City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the1940’s and ’50’s – WINTRAUB (CSS)

WINTRAUB, William. City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the1940’s and ’50’s. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc., 1996. 332p. WILLIAMS, Dorothy. The Road to Now: A History of the Blacks in Montreal. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1997. 235p. Resenha de: HOSKINS, Ronald G. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.4, 2001.

In City Unique, William Weintraub introduces his readers to the Montreal of the forties and fifties when the Paris of America was a wide-open, swinging metropolis. Practically every facet of life in Montreal is visited by the author in this affectionate, occasionally indignant examination of Montreal in its heyday.

The book begins with the arrival of their majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth who visited Canada in 1939 in an effort to inspire colonial support as war clouds raced across European skies and empire solidarity became very important. The final pages of the book coincide with the death of Maurice Duplessis in 1959. The latter kept Montreal and the Province of Quebec in a kind of political and intellectual bondage during the final fourteen years of his premiership. Indeed the Quiet Revolution was largely a response to the end of the Grande Noirceur of the Duplessis years.

In the two decades between the onset of World War II and the Quiet Revolution, a parade of intriguing characters and events wend their way across the pages as Weintraub uses his novelistic style and reporter’s moxy to unravel Montreal’s fascinating past. Readers are introduced to Marie Klarquist, a.k.a. Lili St. Cyr, who began a seven year reign as Montreal’s femme fatale in 1944 and who, in her autobiography, suggested that Montreal was an enchanted city for her (p. 118). In reminiscing about nightlife in Montreal, the author mentions the famous Oscar Peterson who was born in the impoverished working class district of St. Henri which was home to much of Montreal’s small black community. Typically, Peterson’s father was a sleeping car porter and believed that his son’s musical talents should be encouraged as the best route out of the West End. As it turned out, his father was right and in later years the Oscar Peterson Trio became internationally famous in jazz circles.

Weintraub pays homage to Montreal’s famous writers at a time when they were still in their literary infancy. Literary snapshots are provided of Hugh MacLennan, Gabrielle Roy and Mordecai Richler, whose writing provoked outrage among Montreal’s Jewish establishment because of the exploits of Duddy Kravitz. In addition to individuals, Montreal’s various districts – the Main, the Mountain, St. Henri – are all explored in this eminently readable and entertaining work.

Nor does the author ignore Montreal’s political figures of the period. Perhaps the most flamboyant of Montreal’s mayors was the controversial Camilien Houde whose patronage politics knew no bounds and who was interned by the federal government during the war years for his attempts to dissuade fellow Montrealers from registering for military service. He profiles the activities of Jean Drapeau, a later mayor of Montreal and the latter’s assistant chief of police, Pax Plante who worked zealously to eradicate the kingpins of Montreal’s underworld and the graft and corruption which permeated much of the urban politics of the period.

The one individual for whom Weintraub has obvious contempt is Maurice Duplessis. He argues that the dictatorial, ultra-nationalist politician introduced policies which were very much to the long-term detriment of La Belle Province and the City of Montreal. In a departure from his usual breezy writing style, the author becomes very serious when he dismisses Duplessis as an odious man (p. 286).

As a native son, William Weintraub has a love affair with his subject which is reflected in his lively, vibrant, literary style. Although there are no footnotes in City Unique, the book is
obviously the product of extensive research. There is an impressive selected bibliography and the author has conducted numerous interviews in preparing this monograph. The book has a full index
and several pages of photographs. City Unique is an enjoyable read for individuals who have a knowledge of Montreal and wish to relive the nostalgia of the Montreal of years gone by. The book could also serve as an excellent supplementary reader for senior secondary school students and all
university students who are studying the history of Quebec or perhaps post-confederation Canadian history. To derive maximum benefit from Weintraub’s excellent work the reader should have some similarity with Quebec social and political history.

In contrast to the breezy, light-hearted journalistic style of City Unique, Dorothy Williams’ The Road to Now is a scholarly, serious analysis of the historical experience of Montreal’s black
community. Williams’ study reaffirms what has been common knowledge for some time, that is, that Canada, including Montreal, was not the land of freedom and opportunity for blacks attempting to flee oppression elsewhere.

The author explains too, that Montreal historians have been strangely quiet about their black community. She attributes this in part to an attempt to deny the presence of black slavery in New France; to the fact that black migration patterns were different in Montreal than in other parts of Canada and finally because the relatively small size of Montreal’s black community did not create the intense backlash and hence the attention among whites that took place in other parts of the country.

In The Road to Now the author provides a historic overview of the black experience in Montreal from the days of black slavery in New France to the present. Williams asserts that the period between 1897 and 1930 witnessed the beginning of a genuine black community in Montreal. During this thirty year period, important institutional development took place in the establishment of the Union United Church in 1907, the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1919 and the Negro Community Centre in 1927. As her study progresses, Williams monitors the activities of these three institutions in assessing the changing nature of Montreal’s black community.

For black males, most of whom lived in the city’s West End, the railways were the dominant source of employment and blacks were hired as redcaps, sleeping car porters and cooks. This racially segregated hiring policy had many advantages for the railways. Wage rates for black labor were low and the author maintains that the predominantly white travelling public gained a feeling of superior status when attended to by black personnel, thus enhancing the romance of rail travel. The dominant occupation for black females was domestic service with all the pitfalls associated with that occupation. World War II brought changes to both male and female working blacks. Women found employment in war industries and many of the porters working for the CPR were unionized, giving them added job security and presumably better working conditions.

The decade of the 1960s marked the introduction of French-speaking Haitians into Montreal’s black community. In the 1970s the city’s West End no longer defined the boundaries of Montreal’s blacks as the latter moved into white districts giving rise to increased friction between the two races.

The Road to Now is a history of the rather rueful black experience in Montreal. From their introduction to New France as slaves until the arrival of the well-educated French-speaking Haitians of the 1960s, Williams states that Montreal blacks have been subjected to constant racial discrimination. In earlier periods as porters, redcaps and domestics to more recent years as taxi drivers, they have had to struggle to preserve some semblance of human rights and dignity. During periods of prosperity for white Quebeckers, black Montrealers have failed to prosper equitably because of racial prejudice. The struggle continues in the present-day environment where police-black relations in the city remain problematic.

The Road to Now is a very detailed historical analysis of Montreal’s small black community. There is an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources and unpublished materials. There are extensive end-notes and a full index. Three maps detail the wards in Montreal’s West End which were home to the vast majority of blacks until very recently.

Williams’ readable analysis provides a solid portrait of Montreal’s black community. Individuals in senior high school courses or college courses studying in this limited area will derive great benefits from The Road to Now. To what degree the Montreal experience can be applied to other parts of Canada or North America is open to question, however. Presumably this work could serve as a comparative study to the black experience in other major Canadian cities such as Halifax or Toronto. Beyond this, Williams’ work should be considered as an excellent piece of local historical research with limited application elsewhere.

Ronald G. Hoskins – Associate Professor, University of Windsor. Windsor, Ontario.

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