide. She did mad things like treat North Korean border guards and Pyongyang police like waiters. They were so astonished by her chutzpah that they pretended they never saw her, undoubtedly thinking they would get in more trouble interfering than leaving her alone. Sandy flouted rules everywhere; she shooed away Moscow police with packages of Marlborough cigarettes. Our paltry pay of $25 per story got her farther there than it would otherwise. It was the best editorial money we ever spent.
I remember one story about her trying to find a faucet in a Moscow street market to replace the broken one she had at home. Her reports had a you-are-there quality that brought to life what it was like to live in Russia in those chaotic post-coup days best depicted cinematically in "Bullet to Beijing."
Sandy managed to get a flat on the outskirts of Moscow. Its sole blessing was its location along a metro line. Her flat was in a row of identical grey Soviet buildings mirrored by an identical row across the road, with building after building stretching out as far as the eye could see.
One day she came home, leaving the metro train in a zonked-out autopilot state. She climbed the stairs to her side of the street, went down two buildings, entered one by the third door, went up to the second floor, and to her own door, three flats down the hall. But her key would not work. She struggled with it.
Then much to her surprise a man opened the door from the inside and asked what she was doing. She said this was her flat, but it was plain to see from the decorations and furnishings that it was not.
After apologising, she turned back mystified, checking for anything familiar—but that was the trouble, everything was. She began to wonder if a poltergeist or the KGB had made her flat disappear. She then wended her way back to the metro station. And it was there that she discovered what went wrong. In a fog, she had joined a flood of people turning right at the top of the metro stairs when she should have turned left. Otherwise she had done everything correctly.
But my relationship with Sandy came to a bad end when we caused something of a diplomatic incident. It was a bit like my incident in Mississippi when my father called the Canadian External Affairs Department, which then contacted the US State Department, which contacted the Mississippi governor, who contacted Oktibbeha County Jail, where I was then in residence.
In Sandy’s case, External Affairs called me to say Russia was "seriously aggrieved" with the Suburban for what we had published. This arose from Sandy's yearning to be a real journalist with a real press pass so she could attend major press conferences with the major media. This I could understand. Recognition by one's peers is important. On the other hand, I did not care about press conferences in Moscow. What she was giving me on street life was pure gold.
Nonetheless, I gave her all I could, chiefly a letter of introduction saying she was a correspondent for the Suburban. But the Russian gatekeepers wanted bribes and improper favours, the sort of illicit things sought of female applicants. This was conveyed to me in a letter separate from her weekly column, and I unscrupulously included it in her dispatch.
"You cannot hope to bribe
Or twist, thank God! the
British journalist. But, seeing
What the man will do unbribed.
There’s no occasion to."
What I did caused the Russians to be "seriously aggrieved," and Sandy would never to speak to me again.
* * *
I had long dismissed most environmental concerns as wildly overblown, and this made me even more unpopular with fellow journalists, especially those with my previous employer, the late and unlamented Montreal Daily News, which was into overblowing whatever they could while meekly accepting rampant linguistic cleansing and sundry evils in plain sight.
I recall how I was condemned by greenies when I ran a headline in the NDG Monitor: "NDG air rated best in North America." This was based on an American outfit that was monitoring urban air quality continent-wide and was in town to do Montreal's. It was no surprise that NDG's air was rated tops, with our prevailing northwesterlies and with Côte St Luc north of us and a few light industries in St Laurent, and nothing but trees till Moscow.
But Phyllis McCrae, who lived next to friend Peter Leney, and the rest of her lobster-eating socialist friends were upset and accused me of being irresponsible, by undermining their worthy efforts to scare people into demanding reform. Lying in an alleged good cause was no sin to their minds.
I knew the contents of the green recycling bins were dumped at the same dump as the rest of the garbage. That's what Irving Addesky, mayor of Hampstead, told a delegation of primary school children who were demanding he supply householders with recycling bins, as neighbouring municipalities did. I also recalled scary predictions in the early 1980s that the city’s Miron Dump in the east end would be overflowing in 10 years.
Well, it was now 1993, and 10 years had come to pass. The City of Montreal, which had equipped non-apartment households with green recycling bins, got it into their heads to provide apartment dwellers with green recycling bags, which didn't take at all. But at the hopeful launch of the scheme, with the city's waste disposal manager available, I asked him about the supposedly overflowing Miron Dump.
As expected, it was nowhere near overflowing. In fact, they were even importing garbage from New York. Plastic was far more "squishy" than expected, he said. Checking out the situation on Google, I learned that the Miron Dump had since changed its name to Complexe Environnementale de St-Michel. It reminded me of my old quest on behalf of Globe to interview a mass murderer who was reading books to the blind. I was trying to reach Vacaville State Prison only to be told that it had been renamed the California Medical Facility.
There had been so many environmental predictions that never came true, or the truth always lay in the distant, unprovable future. At the time, all the intelligent people were sure that global warming would cause the polar ice cap to melt and sea levels would rise, though every year during the peak of Montreal's summer navigation season we would worry about ships running aground because of low water levels on the St Lawrence, as shippers worried about the same thing on the Rhine.
So it was in such a mood that, three years after the warehouse fire at St-Basil-le-Grand where PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) had burned in 1988, I wanted to know the environmental damage from the blaze. The fire occasioned a mass evacuation of a good chunk of the South Shore along the west bank of the Richelieu River. The Quebec Environment Minister Pierre Paradis billed it as the "worst environmental disaster in Quebec's history." I was working at the Montreal Daily News, and one of our strongest circulation areas happened to be—by a freak of circumstance—the South Shore.
I knew this from many of the return addresses in the paper's Search for Gold contest. Otherwise, the returns came from the very poverty zones that had been provided by the Gazette in a little map accompanying one of their periodic weepers about the local underclass.
But our South Shore readers were not part of the impoverished majority of our readers; they were employed and homeowners, albeit with modest homes. This anomaly arose because the South Shore bus terminal was directly across the street from the Montreal Daily News office. Many of us walked through that terminal to get to the railway station or to downtown delights. So if the newspaper dispensing boxes there were not ship-shape and Bristol fashion, it would be noticed and the circulation department would have come in for a drubbing.
The proportionally small Anglo South Shore readership was significant because it was loyal, as our paper was frequently more entertaining than looking through the bus's rain-splattered window. Perhaps realising this, the paper went even crazier than the Gazette did about the St-Basil-le-Grand fire.
So I asked Gisela McIvor to look into it and call Environment Canada, the federal department that has since been renamed "Environment and Climate Change Canada." Surely, we'd have some serious damage from the worst environmental disaster in Quebec's history. After a short time, Gisela came back and said there was no story because there was no significant damage.
I became angry, as this was the point of the story. So what, I asked, was the actual damage done by the worst environmental disaster in Quebec's history. And if the worst environmental disaster did no significant damage, how much less damage could lesser eco threats do? Was it not obvious to her that we were either lied to at the time, or the government had a propensity to exaggerate beyond all reason. I also heard that PCBs, a residual chemical in coolants and lubricants in transformers, can only become toxic at very high temperatures. The warehouse, really a shed, had caught fire, smoke billowed forth and panic spread, fanned by officialdom.
So I asked Gisela to go back to the Eco Can guy and get details on what they feared, why they dressed in bio-suits, what they found, how thoroughly they searched, and why they demanded people leave their homes and sleep in school gyms and drill halls for days.
I was listening to Gisela from my office in next room and I could hear her tone, obviously not liking what she was asked to do. I was so fed up that I took the phone from her and peppered the guy with questions myself.
I told him that I heard that PCB fires were only toxic if temperatures reached levels achieved in steel mills. I asked him if that were true, and he said it was. Then why, I asked, did you recommend such a drastic response when you knew there was no danger to justify it?
He said: "When there is such a conflict, we follow the public response."
Which meant one cannot rely on the experts for independent judgment. Everyone is guided by the philosophy of lemmings!
I asked him whether the PCB fire had any impact on crops or livestock. No, all was safe, he said. What loss was there in revenue or life directly related to the fire, rather than costs arising from the reaction to the fire?
He said that two, perhaps three, groundhogs burrowed under the burning site itself had perished in the blaze. But that would have happened if the shed were burning the most environmentally friendly hickory.
* * *
Until that point, I had never held a job for nearly a decade before, so the events of this period come back not as a formal chronology but as a series of events, each more of a sketch than a photograph. Taken together, these were the best of times. The worst of times were to come.