Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Remembering Canada's "others"—the French Canadians

Posted By on 07.23.13 at 10:28 AM

The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes
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  • The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes
I recently wrote about my childhood in Canada in the context of places where hockey players come from. My sister Dixie McIlwraith has her own memories, much different from mine, and after listening to President Obama speak the other day about Trayvon Martin and race, she put some of them into words.

* * *

When we were children we lived in Sudbury, Ontario, a medium sized mining community north of Toronto. Work in the Inco cooper mines near Sudbury attracted families from around the world. Our school classes were filled with children of parents from Italy, Asia, Middle Europe, Scandinavia and Britain. Often their parents spoke little or no English but we all communicated, played, learned and grew with few distinctions other than those of kids everywhere; who is the prettiest, smartest, tallest, funniest, most popular, the teacher’s favourite, best friend, nicest. Sundays (and Saturdays for some kids) we attended our respective churches, temples and sometimes each other's. We were Girl Guides together, our brothers played hockey together, each summer we all headed to the same lake for the short Sudbury summer, ate overly salted French fries in paper cones, trying to finish them all before the cone dissolved from the excess of malt vinegar poured into each cone. In fact we were a stew of races, nationalities, languages, and cultures.

Except for the French. The French Canadians were Catholic. They attended their own schools, worshiped in their own churches, French Catholic churches, not the normal Catholic churches our other friends went to, and they spoke French.

When our parents had parties or formal teas (teas were very much a part of the Sudbury social scene, with little sandwiches cut into triangles, white bread, no crusts, egg salad, pimento cheese, cheddar, and with the ubiquitous Canadian butter tarts), French Canadian parents were not included. When we walked past a Catholic school we spoke more quietly so as not to attract the attention of the devils who tended to hover over Catholics. Once a friend of mine, for no reason I can remember, told me she thought my three month old sister was “stupid." I hit her. When my mother asked me why I explained she was Catholic so the remark was a curse. She was not a French Catholic, of course. We had no French Catholic friends, just the normal German or Italian or Irish Catholic, much more connected to Satan than we Protestants, but still part of our club.

My mother was part of the theatrical scene in Sudbury so this meant living life on the edge. My parents both loved to give parties and one good friend was a rather tormented young man, an ex-seminarian, who started dating a pretty young woman with a French last name. He thanked my mother once for making his date welcome since, he explained, many homes would not have done so.

Years later, on a plane from Atlanta to Los Angeles I sat next to a man who had also grown up in Sudbury. He explained he had never gone back. Neither had I but, to my surprise, his reasons were far more personal. He said he and his family always felt second class, unwelcome, looked down on and largely excluded from society. I had no idea, but realized as a child I had never noticed who was not there.

We left Canada to move to Saint Louis when my sister was five. Not long after we moved to a pleasant home in the suburbs my sister was on a bus with my mother when a Negro family boarded. Michele looked at them for a while and then turned to my mother and whispered, “Are they French?”

She would have never seen a black person in Sudbury, they were still rare in Canada, but she had already learned Canada had an underclass. She observed all the white passengers studiously not looking in the direction of this family, pulling purses closer, or moving packages onto empty seats, ignoring their presence on the bus. She watched this family, the way in which they carried themselves, their message of invisibility, harmlessness, deference and fear, and she jumped to the logical conclusion.

I thought about that when I listened to President Obama talk about the history of race in this country.

Years later I moved from Saint Louis to New York City and began working for a large company there. Approximately 30% of its employees in the office where I worked were black. I was a green, dumb kid from the sticks desperate to be part of something much bigger and more exciting in the "“Big Apple" and the black employees seemed to have much more fun than the white employees. They dressed better, laughed more, had more of an edge, so these were the ones I immediately gravitated to on lunch breaks. They froze me out. Politely for the most part, though not always, but definitely. Naively, I thought I was just not cool enough for them, and in fact I was so far from cool as to be laughable, but I think now they also had many good reasons to not open up and let me in.

In fact I did become friends over the years with some African Americans. I had a huge crush on one young man (who told me I was much too fat….he was right, but he was also gay which I didn’t realize then). And today I live in a very integrated city, rich with black music, food, history, but when I see African Americans walking down our streets they walk alone or with each other. When we pass each other we greet each other politely but move on. When I engage one, the conversation is polite; perhaps we share a laugh, a smile, as courteous people do. Rarely will they engage me.

I celebrate the music of New Orleans, would happily submerge myself in the racial experiences possible here, but they are not easily available, and subtly denied.

In time this will change. But as a white woman of 72 years I must accept the consequences of the choices my grandparents made, my parents made, my country made, and I made to create an underclass, no longer invisible, but with many, many generations of deserved mistrust of our motives when we declare ourselves all equal now and just good friends.

* * *

A block from our house was the Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes at the top of a rocky hill. Illuminated at night, it—she—stared down on us as we walked home, vanishing behind houses and reappearing as each house was passed. She spooked me a little. Her eeriness made all the stranger the French Canadians who one Sunday a year paraded past our house to gather below the shrine for some sort of devotional ceremony. We'd watch them from our front windows. One year two women broke off and knocked on our door. They asked for water. My parents dealt with them as we strained to listen from the next room. When they left we wanted to know all about it. What did they say? What did they want? What were they like?

How momentous was their visit to our house? As you see, I still remember it—though Dixie had forgotten.

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