All posts by Dorothy Nixon

I am a Montreal based writer with a new book about the British Invasion of Suffragettes to Canada in 1912/13 Furies Cross the Mersey on Amazon Kindle.

An Ordinary Man

1882 store book page as a single man.

“When the courting at midnight has ended

And he stands with his hat in his fist

And she lovingly lingers beside him,

To wish him ta-ta and be kissed,

How busy his thoughts of the future,

You betchya his thoughts he don’t speak,

He is wondering how they can manage,

To live on six dollars a week.”

(little poem etched in pencil in one of Norman’s early ‘store books’)

Norman Nicholson, my husband’s great grandfather liked to keep track of things: Indeed, that was his one extraordinary trait. He kept track of his every expense, business or household, over five decades (right down to 5 cents tossed to a tramp). He kept balances, inventories, invoices and lists from 1881 when he left home to live on his own to 1921 at this death at home in Richmond, Quebec.

He kept all this information in dozens of ledgers, diaries and notebooks and he kept these booklets neatly arranged in a trunk under the window in his daughter’s room. ( I know because it said so in one of the many letters he kept, which the daughter in her turn kept, and which eventually fell into my hands as the wife of his great grandson.)

Norman in Masonic Regalia circa 1905

That’s how history-challenged I came to have a real appreciation for the life of a 1st generation Canadian living in the Eastern Townships of Quebec at the turn of the 20th century, that is Norman Nicholson, son of Malcolm Nicolson, he who came to this country in 1841 at age 26 with his parents and 8 siblings after being cleared from the family farm on the nearly treeless Isle of Lewis, Hebrides; who walked from Port St Francis to Flodden and settled on crown land, earning money by burning wood for potash and clearing trails through the forest.

That’s how I’ve come to understand that my husband’s great grandfather, Canadian-born, Canadian schooled Norman Nicholson, successful hemlock bark dealer, turkey salesman, bill collector for a local doctor, Town Public Works Clerk, Inspector for the Transcontinental Railway and The Quebec Streams Commission (I have all the documentation) was a work-a-day sort, devoted husband to the spirited feminist-minded Margaret McLeod, (also a Lewis descendant) doting father to three feisty and ambitious daughters Edith, Marion, Flora and one lost soul of a son, Herb.

He was the kind of ordinary man who lives a full life, with all its joys and sorrows and broken dreams, and dies, the memory of him quickly fading to black until, one day, (with any luck at all) a glimmer, as a great great grandson, flipping through the brittle pages of a photo album, points to one particular picture and asks. “Who’s this ‘sick-looking’ dude with the white moustache and beard?” And the boy’s middle aged father answers: “Oh, that’s Norman Nicholson, your great great grandfather, or at least, I think it is.”

“Was he a general or something, too?” the boy asks referring to the man’s mason uniform – because the boy is related to General Douglas MacArthur on another branch of his family tree.

“No, Norman Nicholson was just an ordinary man.”

Cost of setting up house 1883. 45 dollars for furniture

Now, after scanning the ledgers and reading all his diaries, that I can confirm: ordinary, in every possible way. Not a hero like Alexander Mackenzie, the Lewis born explorer, for whom a great Canadian river is named, although Norman did have a thing for bodies of water. From his 1912 diary: List of Rivers East of Cochrane, Abitibi River, Sucker Creek, Mistango River, Low Bush Creek

Not a villain like Lewis descendant Donald Morrison, the Megantic Outlaw, subject of Canada’s largest ever manhunt and at least two books and one documentary, although Norman did have a part in the man’s post capture defense.

From an 1889 press clipping: Let it be hereby resolved that Norman Nicholson be appointed by the Richmond Royal Caledonia Society to press the authorities for an interview with Donald Morrison.

Neither famous, nor infamous, neither scoundrel nor saint; ergo NOT the kind of man whose exploits are chronicled for future generations in plodding high school history texts or low budget straight to cable documentaries; just a loyal husband, protective father, dutiful citizen. An ordinary man, the kind of man who reaches a point in life where he feels the need to lay down the law to his kids: November 14, 1902 Future Regulations: All must be up and downstairs by 7:30 o’ clock in the morning, Sunday included, breakfast at 7:30. The kind of man who, lonely on the job in middle age, writes love letters to his wife: “I don’t want a concrete hall or a little birch canoe; just want a place with you by the fireside.”

Very very ordinary. No, not the stuff of history books or even good caricature, although it would be easy to characterize Norman as the quintessential penny pinching Scot (someone who believes his bank book to be the best kind of reading) but that characterization would be totally unfair.

Norman Nicholson may have been a practical man:

Price of ash for 1899: 8 cents for 12 inch;10 cents for 13 inch; 12 cents for 14 inch.

1913 Trip to Boston to see Grand Lodge: ticket to Montreal, 2.55, street car 05, ticket to Newport, 3.25. Dinner on train .60

with a petty side:

number of times Dr. Kellock was away from his congregation in year 1897: 24 January in Boston; 21 March in Spencerville; 24 October in Toronto;

October 18, 1899. Date McMorine had his water cut off in his store by M. McDonald tinsmith.

But he also was a romantic:

Nothing to do Margaret, Dar..ling, nothing to do. Let’s take a trip on memory’s ship back to the by gone days. Let’s sail to the old village, anchor outside the school door. Look in and see, that’s you and me, a couple of kids once more.

See? An ordinary man of conflicting passions, just like you and me, the kind of man who has but one chance to have something flattering written about him and that’s at the end of his life:

From the Richmond Guardian June, 1922:

The death occurred suddenly last Friday morning in Montreal of Mr. Norman Nicholson, one of the most respected citizens of this place…

And then that’s it, finito, no more, except, perhaps, for an epitaph on a tombstone in a far-flung country cemetery no one ever visits.

RIP Norman Nicholson, my husband’s great grandfather. An oh-so ordinary man, except for this one extraordinary trait, this compulsion to keep track of things, to leave a paper trail for posterity – if mostly in list form.

END

LIST Cost of LIving 1900 Richmond Quebec.

1900 accounts, family of six, children in teens. Wife Margaret got a hefty allowance with her purchases going unnoted, but I see no mention of material or sewing notions in the list and Margaret sewed her daughter’s clothes for the most part. In 1900 the Nicholsons were comfortably middle class with a fine house, but their fortunes would soon fail with the end of the hemlock bark industry.

January

1/3 of a beef, 106 pounds 6.35

Skating rink 10

6 lbs pork 25

2 beef tongues 20

Marion for Rink 10

Postage 12

79 lbs pork from Bromfield 4.35

Sunday School 04

Church plate 05

Scribbler for Flora 05

1 lb sulphur 05

Hairdressing 15

Membership Board of Trade 1.00

Treat of cigars 25

Fare to Sherbrooke and return 1.35

Copy book Flora 08

Scribbler Edith 05

Marion skating rink 10

½ lb Black tea 18

Sunday school 04

1 Ladies Jacket 8.50

1 pair gent’s overshoes 2.00

¼ lb candies 05

1 lb frosting sugar 08

1 lb baking soda 04

¼ lb peppermint 05

Sunday School 04

Church concert 60

Postage 20

1 paper of pins 05

I pocket handkerchief 08

Herbert 05

Postage 25

1 jar molasses 14

Mending Marion’s boots 25

February

Sunday School 04

Bridge toll 02

¼ pound candies 05

Times for one year 1.00

Maggie 25

½ pound Black tea 18

Marion for rink 10

Sunday School 03

¼ lbs cream of tartar 09

1 lbs currants 10

1 bottle Powell’s medicine 25

Maggie 50

W. Daigle for hauling bark 15

1 writing pad 15

1 pair rubbers Edith 45

1 pair rubbers Marion 45

1 loaf break 05

1 lb crackers 08

1 pint oysters 20

Cough candies 02

Scribbler for Marion 05

Postage 02

Maggie 50

1 loaf bread 05

1 bag fine salt 10

Sunday school 02

Church Collection 10

100 lbs salt 05

1 whisk 15

1 loaf bread 06

¾ pounds walnuts 10

Maggie for Church 2.10

1 lamp chimney 07

1 bottle M. Liniment 25

Maggie 06

½ black tea

1 pair laces 04

4 gallons coal oil 75

10 lbs corn meal 15

10 lbs Graham flour 25

5 gallons Coal Oil 95

1 hockey stick 30

Herbert for Dictionary 15

Maggie 10

½ loaf bread 06

1 lbs ginger snaps 10

¼ pound Ceylon Pepper 10

Postage 06

Flora and Marion 05

1 package Corn Starch 09

¼ lbs cream of tarter

Hair dressing 15

Marion for rink 10

March

1 jar molasses 12

1 doz eggs 20

Maggie 10

Chinaman for laundry 14

Sunday School 04

Patriotic Fund for Hockey 60

1 pair rubbers Herbert 60

Maggie 40

Marion and Flora 10

Sutherland for Miss Wilson 1.00

Postage 20

Mending tins 05

Missionary meeting 05

Skating rink 05

Maggie 25

¼ pounds cream of tartar 10

Sunday School 03

Maggie for concert 10

1 cake shaving soap 07

1 lbs soda 04

½ lbs Black tea

¼ lbs cream of tartar 09

1 bottle vanilla 10

5 pounds sugar 25

Maggie 25

5 lbs butter McKee 1.00

Marion 05

Herbert for Sharpening skates 05

Maggie 1.00

5 lbs G Flour 10

6 ½ lbs butter 1.45

Mending Herbert’s boots 25

1 loaf bread 10

Cough candies 05

1 quart milk 05

Skating rink 20

Maggie 22

9 ½ lbs butter 2.00

Flora 05

1 bags fine salt 10

Maggie 50

1 bag flour 2.25

49 pounds oats 49

5 lbs sugar 25

Sunday School 04

½ lbs Black tea

Postage 10

Postal notes 05

Subscription to Herald `1.50

Subscription to Westminster

Pady Jim 25

12 ¾ cords wood 35.25

I scrubbing brush 10

April

5 lbs sugar 25

Maggie 10

1 pair of rubbers Flora 35

Sunday School 04

½ gal Coal oil 10

1 bottle ammonia 05

1 lamp burner 10

1 doz herrings 25

20 lbs Graham Flour 50

1 bag rolled oats 25

5 Gal Coal Oil 95

20 pounds corn meal 30

Flora 05

Small writing pad 05

1 box crackers 25

½ pound candies 10

Scrubbing floor 25

Herbert for sugar 10

Maggie 20

Hair dressing 15

1 jar molasses 15

½ lbs Black tea 18

2 lbs tapioca 10

Postage 27

Sunday School 07

Herbert for Birthday 25

Maggie 10

1 Gallon syrup 65

3 lbs sugar maple 24

3 pairs shoe laces 08

2 pair stockings 60

5 lbs sugar 25

Sugar scale 40

Maggie 2.60

1 pair rubbers 60

Maggie 35

To Sunday School 03

2 dozen eggs 30

1 package popcorn 05

F Lyster for milk 95

Fir dressing Herbert 15

5 lbs sugar 25

Maggie 1.00

Hauling manure 20

Postage 10

Sunday School 03

Bill of goods bought by Dan 32

1 box crackers 25

1 spool thread 10

1 can corn beef? 25

3 ¾ lbs steak 47

Sunday school 04

Candies 04

May

5 lbs sugar 25

½ lbs Black tea 18

¼ pounds ginger 09

1 bag potatoes 45

¼ ream bill paper 05

Daigle for manuring 40

Edith 50

Herbert suit of clothes 4.00

Spading garden 1.00

Mending M and F. Shoes 70

Garden seeds 40

2 pairs shoes Edith and Marion 3.00

1 necktie for funeral 25

Maggie 25

Seeds got by Dr. Cleveland 50

1 package envelopes 07

Post office box 1.00

Sunday School 03

2 scribblers 10

1 bag oatmeal 1.90

1 lb flour 4.50

Mending boots 1.25

Pass Book 10

Postage 09

10 lbs graham flour 30

¼ lbs cream of tartar 25

2 lbs steak 25

3 ½ pounds S. Ham 25

Military dinner 75

3 gallons Maple Syrup 1.95

Entertaining Edwardian Montrealers

Dominion Park postcard circa 1912 (era of the big hat). Is that my husband’s grandmother looking at the camera?

Everyone has heard of Coney Island, the legendary thrill park in New York, but have you ever heard of Dominion Park, Montreal’s Coney Island?

Not likely. The Montreal Amusement Park ran from 1906 to 1938 and is all but forgotten.

Map of Dominion Park in Montreal’s East End

However, colourized photos like the one at top are widely available on the Internet thanks to Valentine and Sons.

Judging from the newspaper record, the ‘official’ opening of Dominion Park was in 1908, but I have hard evidence of a 1906 opening. In 1906, Herbert Nicholson, 21, my husband’s great uncle, working in Montreal, wrote a letter to his younger sister, Flora, 17, a student in Richmond, Quebec.

June 3, 1906

Dear Flora,

I suppose you have to be careful how you speak now that you are living with a model school teacher. I have not much news to give. I was down at Dominion Park last night. This is the new one that you may have heard so much about, or at least read so much about. Well, there is everything that you have ever heard of in your life.  They take you way up on a slide and then slide you down in a boat into a little lake made just for the purpose. And then they have a railroad that goes down and up hill and around curves and through all kinds of places so fast that you loose your breath.  Then there are other places where the stairs move and the wind blows and the floor jumps and I couldn’t tell you what all things do happen. There is a place where you lose yourself and then places where the looking glasses show you every way but the way they should. There are lots of other things, too, that I saw and many more I did not see.

I will tell you more about it when I see you,

 Love, Herb.

Herb appears to have been thrilled with his visit.

The newspaper record notes the attractions featured at Dominion Park. Some of them, like the roller-coaster, water slide and Fun House or “House of Nonsense” are familiar to Boomers.

There was also the Bump the Bumps, (bumper cars?) the trained wild animal show, the ‘Frisco Earthquake (just one year after the real thing happened) as well as a merry-go-round.

Some exhibits were frankly bizarre: the booth where young men could break crockery for a price (and get back at their mothers and wives, I imagine) as well as the Infant Incubator Exhibit where preemies were cared for by competent nurses in full view of the festive crowd.(Shades of the Dionne Quintuplets fiasco to come.)

There were travelling side shows, of course, many of which were colourfully ‘ethnic’ that would be considered in poor taste -even racist – today.

There were also vaudeville acts and circus acrobats as well as fancy sit-down concerts, stealing the mojo of another, more refined, Montreal entertainment venue, Sohmer Park.

Dominion Park, like Coney Island, was a place where all entertainment options came together.

Judging from those Valentine and Sons postcards, Dominion Park was a place young men brought their ladies, whether courting or married, all of these men wearing their epoque signature straw boater hats (the kind we see in Renoir paintings) the women, in the 1910 era, in their puffy white dresses.

Herbert, a ladies man, discretely does not mention with whom he went. I doubt his sisters, young unmarried Edith, Marion and Flo, could go without an escort of some kind.

But in 1912, Marion Nicholson had someone to escort her to Dominion Park: her new beau Hugh Blair.

Her sister Edith writes her mother who is visiting Marion in Mile End: “Don’t let the villains, Marion and “Romeo” (Hugh) take you to Dominion Park.”

It’s true that Edith enjoyed ‘high-brow’ activities more than her younger sister Marion, but she liked to have fun as much as anyone, so I assume she is joking.

When I first saw the picture at top, I thought the woman looking into the camera might be Marion. She is wearing exactly the same white dress Marion wears in many pictures.

Here’s a blow up of Marion taking tea on the lawn of her home in Richmond, Quebec 1912.

Marion Nicholson Blair, my husband’s grandmother taking tea in around 1912.
Marion certainly had a similar hat to the one in the Valentine and Son postcard pic at top. 1912 was the year of the big big hat. But trendsetters like Colette in Paris were already wearing the cloche – as a bold countermove to this increasingly ludicrous hat fashion.

I have positive proof that Marion Nicholson visited Dominion Park around 1920 with Hugh Blair, now her husband, and both her sisters, Edith and Flora, as well as her brother Herb who was making a rare visit home from out West. It comes in the form of a novelty postcard.

Novelty postcard, circa 1920 Dominion Park. Hugh Blair and unknown man hovering over Edith, Marion and Flo Nicholson and unknown woman, probably cousin May Watters. Man at right is brother Herb Nicholson making perhaps his only visit back home to Montreal after leaving for out west in 1914.

From news reports I can glean that Dominion Park struggled through the Depression and closed without fanfare after the season in 1938.

­Here’s likely the reason why: 1938 was the first year of BELMONT PARK located in Cartierville. Belmont Park was a rickety place when I went there as a kid in the early 1960’s and was, in its turn, usurped by La Ronde at Expo 67, a bigger, brighter and more expensive amusement park.

When it comes to entertainment, new is best.

1.In 1906, entertainment in the big cities ranged from vaudeville and circuses to high-end theatre with 100’s of small venues, especially along Ste Catherine East, showing “flickers” on the wall during the day, and featuring live acts at night. In Montreal, there was only one large venue devoted entirely to motion pictures, the 500 seat Ouimetoscope. By 1910 there were scores of small entertainment venues lining Ste Catherine, most places offering a mixed bag of live shows and flickers and sometimes ice cream. A May 26, 1906 Gazette newspaper reveals entertainment options: A Kipling play with a well known actor at his Majesty’s Theatre; the Georgia Minstrels at the Academy of Music; The Holy City, a religious drama at Le Francais; The London Gaeity Girls at the Royal; ‘improved’ music and lotsa vaudeville at Sohmer Park: Miller’s elephants and other midway attractions at Riverside Park (a small amusement park also on Notre Dame Steet that would close in 1906.) Also Dominion Park opening June 2 with the Duss Band. Something for everyone – especially for the young people from rural areas flocking to the city to find work.Most of these wonderful entertainment options (excluding theatre plays) were considered out-of-bounds for respectable middle class women, especially if unattended.

Herbert’s sister, Marion, was also living in the city, having just graduated from McGill Normal (teaching) School and taken a job at Royal Arthur Elementary School in Little Burgundy. The year previous, she had boarded at the YWCA on Dorchester, a cold, leaky place with “too many rules.” Her words.

The city elite, including the Refords, the Birks’, and Julia Parker Drummonds, were planning a woman’s hotel where ‘respectable’ women from out of town would stay – and where bible readings would be their main nighttime recreation.

Still, Marion went to many a theatre play with her sisters and to Vaudeville shows with her beaus. After 1914, movies became more respectable for the middle class because that is where you could get your war news.

One movie house, the Royal, advertised itself as a safe venue for women.

2. There were two fires at Dominion, 1913 and a fatal one in 1919. Journalist Edgar Andrew Collard, known for his Montreal history column in the Gazette newspaper, was saved from the conflagration by his father, according to a very personal story he wrote in 1977.


When the fire broke out, They were riding the Mystic Rill, a ‘water-maze’ boat ride through a tunnel lined with flammable material designed to look like rock. His father saw a high window and managed to push his son through it.

Only magnificent strength could have accomplished what he did: he not only had to keep a grip on the window but he had with his legs and feet to keep the boat from being carried away by the current.”.

Even way back in 1977, the Park was all but forgotten: “Only a few older people remember Dominion Park,” wrote Collard in this same article.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAFkxSVlSCk Coney Island 1918 Americans at Play

Lydia and the Mill

Jacques et Gilles work at the mill;

That stands beside the water;

Could be Lowell, could be Lawrence;

Or Nashua, New Hampshire;

Jacques et Gilles, they hate the mill;

But they’ve too many sons and daughters.

(Jccques et Gilles: McGarrigles from Matapaedia Album)

Sulloway Mill, Franklin, NH

Lydia Morrisette, my granddaughter’s 2nd great grandmother on her mom’s side, was a real Americanophile, or so Lydia’s daughter, Irene, told me just the other day. Lydia always raved to Irene about life the US despite the fact she had lived and worked there for a mere seven years in her youth, in Franklin, New Hampshire from 1903 to 1910.

Why do you think your mother loved the United States so much, I asked Irene. After all, work in New England textile mills by most accounts was no picnic, not even at the best of times, what with the long hours, the lack of respect, the bad ventilation and lint and dust flying everywhere, the dangerous machines that could ‘jump’ at any time and the NOISE. Oh, the noise! Let’s not forget the institutionalized racism against French Canadians, often referred to as pea-soupers, or the paternalistic behavior of the French Canadian overseers.

“She liked the independence,” said Irene. “She liked the money.”

So, it seems that Marie-Leonie Ledia Morrisette, like so many other Edwardian women out in the workforce in the big cities of the Western World, valued her independence and enjoyed having an occupation in which she took some pride. After all, the Sulloway Mill up on the hill produced top-of-the-line men and women’s hosiery.

Irene agrees. “They made nice socks,” she says.

Maria-Leonie Lydia (Ledia) Morissette was born in 1889 (with the help of Dr. Harel1) in Ste Gertrude, Becancour, Quebec, a short ferry ride across the St Lawrence to Three Rivers, to farmer Eugene Morrisette and his wife, Clarisse Heon.

In 19032 The Morrisettes and their children, four five girls and two boys, set out to work in Franklin Mills, a smaller, happier sort of industrial town of around 6,000 people on the Miramack River.

Lydia and her sisters on the 1910 US Census. Few French workers made the Census for some reason (including Lydia’s parents) but the 1906 Franklin Annual Report reveals there were many French Canadians in the town. They just weren’t enumerated, perhaps seen as temporary workers. The Morrisette family is on the 1911 Canada census but Eugene and Clarisse and a son and daughter returned to the US.

With four girls and two boys (including a newborn with “muscular atrophy” ) moving to a mill town where the older children could help support the family was a logical step for a Quebec subsistence farmer.

The 1910 United States Federal census has Lydia and her two sisters, Antonia and Elivina (Alvina) working in a “hosiery mill” (almost certainly the Sulloway Mill) as helpers/top hand and boarding in Ward 2, up from the river and the mill, with teamster M. Poirier and his family.

Lydia, as young “Canadiennes” were instructed to do by the community patriarchs (wherever they happened to be living) ceased work in 1910 to marry handsome Quebecker Henry Hamel. Of course, biology likely had its part in this 🙂 The couple moved back to Drummondville, Quebec and raised a large family. Irene, born in 1918 (and the last surviving child, needless to say) is the among the youngest of their brood.

Lydia was the only female member of her strong-willed Morrisette girls to marry. A sister Alvina remained a mill worker in Franklin and two of her sisters became nuns.3

Perhaps because Franklin was a smaller, kinder New England textile down with fewer workers; perhaps because Franklin is where Daniel Webster of dictionary fame was born; perhaps because the Morrisettes lived in Franklin during an era of exponential change, Lydia and her sisters were different from many New England mill workers from Quebec – who usually kept to themselves. The women took pride in integrating and learning English.

Indeed, their one healthy brother, Horace, was of a similar stamp. He stayed in New Hampshire with his parents, Eugene and Clarisse, and his sister Alvina and married an English girl, Mary Murray.

French Canadian child workers at the enormous oppressive Amoskeag Mill in Manchester New Hampshire 1909. LIbrary of Congress. in Franklin NH, at least in boom times, there were Company picnics and baseball games and parades to compensate for the gruelling work in the mills.

1. This is the first time I have seen something like this on the Drouin records. Was the birth difficult?

2. This 1903 date is given on the US Federal Census, shown above and on Eugene Morrisette’s death certificate in 1937.

3, Alvina is listed in the 1930’s as a working as a finisher, which might mean sewing toes and heels into socks or applying chemicals and pressing the socks. Another sister, Antonia, joined a Catholic order back home, but moved to Ontario as she spoke good English. Another sister, Aurore, became a nun in Africa, much to her parents’ displeasure.

325,000 Quebecers left between 1860 and 1900. Just 100,000 between 1900 and 1910 with 40,000 returning. ­ This 2020 YouTube Video from Rhode Island Genealogy Society explains: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyWu46jbauk Country life was very hard for Quebeckers in the Victorian Age. The burgeoning New England textile industry proved most alluring to many farm families. As industry competition increased over the decades, some New England Textile Corporations actively sought out French Canadian workers who, because of their large families who could pool their income, could toil for less money and were less inclined to agitate. French Canadians were also valued for their excellent work ethic.

The Goddesses of Expo67

My mother-in-law’s Expo passport. My husband’s family didn’t go to Expo often; there was a summer marriage.

I remember 1967 as the best of year of my childhood. In the US, 1967 was the Summer of Love (flower-in-your-hair hippies) and of war (Vietnam draft dodgers) and of civil unrest (inner city riots) but in Canada it was our Centennial Year, the 100th anniversary of Confederation. For children across the nation it was an especially giddy year: teachers from coast-to-coast were teaching their charges how to sing Bobby Gimby’s exuberant CA-NA-DA song, “one little, two little, three Canadians. We love you. Now we are twenty million.”

For Montrealers like me, it was the summer of Expo67, our fabulous world’s fair, situated just a short bus and metro ride away on two man-made islands in the Saint Lawrence River.

I visited Expo 50 times, if memory serves. I sometimes went by myself and I was only 12 years old!

I could go whenever I pleased because I was in possession of a shiny red passport that cost a whole 17 dollars. With his passport you could go from pavilion to pavilion and get it stamped, just like travelling the world.

I no longer have the passport, but it was not lost. My passport was given away by my mother to a beautiful young African woman – and this is how it came about.

Mentewab (probably) at the coffee bar from a Youtube Video
(See notes 1)

A friend of my mother’s had gone through official channels offering to chaperone Expo hostesses from foreign countries. Two Ethiopian hostesses, Hanim and Mentewab, were suggested to her. My mother got into the act and the two girls soon regularly visited our Snowdon home.

Hanim was shy and wore a caftan and hijab. Mentewab was ‘wild’ and wore a halter top, micro-miniskirt and white go-go boots when not in her official costume.

I do not recall having any specific conversations with these young ladies, but I can still see in my mind’s eye their pretty faces as they sat so graceful and ‘grown-up’ on our brown corduroy living room couch, Mentewab so animated, Hanim so quiet.

These women seemed to exotic to me: the reporter in the Gazette had called them ‘goddesses’ after all.

Hostesses from Montreal Star Insert. The media focused a great deal on the attractive and accomplished hostesses of Expo, from Canada and beyond.

I doubt that they were as impressed with us and our dingy upper duplex apartment. These girls must have been from the elite classes to have been chosen to host at Expo.

As it happens, on May 2, I caught a glimpse of their leader, Haille Selassie, as he passed through the Expo crowd to polite applause, a small, very proud-looking man followed by a tiny little dog, Lulu the Chihuahua, whose short legs were working very hard to keep up with her master. My mother, who admired powerful men, was very excited. “The Lion of Judah” she sang out as he passed.

On cold rainy days at Expo I spent a great deal of time in the coffee bar at the Ethiopian Pavilion, a shiny red tent with lion cubs on guard, probably pestering Hanim and Mentewab big time.

And then, in mid-October, Expo was over. I guess the women visited us one more time because that is when my mother gave MY Expo passport away to one of the girls. Upon learning that Mentewab or Hanim didn’t have a passport of her own, she merely grabbed mine and said, “Take this one.” (At least, that is how I remember it.)

Sometimes I wonder if Mentewab and Hanim are still alive (why wouldn’t they be, they were hardly older than me) and whether one of them, living in Addis Ababa or Paris or New York City, occasionally opens a drawer crammed with Expo67 memorabilia and shows to her many grandchildren a shiny red passport belonging to a pimply, brown-haired Canadian girl called Dorothy Nixon – and wonders, in turn, where I am today. I’d like to think so.

A World of Education. No kidding. The copy here acknowledges that Canada is multi-cultural the visuals not so much.
Ethiopian Stamp that was really a stamp.
My husband may not have visited Expo much, but he did keep the newspapers from the opening.
  1. A video about the Ethiopian Pavilion with images of Hanim and Mentewab (I assume) is here.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQAbaRTki-g

Mother, Love and the A & P

Recipe cards from 1971.

Four Decker Fruit Tart

From pastry dough based on 3 cups flour, roll out four 10” rounds. Place on baking sheet, or backs of 9” cake tins. Fold under 1/2 inch around edges. Flute. Prick well. Bake in hot oven 475 degrees….

It’s been over 50 years since I’ve typed the above words in that exact order from a recipe for a gunky (but delish) 60’s confection, 51 years to be exact. Now, I’m doing it again, as an exercise in memory.

In 1971, when I was in 10th grade at high school, I helped my mother type out her favourite recipes onto file cards, many of which I still have – and treasure – today.

I found them again in 2009, in a hidden drawer in a Chinese cabinet, shortly before my mother’s passing.

My mother, a bilingual legal secretary, could type up a storm in both English and French and I was just learning to type, but she left me to perform the honours for some reason, hence all the typos and misspellings. 3 ripe bababas, lemong, seperate the eggs.

Today, half a century later, as I meditate on these yellowed, oil-stained, recipe cards and their deeper meaning, I realize that this may well have been the only sustained project my Mother and I ever worked on together.

My mother was a doer, not a teacher, and her only creative outlet (outside of coordinating her work outfits) came in the kitchen and at the bridge table. She didn’t have much patience, any patience for that matter, so she commandeered the kitchen, using me only to convert fractions as she doubled and tripled the recipes and to sift the mountains of flour for her classic cakes. I sometimes helped her stir the various batters with our little yellow Mixmaster with the motor that smelled of burning plastic as it heroically whizzed away. For this reason, I still can’t make a pie crust – even after watching my mother ply so many apple pies right in front of me, but who bakes any more, anyway?

My Aunt Flo, me and my brother and my mother at Old Orchard Beach 1962 ish. My nickname was “Stringbean” or “SkinnyHymer” so all that Cafe Bavarian (my fave dessert from the inside of a Carnation Milk label) didn’t hurt me.

My mother , Marie-Marthe Crepeau Nixon was a terrific cook, at least that is how I remember it.

But reading the recipes on these battle-scarred cards I realize these are mostly very simple back- of -the -magazine recipes, using products advertised within the pages like Fry’s Chocolate or Hunt’s tomato sauce and in the case of the above 4 Decker trifle-style dessert, Delmonte fruit cocktail.

I also realize, now, fifty years later, that I didn’t like some of these recipes. The chicken mole was too authentic using unsweetened chocolate. The tokay grape aspic or gelatin mould, so trendy at mid-century, well, what can I say. Yuk.

I sort of liked the hot tomales, except the sauce was too hot for my immature taste buds. All that tobasco.

But most of these recipes I remember as rib-tickling: a simple lasagna (you could use “real” swiss instead of mozzarella) that only had one herb, rosemary. It called for two teaspoons of olive oil, but I suspect my mother used Mazola. The beef stroganoff (another 60’s favourite) that called for one cup of white wine. My parents never had wine in the house, so I doubt my mom added that ingredient.

My mother’s go-to meals are not on the cards I still have: her fabulous Italian spaghetti that when cooled had at least an inch of fat on top and her equally hearty chili con carne, from which I would pick out all the mushrooms before it hit the table. (She fried the hamburger first for the chili. She put the raw beef into the simmering sauce for the spaghetti.) Her southern fried chicken put the Colonel to shame. It attracted the neighbourhood kids to a picnic on our back porch.

I even adored her calf’s liver and onions, ‘as delicious as steak’ she said, and it was.

My mother’s only heirloom recipe in her writing for turkey stuffy from her mom. A real cholesterol bomb. One pound of sausage meat and 1/2 pound of butter.

Yes, I remember my mother for being a fabulous cook, despite the fact she obviously didn’t come to her marriage at 30 armed with years of experience and a file folder filled with secret family recipes. She looked to Redbook and Ladies Home Journal for ideas, just like many other new ‘housewives’ of the era.

My mother was born in 1921, to middle-aged parents who, by that time, were very well off. She went to a fancy boarding school nearby, learning Greek and Latin but probably not domestic science. I doubt she lifted a finger when at home.

Her older sisters, unschooled and who who had known leaner times, were the ones who helped out at home. In her twenties, my mother lived with her widowed mom (famous for her fatty tortiere and savory baked beans) and two sisters on Oxford in the Notre Dame de Grace section of Montreal, one of whom, Cecile, is listed as ‘housekeeper’ on the Voting Register. My mother was working as a ‘stenographer’ for a movie distribution company down the street, RKO, so she likely helped support the family.

Yes, my mother was a great cook (I seem to remember) but one lousy home economist, but what could you expect from a “daddy’s girl” who, by her own admission, was always exceeding her allowance at boarding school.

If there was a more expensive way of making something, my mother would find it. She would buy Kraft dinner for the macaroni and discard the little aluminum packets of processed cheese product, adding her own fresh cheeses and herbs and spices. The metallic packets piled up 40 high in our pantry.

The A and P on Queen Mary and Earnscliffe, Snowdon. BANQ. In 1960 there was a bowling alley over top. My mother loved to bowl but I don’t remember every going there.

I recall 1964, when we would go grocery shopping at the A& P on Queen Mary at Earnscliffe. It was an old-fashioned (see dingy) store, opened 22 years before, with wooden floors covered in sawdust to soak up the slimy spillages; the pleasant aroma of their famed Eight O’clock coffee; grey display counters filled with 1960’s staple vegetables, like iceberg lettuce and broccoli, big baskets of juicy peaches, but only for a few weeks in late summer, and all the 20th century commercial brands that made America great.

My mother would fill to heaping two shopping carts with food. The cashier would often ask, “Are those BOTH yours?” I seem to recall the bill coming to a whopping 60 dollars. We were only a family of five. 1

Prices in 1962 in Quebec City from Le Soleil newspaper BANQ. My mother’s coffee was instant Maxwell House with Carnation Milk. I made a bazillion cups for her.

What made my mother’s food so tasty and so memorable? Was it the simple ingredients? Was it the fact that she never overcooked the high quality meats she purchased from Queen Mary Provisions, a specialty store? Was it the Hollandaise or white sauce that always topped the lightly steamed veggies we ate?

Maybe her meals were so satisfying because she had no fear of cholesterol and didn’t skimp on the seasoning and, truth be told, didn’t hesitate to add cascades of Accent to any soup or stew.

Or maybe, there’s another reason. Maybe her meals are so memorable because cooking for her family was the only positive way my mother, who was bright as hell, frustrated with her domestic life, and bipolar, expressed her love for us. Oh, yea. That last one. That’s clearly the reason I treasure these scruffy little yellow recipe cards from over 50 years ago.

  1. I did the research and according to Statistics Canada historical 60 dollars every two weeks was the average amount spent by families every two weeks in Canadian cities.

Can We Ever REALLY Know our Ancestors?

Moor Guide.

The Costumes of Yorkshire: George Walker, 1813. New York Public Library Online, Public Domain photo

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” writes L.P. Hartley at the very beginning of The Go-Between, a novel I read and loved in my 20’s.

As a woman who now likes to pen stories based on her family tree, this famous first line has new meaning for me. It makes me ask the question: Despite our best efforts, can we ever really know our more distant ancestors?

Sure, we can absorb with attention the family myths. We can dig out the dates of births, marriages and deaths. We can check out the newspaper record. We can look up legal documents and even research with scholarly precision the historical context of their -often- difficult lives.

But is that REALLY knowing them?

Or is the best way to know our ancestors through our own parents and grandparents, through their inherited behaviours and beliefs that we witnessed first-hand. I have three other ideas.

The Coast-to-Coast Walk (WIkipedia Share alike Pic John Carter

1. Visiting the ‘homeland’ can give you a feel for who your ancestors were.

There’s a well-known 182 mile coast-to-coast hike that goes from the soaring sandstone cliffs of St. Bee’s Head on the west coast of Cumbria to the charming storied fishing village of Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast in Yorkshire. Patching together my father’s Nixon/Forster family tree, I discovered he had ancestors; farmers, lead miners, grocers, servants; living just north and south of – and even directly on – this picturesque route.

This 182 mile ‘footpath’ traverses three national parks: The Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. It’s a walk that offers up isolated pebbled beaches and quaint historic villages; rugged wildernesses with hilltop cairns; flat easy patches with long sweeping vistas; medieval castles and ancient stone circles; serene valleys dotted with sheep; sturdy Roman roads and magical heather moorlands.

As it happens, I can take this hike anytime (on YouTube) and see with my own eyes pretty much what many of my ancestors saw with their own eyes.

My ancestors had good eyes, I bet, for long distance gazing. Strong legs, too. And leathery skin beaten up by the cold wet winds of the moors. They probably were skinny and didn’t worry about cholesterol as they downed their breakfasts of heavy black rye bread and fatty bacon. Come to think of it, that description fits my ­father pretty well. His exceptional long distance eye-sight and strong legs made him a top athlete in the 1930’s at this boarding school in St. Bees. He was still participating in cross-country ski marathons in Quebec in the 1980s.1

Woman making oatcakes on a Yorkshire farm

2. You can always look to old family recipes to teach yourself something essential about your antecedents.

In my 1960’s Montreal home, on Saturdays when we ate roast beef, I was in charge of making the Yorkshire pudding, and I do believe that it was my father who showed me how to make the batter and take fat drippings from the roast and spoon it into the bottom of the muffin tins.

Still, it was my French Canadian mother who was in charge of the kitchen and her roast was ‘blue’ -practically mooing on the plate a la francaise. My father ate only the outside over-cooked part.

Apart from frying our POM (Pride of Montreal) white bread slices in bacon fat (ICK!) and threatening to feed us smoked herring (double ICK) my British pater (who was born in Malaya, after all) didn’t seem to know much about his native Yorkshire foods. He never mentioned the oatcakes that were a staple of the poor; or the cheese pies eaten on various festive occasions or the special mutton pie made with candied fruit in a rich crust served with fresh fried trout and curd cheesecakes, washed down with ‘home-made’ whisky served as a reward at the end of sheep-shearing season.

As a child of the Raj, my father more often spoke with fond nostalgia of the Mulligatawny soup (curried chicken with apples) he ate on his father’s Selangor Rubber Estate.

Still, somehow, more through his dislikes rather than his preferences, I learned that (generally-speaking) eating plain hearty food was in his North of England blood.

Midsummer Eve in Yorkshire – a time when witches and fairies come out to play with the humans.

3. Consulting out-of-print genealogy books can give you an insider’s knowledge about the people who came before.

I stumbled upon a terrific little volume online: Rambles Through the North Yorkshire Dales. Published 1913 on archive.org. The book even has a chapter on the Yorkshire character. Bingo!

The Yorkshireman, says the author, a native, is notorious for being tight-fisted. “He loves to get the best of a bargain not only for business purposes but as sport.” He is suspicious of strangers, especially of the patronizing upper-crust kind. He is “reticent and hard on the outside with a queer sense of independence and a real and natural sense of humour.”

So right! My father would drive ten miles to save ten cents on gasoline. He could deconstruct a person’s character, a television show, a work of art with one well-chosen (often withering) word. He didn’t follow the current fashion – and mocked us when we wanted to. He was amused by the minutia of everyday life, although I seldom got his subtle jokes.

Yorkshiremen says the book are filled with ‘a fierce romanticism, a strong religious fervour.’ Still, people from the North of England were once very superstitious. These people believed or half-believed in dragons and water sprites, fairies and ‘boggles’ or imps who were often the ghosts of nasty feudal landlords long dead.

Many of the local traditions around holy wells and sacred fires, etc. stem back to pre-Christian times. and are still carried out in various and sundry small towns.

Does this fit my father? No, not at all. My father, educated in mathematics at Oxford, was a pragmatist. Still, he seemed to actually take delight in reading fairy tales to me.

Peter Nixon and Marie Marthe Crepeau

And last but not least, my North of England ancestors spoke funny. Real funny. According to my mother, my father lost his English accent the day he arrived in Canada.

I learned about the Yorkshire dialect by watching the original All Creatures Great and Small television series based on the life of Alf Wight or James Herriot, a veterinarian, in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. In that show, locals were used to play the farmers and I often needed subtitles to understand them!

No, my Yorkshire father never said things like, “Ere, wot’s f’r us tea Mutha” as in “Mother, what are we having for dinner?”

M’of t’sop, d’yawanowt?

I’m going to the shop? Do you want me to get anything?

Put t’wood int ‘ole. Close the door. (Put the wood in the hole)

Sit this sen Darn as in Sit down.3

but I suspect his grandfather, Robert Nixon, who at 67 in 1911 was still working as a delver in the local Rievaulx quarry certainly did.

Rievaulx Castle by Turner: There is no shortage of paintings of the North of England, from Victorian Era and beyond, but these paintings seldom depict working people. The few I could find online were not Creative Commons. Indeed, Her Majesty the Queen has a nice one of poor fisher folk in her collection.
My father’s ancient genes according to mytrueancestry.com. Yes, Danish and Norwegian Viking, Saxon, Visigoth, Merovingian. The history of Yorkshire indicates this is all pretty on spot. He has lot of Celt too. And some deep Illyrian (Croatia). Maybe this has something to do with Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman Legions (mercenaries) who manned the outpost. Apparently, Northern English is riddled with Viking words.
  1. Even better, his younger brother, Michael Nixon, living in Keswick right on the hiking path, was awarded the MBE for performing mountain top search and rescue in the mountains of the Lake Country well into his 80s! https://keswickmrt.org.uk/mike-nixon-mbe-1928-2018/)
  2. I never met Michael. I don’t think my father knew him at all, either.
  3. My father very very often made fun of the Canadian ‘aboot’ for ‘about.’ From what I can see, this ‘aboot’ is right outta Yorkshire so I have to wonder if there was something subconscious going on here: if years before at prep school he had had the ‘aboot’ shamed out of him. My grandmother spoke in the Queen’s English. She was from County Durham but educated at a Quaker School. I know because I have a tape of her speaking about British Malaya from Cambridge University archives. It is not in the public domain so I can’t link it here. https://imfromyorkshire.uk.com/yorkshire-sayings. Here’s a link to BBC Sounds discussion of English spoken in Helmsley North Yorkshire, the home of the Nixons. https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/BBC-Voices/021M-C1190X0035XX-0301V0

When History and Genealogy Come Together

Genealogy is usually of little interest to children probably because their parents already seem from the Dark Ages and their grandparents from the times when Tyrannosaurus Rex tramped the planet.

It was the same thing for me way back in the 1960’s – except for the one day when I was about twelve years old. My mother came home all excited with some important news passed on to her by a cousin who had researched the Crepeau family tree.

My mom’s father, Jules Crepeau of Montreal, was descended from one Abraham Martin dit L’Ecossais, a pioneering (boat) pilot and land-owner in New France. My French Canadian mom found this fact highly entertaining. “I am descended from a Scotsman,” she told me, laughing. “What a joke.”

I remember this episode only because of another part of the story. Apparently, this Abraham Martin fellow owned the Plains of Abraham. THOSE Plains of Abraham. Now that I could sink my tweenage incisors into.

You see, I was learning about Canadian history in school. Our text was Canada Then and Now, a bright green text with a very iconographic cover pic.

From this textbook, I was learning for the first time how the French and British were always at war with each other, way back then, in Europe and in North America. In North America, the fought over control of the lucrative fur trade and, apparently, it all came to a head one morning on the 1th of September, 1759 when a British general named Samuel Wolfe, after being rebuffed a few times by the superior French forces, led a cagey attack on the French General named Louis Joseph Marquis de Montcalm on the cliffs of Quebec City, cutting off his supplies and defeating his superior forces. This was all part of something called The Seven Years War.

All night long kept quietly landing the men on Wolfe’s cove. By morning, 5000 British soldiers were drawn up ready on the Plains of Abraham. The French had avoided battle, believing they were safe because they had more men than the British and plenty of supplies. They knew the British wold have to withdraw before freeze up. But now tht the British had landed above the town and cut off supplies from Quebec. The time had come for battle.

The textbook instructed us Canadian children, in subtle terms, to take no especial pride in this seminal event:

Wolfe and Montcalm were great generals and gallant men. Today, on the Plains outside of Quebec, a monument stands to honor them both. Wolfe’s name is on one side, Montcalm’s on the other. There is a Latin inscription that says, “Valour gave them a common death. History a common fame and posterity a common memorial.”

Illustration from Canada Then and Now. Storming the Plains of Abraham

Today, I am much older and predictably I am into genealogy. I have written many many family stories from both sides of my tree.

My mother’s French Canadian side was easy-peasy to patch together thanks to all those fabulous Catholic church records on Drouin available. And yes, if the Mons Origins website information is correct, my mom was indeed descended from this Abraham Martin.

Should I write about this pioneer ancestor? I have long wondered.

Truth be told, I would very much like to puzzle out the story of my earlier French Canadian ancestors, as Tracey Arial and Claire Lindle have done so brilliantly on this blog. I’d like to discover exciting new tidbits of information about my ancestors to add to the historical record (perhaps using some of the stellar resources catalogued on Genealogy Ensemble by Jacques Gagne) but it all seems so difficult, so labour intensive and so hard on the eyes.

In the past, I have explored the lives of Les Filles de Roi – because I am particularly interested in the lives of women ancestors – only to find there doesn’t exist much detailed information about these pioneering females from Normandy and Ile de Paris. It seems no one bothered to document the day-to-day lives or unique personal stories of these ‘mothers of millions’ back then– either in Europe or New France.

When it comes to this Abraham Martin dit L’Ecossais character, it would be a real waste of time to try to find a new angle or to write something fresh about him. There are already reams and reams (or pixels and pixels) of information written about him. It appears that Abraham Martin dit L’Ecossais is one of the most famous French Canadian pioneers and a father to millions of North Americans, including Madonna and Justin Bieber – and, ah, little ole me.

Long story short: He married Marguerite Langlois. Had 14 children. I am descended through Vitaline Forget-Despatie, my mother’s father’s mother.

The kicker to this non-story of mine: Abraham wasn’t necessarily Scottish. He could have invented the epithet to avoid criminal prosecution or he was a war deserter. His name might have generated from the fact that he had visited Scotland many times in his youth.*1

Now, lately I have dug out one very interesting fact about my mom’s French Canadian ancestors on her dad’s side, one she didn’t know about. My mother always told me that the name Crepeau meant “curly haired one.” She had very very curly hair herself, as did her father. I have no idea how long she had known this fact or who originally informed her.

If that same cousin, back in 1967, had provided her with a paper genealogy, my mother would have noticed that the original Crepeaus, going back six to eight generations, were Crespeaus, from Poitou Charent. I have recently learned that the name Crespeau almost certainly came from Crespo, a very Spanish name – and not only that a Sephardic Jewish name.

I found this tidbit on sephardim.com:

“The name Crespo has been identified by the Holy Office of the Church of Spain as a Sephardic Jewish surname.”

How fascinating.

So, it seems, even genealogically-timid I can dig out an interesting fact or two about a distant French Canadian ancestor. Maybe I should keep trying.

1. Even if Abraham Martin wasn’t born to the Tartan, he likely had English, Scottish and even Viking dna. Normandy, Normans, North men, Norsemen. Ancestry gives most of my many many French Canadian cousins a little bit of Norwegian ethnicity. I have a very vague 0-8 percent.

Wouldn’t it be funny if my mom were related to Eric the Red, chronicled in the second chapter of Canadian Then and Now, after the first chapter on “Indians” and “Eskimos.”

If you believe mytrueancestry.com, my husband, whose Mom comes from Isle of Lewis Scots, apparently is connected genetically to Eric’s clan. How very romantic! If I didn’t love him before, I’d have to love him now!

2. I checked the Y dna lists online at Family Tree and someone is trying to see if French Canadians have Semitic genes. There are very few members. On a regular French from France Y dna site I can see that some French Canadians have J M172, an Anatolian line, often thought of as the Greek Diaspora. Cote and Leger are the names that crop up. There are no Crespos, Crespeau’s or Crepeaus.

My grandfather’s brilliant city hall career in four scandals – part 3

The Coderre Police Corruption Inquiry/Laurier Palace Fire Scandal

The Crepeaus in Atlantic City probably 1927. Working vacation?

If you are a Quebecker of a certain age, it is possible that as a child you never went to the movies. Everyone under sixteen years of age in this Canadian province was banned from attending the motion pictures even in the company of an adult from 1927 until 1962 *1

This is because of the tragic Laurier Palace movie house fire in January 1927 where seventy eight children perished in a crush at the downstairs doors, doors that only opened inwardly.

These 78 children were among a larger group of working class kids crowded into the upper balcony of the ramshackle Laurier Palace watching a Western on a Sunday afternoon.

A slew of high-profile inquests and hearings followed the tragedy. My grandfather, Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, was the first to testify at both the initial coroner’s inquest and subsequent hearings. It is unclear what exactly happened in the balcony as only children came forward to testify. All seven or so adults seated there seemed to disappear into the ether. There was talk of two men purposely closing the doors on the desperate kids. At least one older boy had time to go up and down the stairs a few times before the smoke got dangerous. The origin of the fire was never discovered. *2

Most parents, afraid of legal reprisals, testified that they thought their children were at church that afternoon. But parents of the era could hardly be blamed for allowing their children to attend the movies by themselves– against the by-laws. Many of their male children were already out in the workforce earning their own discretionary income and many of their young daughters were already ‘little mothers’ in charge of even younger siblings. With the traffic chaos on the streets in 1927, the movie house probably seemed like a relatively safe place for their children.*3

Just as special ‘kiddie matinees’ were taking off in the US (late 20’s early 30’s) Quebec banned all children from going to the cinema – for 4 decades. Crazy!

On January 10, 1927, the day after the Laurier Palace Fire, the front page of Le Devoir newspaper ran two related stories side-by-side. One was a dry report where my grandfather Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, admitted that the Laurier Palace Theatre had been operating without a license.

“This will all be explained at the Coroner’s Inquest,” he said.

The second story was a shocking side-bar rehashing testimony from a two year old inquiry into police corruption, testimony that also mentioned my grandfather.

“Our readers will no doubt be interested in re-reading these extracts from testimony at the 1924 Coderre Inquiry into Police Malfeasance and Corruption, 4 that bear on motion picture theatre attendance.”

The side-bar included bits and pieces of testimony given in December, 1924 at this hearing by a certain Constable C.T. in the ‘special services’ division of the Montreal Police Department. The cop railed against City Hall. He was angry because members of the Executive Committee, he said, as well as my grandfather, repeatedly forced the police to cancel citations against motion picture houses that allowed children into the shows, unattended.

Constable CT gave specifics, naming each of the movies houses (the Ouimetoscope!) and the dates when citations were cancelled. He said, “One of these moments there’s going to be a catastrophe that will wake up the authorities.” Le Devoir put that quote in all caps.*5

Despite this sensational after-the-fact finger-pointing at a sensitive time by an otherwise respectable publication, no one took the bait. My grandfather Jules was once again called to testify at the Coroner’s Inquest as well as the other inquiries into the fatal fire but was never asked about Constable CT’s earlier accusations.

Indeed, a while later, when the Taschereau Government was deliberating whether to ban all Sunday showings in Quebec, my grandfather testified once again. He even brought in Ernest Cousins, Vice President of United Amusements, Montreal’s largest movie chain, to talk about the importance of Sunday showings to the movie distribution industry.*6

Isadore Crepeau, my grandfather’s brother, who just happened to be another Vice-President of United Amusements, was not called in to testify at this time, nor was my grandfather’s family connection to United Amusements ever mentioned.*7

So, why wasn’t my grandfather pilloried back in 1927, when passions over the tragedy were at a high boil, for these two year old allegations of interference with the policemen who patrolled motion picture houses (and who, btw, regularly accepted free tickets for their kids.)

Well, the truth is, Constable CT’s testimony was hardly gold-standard. Under cross-examination a day later, the cop admitted rather glibly to having lent the Chief of Police large sums of money at different times, for reasons he refused to elaborate on. He also admitted to depositing more than five thousand dollars into his five bank accounts over a short period of time. “Rents and winnings on horses” he said.

Constable CT was just another corrupt cop, put on the stand specifically to threaten my grandfather by bringing up, out-of-the-blue, the fairly benign subject of children and the motion pictures, when the Coderre Inquiry was mounted to deal with much more dire and dark issues: police involvement in prostitution of women and girls, drug rings and organized crime and illegal booze smuggling in the era of American prohibition.

Taken in that light, Constable CT’s statement “One day there’s going to be a catastrophe” uttered in December 1924, a full two years before the Laurier Palace fire, could be construed as a threat.

My grandfather, at the time, certainly felt threatened. He had Constable CT fired the very next day.

“Who is this Jules Crepeau who can tell the Chief of Police what to do?” asked Juge Coderre in his summary report in March 1925. As if he didn’t know.8

Three years later, in September, 1930, as explained in Part Two of this series, Mayor Camillien Houde was speechifying at the City Hall meeting where the aldermen debated whether or not to accept my grandfather’s coerced letter of resignation.

“The people want revenge,” Houde said. “They want revenge for the Montreal Water and Power Purchase (the purported reason for wanting my grandfather out) and for the Laurier Palace Fire.”

This was a sneak attack of some sort because never before had the Laurier Palace Fire been brought up as a reason to oust my grandfather from his lofty post at City Hall, at least not in any news clipping I have read.

With all the Houdist’s voting against him, my grandfather was, indeed, forced to resign his post of Director of City Services in September, 1930.

At the time, Grandpapa Jules negotiated a huge life pension that would make him the second highest paid employee at City Hall, without working. Seven years later, during the Great Depression, his huge pension would be rescinded by the City.

Two weeks after that, Jules was hit by a car near his home in Notre Dame de Grace, a car driven by an off-duty police officer. I guess my grandpapa threatened someone with a long reach.

He would die a year later of complications.

As it happens, Le Devoir was the only Montreal newspaper to give Jules a lengthy front page obituary. They even called out the other Montreal papers on this point.

The other day a noted public servant was put in the ground. The newspapers only published laconic biographical notes about him that don’t give a just idea of the role he played in municipal politics.”

The obituary didn’t mention the suspicious nature of my grandfather’s death, but it did allude, rather kindly, to the many scandals in his career:

He was too passionate not to occasionally take sides between two rivals, often creating his own enemies. Indeed, he received some knocks, some devastating knocks, but we must say upon his memory, that none of these accusations stuck.

Read the entire obit here.

I have added this on February, 14, 2022. The Montreal Star came online and I was able to read their point of view. They liked him, that’s for sure. Upon his forced retirement they wrote:

“His rise to the position he just vacated was accomplished by merit. A thorough knowledge of the whole involved process of civic administration, of civic problems and the various services, combined with a ready tact, a suave manner, and a keen intellect, which enabled him to penetrate to the root of any problem without delay and which made it very difficult for anyone to mislead him.”

Also, I reread the testimony of Constable CT during the Coderre hearing. Of course, different newspapers covered these political stories differently. I was surprised to see that in his testimony Constable CT claimed that Jules cancelled citations against movie houses owned by United Amusements. It was stated at the hearing that ‘no civic employee had any connection to the company.” LOL. My grandfather’s brother was VP.

Notes:

  1. The city by-laws forbade children to attend movies unless in the company of an adult, not because of a fear of fire-traps but for a fear of the morality of pre-code Hollywood. Indeed, exceptions could be made for films vetted by the Censor. A year later, a similar fire happened in a motion picture house in Scotland – also caused by a crush at doors that opened inwards. The only change that came of that was a law forbidding such doors in motion picture houses. But, in Quebec, everything becomes political. A parade of Montreal citizenry testified in the sad affair: the theatre owners (who were eventually exonerated) and employees and the firemen and the victims’ parents; then followed moguls in the theatre business, small independent theatre owners, union activists, more parents and more firemen, also educators and church officials and representatives of various community groups – anyone with a stake and an opinion – showed up to testify . Fire safety became a mere side issue: it was all about the morality of the motion pictures. The government ended up banning children from all showings, in return for allowing the controversial Sundays showings for adults. (Children could not vote, but their parents could.) I personally think the new “Talkies” coming in right then in 1927 had something to do with the decision. They were English talkies after all. Despite all this, Quebec children over the decades often evaded the rules by dressing up and acting like adults. There were also special children’s showings at various theatres over the years.

2. “It must have been a cigarette.” Most movie house fires of the time started in the projection booth. This wasn’t the case here, so they took a wild guess. A fire station was across the street, but firefighters could do nothing upon arrival to save the children.

3. 1927 was a pivotal year in traffic safety in North America. The horse and wagon era was literally colliding with the era of the automobile – and their were no road rules yet. The same edition of the Montreal Gazette that covers the Laurier Palace Fire has a story of a toddler being run over in front of her house. This was a daily occurrence in North American cities at the time.

4. The Coderre Inquiry into Police Corruption and Malfeasance was launched after a record-breaking Brinks robbery in the Hochelaga district where it discovered that policemen were involved, but it had long roots back to WWI and prostitution around the Montreal Barracks. A Committee of Sixteen mostly Protestant groups organized an all-court press on Montreal City Hall in 1921, to protect the sad girls working in prostitution in the city after a prominent doctor gave a speech to the elite members of Canadian Club. They focused on the Baghdad Cafe, a sleazy dive serving US tourists located across the street from the ritzy Mount Royal Hotel, Tony Frank, Montreal’s leading mobster and top drug dealer was also implicated in the Brinks robbery. He thought he had the perfect alibi, but he and his henchmen were quickly hanged on circumstantial evidence. Judge Coderre, a religious conservative, used the Inquiry as his bully-pulpit. “Vice spreads its tentacles into every aspect of Montreal life, ” he wrote in his final report. He made many recommendations, all of which were ignored.

New York Times article: “300 to 600 houses of vice in Montreal, many owned by respectable women who live in good districts and seldom visit the brothels except to do administration.”

5. The Montreal Gazette’s quote at the time was “One day there’s going to be a catastrophe and if a fire breaks out one of these days no one will be able to get out.” These may or may not be the same quote. Unfortunately, the newspapers used creative license when transcribing the testimony and no full 10,000 page transcript of the Coderre Inquiry still exists, although Montreal City Hall has some original documents. https://www.archivesquebec.com/montrealp045.html . I visited there a few years ago and was shown a transcript on pdf that had been prepared for JAAA Brodeur and the Executive Committee. It was edited down and did not include Constable CT’s ‘prescient’ quote. From what I read, it appears that Constable CT brought up the incriminating evidence against my grandfather without even being asked. He changed the subject himself in mid interview. This transcript did contain a vivid account of a visit to a house of prostitution made by an undercover American. All he had to do was to ask the cabby and he was guided to this brothel (that was said to be under the protection of the police) where a dozen of drug-addled girls wearing ‘handkerchiefs’ were displayed before him.

6. The UA chain did not have children as customers, said Cousins, but Sunday was the company’s biggest day at the box office for adults. If Sunday showings were cancelled, United Amusements would have to close down their entire operation…. United Amusements was a movie distribution chain founded by Greek immigrant George Ganetakos during the WWI years.. He started out small, showing ‘flickers’ on the wall o f his uncle’s ice cream shop, then took on Ernest Cousins (an ice cream man) and my great uncle Isadore Crepeau when he expanded. Eventually his company became part of Famous Players. United Amusements built many of the gorgeous Montreal movie palaces of the day. Greeks were big in the movie biz as they were entrepreneurial by nature and this new movie revolution presented a big opportunity for them. In his testimony, as reported in the Montreal Gazette, Constable CT accused Greeks of corralling children into the movies. The Laurier Palace was owned by Canadians of Syrian origin, a group often back then conflated with Greeks. On the morning after the fire, as reported in Le Devoir, George Ganetakos, using the name George Nicholas, set up an emergency fund for the victims.

7. My Mom’s Uncle Isadore was a glass manufacturer/insurance agent whose elegant stained-glass window graced the Rialto Theatre on Park Avenue for many years. It’s still there – in what is now an entertainment venue. In 1933, Isadore ‘fell’ out of his office window, seven floors up, and met his death. The police deemed it an accident relating a ridiculous story and citing unnamed witnesses. Isadore was very likely hired by Ganetakos because of his connection to my grandfather. A survey of movie industry magazines, like Box Office, reveals that my grandfather’s name came up much more often than Isadore’s.

8. Juge Coderre and his wife often attended City Hall events like the soiree for the Royal Princes held in August 1927.

My grandfather’s brilliant city hall Career in Four Scandals: Part 2.

Flying Dentures and the Terrible Typhus: The Montreal Water and Power Scandal of 1927

Jules Crepeau, second from right seated on a fishing trip with Aldermen and Mayor Mederic Martin. He looks deadly bored doesn’t he? Jules Crepeau lived to work.

On September 29, 1930, in a memorable public meeting of the Montreal City Council filled with oratorical fireworks, twenty-nine aldermen debated whether my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, should be allowed to ‘resign’ from his lofty post of Director of City Services at City Hall. It was an especially loud and rowdy session of Council, with observers in the gallery booing Mayor Houde, but, apparently, ‘a religious hush’ came over the hall when Etienne Gauthier, Chief City Clerk, read out my grandpapa’s coerced letter of resignation.

This was the most important debate ever held at City Hall, cried out the left wing Liberal newspaper Le Canada the next day. The City Hall reporter from the Montreal Gazette had unusual fun with the story: “It was a hot session. A dozen usually placid aldermen lost their tempers and their ruddy complexions paled in anger. The mayor lost the main span of this false teeth in the middle of a sentence, caught them on the fly and pocketed them nonchalantly. But nobody lost his voice. His Worship and Ald. Schubert of St. Louis ward put on the main bout, and the alderman asked Ald. Bruno Charbonneau, the pro-mayor in the chair, to have the mayor expelled from the Council Chamber for bad behavior.”1

______________________________________________________________________________

Jules Crepeau’s third and fourth scandals overlap in the late 1920’s, so I am starting with the least unsettling of the two: The Montreal Water and Power controversy where the City purchased a much-needed privately-owned water utility based in a separate city, Westmount, for 14 million dollars.

Gazette headline

This purchase in 1927 was fairly benign business-as-usual except in the eyes of those Anglo businessmen who despised monopolies. Indeed, with the support of Hugh Graham (Lord Althostan) Camillien Houde used this non-scandal in 1928 to propel himself right onto the Montreal Mayor’s throne where he would remain, on and off, for decades – famously opposing the draft in WWII and even going to jail for it.

In 1930, Mayor Houde invoked this same Water and Power ‘scandal’ to force my grandfather Jules Crepeau, a 42 year veteran of City Hall, to resign his all-seeing post of Director of City Services, just two years after Council had praised him to the hilt on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his tenure at City Hall.

Like my grandfather’s other scandals that I am writing about in this series, The Montreal Water and Power Purchase is a bit difficult to unpack, but let me try.

The Purchase was all about contagion, especially typhoid epidemics in 1904, 1909 and 1927 respectively. A key ethical question loomed over the purchase: whether municipal utilities existed to promote big business and speculation or to serve the better interests of the citizens of urban areas, rich and poor, or both.

In 1904, the typhus bug had likely originated in the pipes of Westmount’s deceptively named Montreal Water and Power Company, tainting the unfiltered water in this tony suburb and killing 30. But s**t famously flows downstream and three times the number of citizens were killed in the working class town of St. Henri.

Assess to potable water had long been a problem in St Henri, a low-lying ‘burb that flooded every spring. That town also housed a number of abattoirs and tanneries mucking up the natural water supply. In 1910, the infant mortality rate in St. Henri was world class.

The beleaguered citizens of St Henri had to pay two water taxes, one to the Company and one to the municipality. Most people couldn’t afford it.

Thus St Henri was forced to pay the water tax for many of its poorer citizens. At the turn of the 20th century, this burden proved too much and, in 1906, St Henri was absorbed into the City of Montreal.*2.

From then on it was understood that the City of Montreal would have to purchase the waterworks from its private owners– it was just a matter of time. Between 1917 and 1926, a succession of bills were passed in the Quebec Legislature making way for the City to purchase Montreal Water and Power. Meanwhile, Montreal Water and Power continued to be ‘a thorn in the side of the city.’ 9

And when the purchase was finally approved by Council on February 14, 1927, the timing was most suspicious – or auspicious, depending on the point of view.

It seems the City Council signed off on the purchase shortly after Senator Norman Webster purchased the company stock in parcels between the spring and autumn of 1926 from the Hanson Brothers, through a family trust located in New York State. Webster paid only nine million, five hundred thousand dollars for the company. The city taxpayers were out four and a half million.

Apparently, the Montreal Star and Standard (owned by Hugh Graham until 1925) were the only English newspapers that condemned the purchase outright. The Council either acted too hastily, they said, or there were corrupt motives involved.

Surprisingly, no one mentioned the typhoid epidemic, taking hold right then in February, 1927, as a very good reason for Council to rush to purchase Montreal Water and Power, considering the events of 1904. I guess no one wanted to frighten away those monied American tourists who were flocking to Montreal for a boozy good time. 4

The Crepeaus visiting Atlantic City in 1927 or 28 judging from my mother’s size. Hmm…Working vacation? Atlantic City had no prohibition. You could probably cut the tension at home with a knife, considering what Jules was going through back then. My grandmaman had her own altar at home and kept a house full of priests. Was she super religious or was she afraid of something?

Alderman Mercure soon mounted a libel suit against the Montreal Standard on behalf of Council, so all people in question had to publicly testify.

On the stand Norman Webster was positively cocky. Yes, he owned most of the shares in the family trust. Maybe he had been at the Quebec legislature in early 1926 when the bill was passed giving Montreal the go-ahead to purchase Montreal Water and Power, but he knew nothing about it. He was there on other business, Presbyterian Church Union. No, he hadn’t ever intended to quickly flip the company to the City, at least not until the City Council approached him.

The Court ruled that the controversial purchase was legal and above-board: that’s what businessmen do, speculate. Montreal Water and Power was created for no other reason than to be purchased for a profit, in the future, said the Court. It was the responsibility of the City’s Executive Committee of aldermen, led by “Montreal’s Napoleon” JAAA Brodeur to have stopped the Webster purchase were it, indeed, such a bad deal for citizens. Brodeur (who died but a few months later) had testified that he knew about Webster’s prior purchase but he still thought the deal a good one.

La Presse pic of huge reception for UK PM Baldwin August 2, 1927. My grandfather, along with Alderman Mercure and Mayor Mederic Martin were among the copious head table guests, which included Norman Webster and Sir Hugh Graham. The Royal Princes were also in town to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Confederation. David and his brother were out golfing at a public event this lunch hour but they had attended a ceremony at City Hall that morning, an event organized by my grandfather’s office.

How does my poor grandpapa fit into all this? Well, Houde claimed that as Director of City Services it was his job to warn all the aldermen against the deal.

My grandfather defended himself in the papers by saying that he did not even attend the council meeting at City Hall where the aldermen voted to seal the purchase, so how could he have warned anyone? He only learned about the purchase the next day, he claimed.

It is a bit weird that he did not attend that Council meeting, since that was one of his many, many tasks. Was it a shady session? Maybe. Did my grandfather know about it? Probably.8

During the 1928 election campaign, Camillien Houde called out as corrupt the late Mr. Brodeur and a certain name-left-unspoken “everybody knows who he is” Minister at Quebec.

Houde won the April 2 election handily, winning over voters in English wards specifically on the W and P issue, or so said the Montreal Gazette, and the very next day a report was commissioned on all aspects of the Montreal Water and Power purchase. A board of arbitration put the price at fourteen million and Mayor Houde would go on to ratify the purchase. All in all, the Montreal Water and Power purchase was a very good thing for the city.

Still, Houde used the Water and Power purchase to bounce my grandfather two years later, saying the electorate had given him the mandate to do so back in 1928.

My grandfather wrote up a short letter of resignation on September 22, 1930 but he said in the newspapers that it was up to Council whether or not to accept it. Thus came about that rowdy debate at City Hall on September 29th, recounted almost word-for-word in most of the Montreal newspapers, except in the Montreal Star, where the news report was kept short and simple.1

Le Canada suggested that my grandfather had become ‘an embarrassment’ to Houde because he knew too much about the new administration. This was highly probable. Before acquiescing to Houde’s demand, my grandfather negotiated an enormous severance payout and life pension which one might guess was in return for his future silence. And the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s untimely death in 1938 suggests the same thing.*7

In the end, on that cool autumn evening in late September, twenty-two aldermen – all Houdists – voted to accept my grandfather’s resignation and seven voted not to. My grandfather would retire and still be the second highest paid person at City Hall.

During that fateful council session Alderman Trepanier, my grandfather’s long-time ally, argued passionately on his behalf – claiming that Mayor Houde had his aldermen ‘by the throat.’ He was forced to retract that statement, replacing it with something less aggressive, “The aldermen are pirouetting to Houde’s every demand,” he said.

Houde was undeterred. “The people want revenge for the Montreal Water and Power Scandal and they want revenge for the Laurier Palace Fire,” he boomed, spitting out his lower plate.

And so we get to my grandfather’s fourth, most meandering – and most murky – career scandal at Montreal City Hall in the 1920’s, the Laurier Palace Fire/Coderre Police Corruption Scandal. This is where my grandfather’s story starts to look like the convoluted plot for a season of Line of Fire. To be continued in Part 3.

David, the Royal Prince, with Mayor Mederic Martin on the morning of their visit. The charismatic prince sorely disappointed his female fans a few hours later by rushing to the golf game in Laval des Rapides incognito instead of taking an open car on a parade route. Still, many privileged guests got to follow the princes on their round.

1. Read the entire Gazette report here: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=Fr8DH2VBP9sC&dat=19300930&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

Le Canada, published in league with the Liberal Party of Canada, called the debate at the council session, the most important ever held at City Hall. They also said ‘there was a religious silence in the room” as my grandfather’s resignation letter was read out..

The Montreal Star story, of which I have a paper clipping, was much more restrained, featuring classic reporting that summarized the situation and said ‘lot’s more happened.’ It mentioned the flying teeth, though.

2.Lord, Kathleen. “Days and Nights: Class, gender and on Notre Dame Street in St. Henri, 1875-1905. McGill Thesis 2000.

3.This according to Fong’s book on McConnell and Wikipedia FR on Houde. The Star’s archives aren’t online anywhere. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camillien_Houde

4.The epidemic was taking hold probably right around then. By March the numbers were making the newspapers. There would eventually be 5,000 cases and 533 deaths. Americans sent up their health experts to locate the cause – eventually found to be milk not water. With no prohibition in Montreal in 1927, the city was a tourist haven for Americans looking for a good time. That’s probably why Council didn’t bring up the epidemic in their defence. (My opinion only.) Brodeur later denied there was any typhoid epidemic at all. “Just a few cases.”

5. In 1927, L’Autorite Magazine, among other revues, called my grandfather an innocent pawn of Chairman Brodeur, during the inquiry into the Laurier Palace Fire in 1927. In this particular case, I suspect they got it wrong. See my next post. They also claimed Houde kept Jules on at first because he needed his knowledge.

6. Le Canada was a very modern-looking newspaper with lots of ads and a ladies and sports page. (See BANQ for more info.) It was a newspaper published in league with the Liberal Party of Canada, and contained many scathing articles and editorials about the ‘firing’. They refused to call it a resignation. Basically, they said the new Houde administration was corrupt, already breaking laws at all levels of government, putting hardworking fathers out of their city jobs and replacing them with their own. (The Depression was starting and unemployment was rampant in Montreal. Le Canada contested Houde’s claim that the people wanted Jules out over the Montreal Water and Power deal, since these same people, they said, had re-elected most of the alderman who voted for the deal in 1928. (I’m not sure if this is true.) They said my grandfather was gotten rid of cause ‘he knew too much and maybe he had become….embarrassing.’ Probably true. When City Hall contested the Pension in 1930 /1931, there were snippets in newspapers here and there that my grandfather might run for municipal office, even as Mayor. Did he really want to run for Mayor? Not quite his style. The average Joe on the street didn’t know his name, *unless they read the tabloids in 1914. I think these postings were little threats. “Make sure I get the pension, or…” Le Devoir did not think it right that my grandfather was turfed out, “ He will be a hard man to replace: no one knows like he does how to keep the wheels of municipal government running smoothly,” but they laughed at the idea that the Houde administration was more corrupt than the previous administration ‘which was well known to be run by liberals.’ They also claimed at the time that my grandfather managed to keep the scandal over the Water and Power sale at arm’s length – at the time, anyway. They suggested that all his scandals, including the one in 1914 over the bribery, only served to enhance his reputation at City Hall.

To get his pension the city charter had to be amended at Quebec..

7. My grandfather finally won the court case and got his pension (and retroactive payments) in 1931. In 1937, under financial pressure during the Great Depression, the city rescinded my grandfather’s pension. (Thank you Christian Gravenor for digging out that info.) .Just two weeks later, Jules would be hit by a car near his home in NDG, a car driven by an off-duty policemen, get a broken leg among other serious injuries, spend two months in the hospital, and die a year later of bone cancer (from the x-rays, my mother always said.). All very suspicious, wouldn’t you say? My mother who was only 16 at the time of the incident thought it was an accident, but my cousins were told he was murdered.

8. My grandfather’s job, as defined clearly by the City Charter, was to be the liaison between top employees, like the city engineer (a Mr. Terrault) and the powerful Executive Committee of aldermen, although this worked only in theory. 8 As the unelected top civil servant he was expected to be neutral on all issues but the very nature of this position made that next to impossible. No doubt my grandpapa Jules was a pawn of the powerful JAAA Brodeur, among others even higher up in the political pecking order. I suspect he was ordered to stay out of it – or he chose not to participate out of reservations of his own. During testimony into the Laurier Palace Fire taking place simultaneously an alderman said as much.

9. At the court hearing it was described as such by another alderman.

A copy of my grandfather’s coerced letter of resignation from his City Hall File that I retrieved. For all of his scandals, and all the work his office did, the file was pretty thin. I suspect it has been heavily redacted long ago.

MY GRANDFATHER’S BRILLIANT CITY HALL CAREER – IN FOUR SCANDALS: Part 1

Bonsecours Market, Montreal, circa 1900.

If a British novel penned in the first part of the 20th century contains a Canadian character (for example Brideshead Revisited, or Bridge on the River Kwai) that character is inevitably English and from Montreal. Most UK readers of the era would have been unfamiliar with any other Canadian city, including Toronto.

Founded in 1642 as a fur-trading fort, Montreal’s port is strategically located on the St. Lawrence River. By 1900 the city was the financial and industrial capital of Canada– and only increasing in wealth and influence as the rest of the country became more and more industrialized.

The city (majority English in the early going) expanded greatly around that time, gobbling up the mostly French suburbs and flipping the balance of power at City Hall. This expansion also put a strain on city services, especially the housing, water works and transportation systems. Businessmen of all stripes scrummed for the right to improve these services – and make a bundle in the process. The question of the day: were water and power and transportation monopolies good or bad for the average citizen.

The city saw unprecedented immigration in the 1910 era, the numbers peaking in 1912. This influx of mostly poorer people from both Northern and Southern Europe further strained the already inadequate city infrastructure, generating some scary, well-publicized urban problems (including typhoid and ‘the social evil’ of prostitution) and giving rise to a prominent social reform movement. This reform movement was led by McGill professors, clergymen and the elite wives of successful businessmen whose good intentions, often handicapped by an intransigent value system5, inevitably got entangled with the dirty politics and deep dark prejudices of the day.1

The Beck Detectaphone Affair: Tawdry Tabloids and Tasty Tortieres

Jules Crepeau’s first scandal of record at Montreal City Hall was small potatoes. In 1900, as Secretary in charge of Bonsecours Market (the main farmer’s market in the city) he was called to testify on behalf of one Germain Tessier, Clerk-in-Chief, who apparently forced vendors to pay ‘bonuses’ to him for the rental of stalls. It was all on the up and up, said my grandfather. Mr. Tessier was honest and these costs arise naturally and are not, as some butchers were claiming, ‘a surcharge to pay for the next municipal elections.’

My grandfather’s second scandal was much more substantial, a meaty pulp fiction style fiasco involving all levels of government that almost put an early end to his brilliant City Hall career.

Indeed, as the Toronto World tabloid loudly reported in a March, 1914 headline: “Most highly-seasoned stew that has ever been uncovered in Canada. Beats all other scandals put together.”

Jules, along with a handful of members of the provincial legislature, allegedly got caught accepting bribes in a sting set up by journalist Edward Beck, former Editor-in-Chief of the Montreal Herald who had recently started his own tabloid Beck’s Weekly with the help of former Herald publisher Lorne McGibbon,2 just so he could write about it.

McGibbon was livid over a proposed 40 year tramways deal that would greatly benefit his arch-rival, Montreal Star publisher, Hugh Graham. McGibbon and Beck hired Burns detectives from the US armed with ‘detectaphones’ in the hope of proving that the tramways people were bribing members of the legislative assembly.

That didn’t work out. Instead, the American detectives posed as members of the Montreal Fair Association, a group hoping to get a private bill passed at Quebec so that they could start up a horse-racing and liquor business. They allegedly got my grandfather to accept 3,500 dollars a year in return for insider help, effectively doubling his salary as second assistant city clerk – were the charges true.

Sir Hugh Graham nuturing his aldermen from La Patrie 1914.

This all came down a month before the 1914 municipal election where it looked like the municipal Reform party, that had been elected in 1910 with help from Montreal suffragists, would be thrown out paving the way for the much despised tramways deal.

Now, it helps to have a background in the complicated Montreal/Quebec politics of that era -and thanks to a 1972 Masters thesis, my own decade-long research as well as BANQ fonds, I do.3

But let this excerpt from the Toronto World summarize the bribery situation (and its myriad mysteries) for you.

Yes, my grandfather got caught up in something much bigger than himself:a series of feuds between the municipal reformers, mostly ‘benign’ English businessmen who wanted to clean up what they saw as a corrupt political system and the ‘machine,’ an informal alliance of aldermen arranged in a hierarchy, who made sure their poorer wards got all the infrastructure improvements while they allegedly pocketed pork, as well as much bitterness between two English publishing titans, Hugh Graham and Lorne McGibbon, who had once been partners in a scheme to control Montreal’s newspapers.4

My small potatoes second assistant city clerk of a grandfather was held up to the voting public5 by Beck as an example of a corrupt (see “impure”)4 French City Hall when the real flash point was a transportation mega deal that would pour millions into the coffers of various Square Mile multi-millionaires, most of them Anglos.5

My grandfather’s name was dragged through the mud in many English and French tabloids, all of whom quoted Beck’s Weekly.

By the look of Beck’s purple prose, he really had it in for my grandfather. It seems personal.

“The City Hall is a sweet-scented sink hole of pollution if men like Crepeau speak the truth. Their greedy official hands take toll of contracts, levy tribute on ordinances, and prey upon the poor city labourers. Graft, graft, graft is written over the doorways, the lintels and on the doorposts.” 6

According to the newspaper Le Devoir, my grandfather’s mustachioed face filled up the entire front page of Beck’s first edition. Ouch! La Patrie tabloid put a smaller pic cropped from grandpapa’s official City Hall picture in their newspaper the next day. (It’s probably the same pic.)

The Beck’s Weekly account also made my grandfather look very stupid. “The endurance of the operators (of the detectaphone) were sorely tried by the gabbiness of the Handy Man of City Hall.”

Now, Jules Crepeau was anything but stupid. He was an energetic man – with complete recall – who hustled and muscled his way up the municipal ladder over a 32 year period. “Affable, intelligent, ambitious and active, with pride of purpose,” were words used to describe him*7, as were “a model of courteousness and a living encyclopedia of municipal affairs.” Upon his forced retirement in 1930 the Montreal Star said he had ‘ready tact, a suave manner and a keen intellect” that allowed him ‘to get to the root of the problem, saving time and money at City Hall. ” Apparently, he didn’t join the civil service for “security and repose.”8 He also had powerful people in the Liberal Party of Canada on his side.10

In 1888, Jules was a message boy in short pants in the Health Department (my mother like to say he started out ‘sweeping the floors’) and by 1921 he was Director of Services in a dark power suit, his office overseeing basically everything that came down in the city.

Back in 1914, my ‘handyman’ grandfather had clearly earned a reputation for being useful, but I think he was merely a willing (?) pawn of ‘the machine’ and of some very powerful politicians and industrialists – on both sides of the English and French divide and at all levels of government.

If he were greedy, as Beck so salaciously writes, he didn’t seem to prosper above his salary grade. *9. Even at the height of his career in the 1920’s, my grandmother Maria Roy was no ermine-draped socialite. She herself swept the floors in their three storey grey stone at 72 Sherbrooke West (right beside the Liberal Reform Club of Canada, a watering hole for political bigwigs); she herself rolled out the dough on her fabulously fatty tourtieres; and she gave away to Catholic charities most items from the roomful of ‘gifts’ Jules received at Christmas – keeping only the cigars and certain beautiful pieces of Chinoiserie.

In April 1914, my grandfather sued Beck and McGibbon (and Tarte of La Patrie) for libel and won. He was awarded 100 dollars in reparations and two thousand in legal costs by the Court. He donated the 100 dollars to a children’s hospital, as reported in the Liberal l’Autorite newspaper. (See bottom)

It is no coincidence that Jules was defended by R.L Perron11, distinguished Montreal lawyer, Quebec Liberal MLA, lawyer for the Tramways people and President of the Reform Club (Liberal) of Canada. Thanks to Perron, the detectives’ evidence was deemed inadmissable in court. Of course, it had already been printed word-for-word in numerous newspapers.

Beck’s Weekly ceased publication in 1915 during WWI. It is said that Hugh Graham made sure Beck couldn’t get the newsprint.

In 1916 Beck went West to work for a Winnipeg newspaper12 (where he was sentenced to prison for contempt of court – but won an appeal) and then he left journalism and moved into public relations, working for the pulp and paper industry headquartered in Ste Anne de Bellevue, Quebec. He stayed there until his death in 1930, occasionally planting stories in the Toronto Press about corrupt Montreal politics.

My grandfather kept his job as second assistant city clerk, soon rising to first assistant city clerk, occasionally earning some strategically-placed praise in the left-liberal newspapers l’Autorite and Le Canada until in 1921 he was unanimously appointed Director of City Services. This was a new post created with a new city charter – and after broad public consultations. This lofty post was specifically created to ensure that the city services were distributed evenly between the wards. Ha ha.

But this politically sticky post (being at the centre of all municipal activity; the designated liaison between top elected officials and the seven city department heads, including the Chief of Police) put my dear grandpapa in the way of other ugly scandals.

I will write about those in parts 2, 3 of this series: My Grandfather’s Brilliant City Hall Career in Four Scandals.

1.https://archive.org/details/lamtropolededema00nant/page/8/mode/2up?q=%22Jules+Crepeau%22

For more information: Montreal, City of Tomorrow (in French) by Honorable Nantel, 1910. Internet Archive. I found this book entering my grandfather’s name. The author is describing the city in 1910 and how its recent vast expansion has created opportunities and problems. He wants to pattern Montreal after Paris. He thanks my grandfather, among others, for providing him with information.

2. Lorne McGibbon was a prominent Conservative Party organizer who had brought the bribery scheme idea to a certain Thomas Chase Casgrain, Postmaster General in Borden’s Conservative party, who claimed it was ‘criminal’ – so he went it alone. During WW1 McGibbon spoke at Win the War rallies in support of Premier Borden and conscription. Indeed, he claimed in a speech, that any man who didn’t serve in the war shouldn’t be given work at home.

Cap-aux-Diamants, revue d’histoire de Quebec.L’annee memorable 1914. Issue 117. 2014 Page 49.

3.. The Municipal Reform Movement in Montreal: 1886-1914, University of Ottawa Master’s Thesis by Michel Gauvin. 1972.

4. The terms ‘benign’ and ‘machine’ from the Gauvin Thesis. ‘Machine’ refers to an earlier administration, but I think it still applies here. “Benign” is used in the sense that these businessmen believed their motives to be pure and beneficial to both their pocketbooks and the citizenry.

5. Montreal had universal male suffrage with exceptions. It could be said that many (most?) male British citizens could vote in municipal elections: they had to live in a house above a certain rental price, pay off their water tax. There were other stipulations. Widows and unmarried women with property could also vote.

In 1910, inspired by a 1909 visit from Britain’s Ethel Snowden, a moderate ‘maternal’ suffragist, the Montreal Council of Women mounted an effort to get the female vote out and ‘purify’ City hall. Their words. Widows and unmarried women of property could vote in the municipal elections. Council of Women volunteers went door-to-door and sure enough, their Reform candidates and Mayor, John James Guerin, was elected. The women were elated, assuming they had won the battle for their key interests, child welfare, temperance, etc. Guerin gave up the post within two years, claiming that as Mayor he was powerless do to anything.

In 1914, populist Mayor, Mederic Martin, a cigar manufacturer, won the election. He would remain Mayor for many years.

It was these women reformers who liked to refer to City Hall as ‘impure.’ Martin, irked by a letter they sent to him about the Tramways Affair, dared call them out in the press as women of leisure, “idlers” but he had to publicly retract his statement. These women were anything but lazy. He got them back: at the public consultations into the Tramways Affair the Council of Women was asked only silly questions: “Why can’t women get the ticket from their purses before getting on the tram instead of holding up the line.” Why can’t women shoppers shop outside of rush hour?” OUCH.

When the Montreal Council of Women helped get the Reform ticket elected in the 1910 municipal elections, Carrie Derick, President of the Council and Montreal’s No. 1 suffragist, wrote an ecstatic piece in The White Ribbon (the magazine of Christian Temperance Union) about how they had cleansed City Hall of impurities. Purity was a loaded concept in 1910, an era of tainted water and milk and of heavy immigration from Southern Europe. Here’s a bit from her article:

Self-seeking and dishonour, which would have been scorned in private life, long characterized the Municipal Government of Montreal.

The Citizens appeared to be indifferent or helpless, allowing corrupt officials to display open disregard of all right principles. Associations and leagues to purify the administration of Municipal affairs sprang into being and died.

The result of our united efforts and public-spiritedness paid off (in the election of 1912). An unusually heavy vote was registered. Practically the whole of the reform candidates were elected.

Men united with women in urging women electors to do their duty by voting in order that civic reform might be secured, reform which alone would diminish the unceasing supply of sick, poor, the weak and depraved...”

Derick’s ideas were inspired by the eugenics theory. She was a gold-medal McGill geneticist, educated in Europe, and she gave many lectures, some of them mixing her areas of expertise, social reform, suffrage and social engineering. Her stature lent these ideas weight. The movement would accelerate after WWI and culminate in 1924 in the Coderre Inquiry into Police Malfeasance which would again ensnare my grandfather Jules, by this time the Director of City Services. I will write about that in Part 3 of this series.

5.The group included McConnell and Sir Rodolphe Forget who supported Mayor Martin in in 1914. (My grandfather was kin to the Forget’s, supposedly, but he was a Conservative Senator and my grandfather was aligned with the Liberals, so…)

6. Beck’s Weekly was quickly founded when Sir Hugh Graham bought the Herald from under McGibbon after Beck, as Editor in Chief, complained about the Tramways Deal in the Herald in March 1913, with a full page rant in huge 20 point enboldened type. “The Tramways Company’s Brazen Demands: It is well-known that the Tramways Company has City Hall under its thumb and works its sweet will with the people working there. It is known to have an alliance with a sector of the newspaper industry, stifling public opinion. The President of the Tramway and his henchmen occupy seats in the legislature and vote away people’s rights.”

Beck also invited the Montreal Suffrage Association to create a multi-page insert in return for their support of his point of view. That group passed a resolution against the deal (not in their usual purview) soon thereafter. The suffrage insert was published, with a front page letter from Christobel Pankhurst hiding out in Paris. The Montreal Suffrage Association and Beck then had an argument over the profits.

7. From his obituary in Le Devoir, 1938. It was here where it is said that grandpapa had complete and utter knowledge of every detail, however minuscule, of municipal government “like a bank vault.” (This sentiment was widely held.) He was the go-to-guy even at the Quebec legislature, the most influential man when it came to private bills, said the obit.

Another newspaper article said, “Jules Crepeau went grey teaching aldermen their jobs.” In those days, the federal Liberals were aligned with the provincial Liberals who were aligned (claimed the Editor of Le Devoir in 1930 upon the force ‘resignation’ of my grandfather) with Mederic Martin’s regime. Of course, my grandfather, as a civil servant, was supposed to be neutral in his allegiances, but the very nature of his job as defined by the City Charter made this next to impossible.

8. From an article in L’Autorite newspaper upon his installation as Director of City Services in 1921.

9. I met someone online whose grandfather, a corrupt cop-on-the-beat of the era, had managed to buy four homes, at a time when few working class men in Montreal owned their own homes. It is possible that my father needed money to buy his way up the ladder, but it also seems unnecessary, considering his connections and his boundless energy and sharp mind.

My grandfather’s home at 72 Sherbrooke West was right beside the Liberal Reform Club of Canada, where Canada’s Liberal Party power brokers socialized over the decades. No coincidence, I suspect.

I can see that Mme Guerin-Lajoie also lived a few doors down. She’s the famous Quebec suffragist. I wonder if my grandmaman knew her. I assume my grandpapa did.

10. https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/3584769?docsearchtext=Jules%20Crepeau%20Beck L’Autorite newspaper’s explanation of the Beck affair, March 1914. It’s all bait and switch tramways business, apparently. The story is put on a back page with the headline being “A tissue of lies,” my grandfather’s quote. This liberal anti-clerical newspaper was started in 1913 by one Tancrede Marcil, who was a disciple of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. BANQ’s blurb claims Laurier was the real ‘chef’ of this newspaper. Marcil also worked on the start up of Le Devoir newspaper.

The elite newspaper praised and promoted and acted as cheerleader for my grandfather throughout his late City Hall career. I’m not surprised that the Liberal Party of Canada was on my grandfather’s side. I just wish I knew more. It looks as if my grandfather was part of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s plan to rebuild the Liberal Party of Canada and get re-elected. The party had been turfed out in 1911. That was working for Laurier at the beginning, but then WWI happened and the infamous Conscription Crisis killed his chances. He died, anyway, in 1919. WWI broke out a few months after the Beck business, in August.

The article at bottom appeared in l’Autorite in1915, when it seemed that the Chief City Clerk, Patrician lawyer/journalist/scholar L 0 David, my grandfather’s boss, might win a seat in Parliament. (He didn’t). (I got it off BANQ). They are rehabilitating Jules’ reputation after the Beck scandal. LO David, a Senator, made some unsuccessful attempts at winning political seats federally and provincially. It is said that this cultured, learned man preferred writing his histories over the day-to-day minutia of his important day job as Chief City Clerk. That allowed my grandfather, a self-made, humbly-educated ‘detail’ man, son of a mere house painter, to punch above his weight at work.

In a front page editorial in March 1914, Publisher Marsil derided those people who said his newspaper was started up by Pro-Tramways people, much as Beck’s Weekly was started up by anti-tramways people. Nonsense, his newspaper was independent, Marcil said.

Louis Dupire Editor of Le Devoir wrote in 1930, upon Jules’ forced resignation from his position at City Hall that attacks such as Beck’s only served to increase his prestige.

11. RL Perron would benefit, it seems, in 1927 from the Montreal Water and Power Deal, my grandfather’s next scandal.

12. This was during the Galt Inquiry into some Conservative Government impropriety involving legislative building contracts. Beck refused to testify claiming the inquiry was illegal. He died in 1930, after an appendicitis operation, but he lived to see my grandfather turfed out of City Hall by Camillien Houde, so he likely died happy. He got a short obit in the New York Times, where where the bribery scandal was mentioned as his crowning achievement.

Below: Young Grandpapa and Edward Beck. Archive.org. Bitter adversaries or politics as usual? I suspect Beck hated my grandpapa because they were equal in social standing, pretty much earning the same salary.

My grandfather “The Handyman of City Hall.” According to Beck, my second-assistant city clerk of a grandfather ran the show. This is from Beck’s Weekly as republished in the Quebec Chronicle. BANQ
My unique story of the 1910 suffrage movement in Montreal.
My Story about Montreal during Prohibition, using two families, mine and my husband’s.