Published in the Montreal Gazette on July 14, 2011.
A recent article about the fast-approaching fortieth anniversary of the Blue Bird Café fire of September 1972 and the city’s failure to remember in some permanent fashion the lives lost in the appalling event raises an interesting question. Why are we in Montreal seemingly so hesitant to commemorate historical events – both the good and the bad? (“These people have been forgotten”, Gazette, July 4, 2011, A-7)
As a now retired educator, I strove for over 35 years to instill the importance of history in the lives of many a high school student in this city. For several reasons, it was rarely an easy task.
There is, of course, a natural antithesis for the past among the young who, let’s face it, have more of their lives ahead of them than behind them. Beyond that, however, there are other factors that aggravate an already formidable task and, at the same time, may shed some light on the issue of acknowledging those who were killed in the Blue Bird Café blaze. One of these considerations is an ever increasing societal indifference to events of that took place in the times gone by.
Simply put, contemporary post World War II society, more self-centered than ever, seemingly no longer truly cares about what came before us nor what we hand down to our progeny. This is evident in many expressions, both significant and relatively insignificant, right here in Montreal. Let’s start with buildings.
Most edifices erected in this town in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included a year in which the construction took place. A simple walk through the city centre demonstrates this quite quickly. For instance, the year ‘1887’ is clearly seen on the facade of St. James United Church on St. Catherine Street while a slowly eroding century-old cornerstone marked ‘1907’ can still be perceived on the foundation wall of the old First Baptist Church building at the corner of Union and Sherbrooke. These are just two illustrations but, for those with eyes to see, the tradition of dating structures for the generations to come was obviously very much part of Victorian and Edwardian customs. Today, with the exception of the occasional edifice, there is no such widespread practice.
Moreover, those of a certain age will also recall when even sidewalks were assigned a date. That habit now also abandoned, today only a handful of the old footpath plaques survives.
Then there are events, both happy and tragic. In the sorrowful aftermath of the 1907 Hochelaga School fire in which teacher Sarah Maxwell and 16 of her pupils were killed, the City of Montreal fittingly promised a memorial plaque in their collective memory. It was never erected. Similarly, no such tablet was put in place in Victoria Square in remembrance of the 30 or so individuals killed in the Herald Building Fire of 1910 while at the northern end of that same urban quadrangle, nothing is to be found with regard to the 40 or so slaughtered by the British military in the Gavazzi Riot of June 9, 1853. The Blue Bird Café matter, then, is only consistent with the municipal government’s approach of avoiding the recognition of consequential events in the city’s history.
Why is this so? Many other jurisdictions pay tribute to their shared patrimony, both the joyful and the not so joyful. For instance, the Tyburn Gallows near Marble Arch in Central London, where, through the centuries, hundreds of highwaymen and various dissenters were hanged, is not only pointed out at street level but also promoted as a tourist site by the local authority.
In fact, it is next to impossible to walk a block through the streets of London without noticing historic plaques affixed to numerous, usually all-white, porticos of the city. They attest to the birth of this writer, and the death of that poet, which took place within the walls of the buildings in question.
Speaking of which, while walking recently along Lagauchetière Street, not too far from St. Patrick’s Church, I came upon a rather typical, higgledy-piggledy Montreal parking lot. From my knowledge of local history, I recognized it immediately. Indeed, it was at that same inner city location where in December of 1879 was born the revered French Canadian writer, Emile Nelligan, who, later in his life, composed some of the most beautiful poetry ever written anywhere in the French language.
Needless to say, no commemorative plaque was to be found nearby.