The publishing industry being what it is these days you won’t find a copy of Dave Flavell’s oral history of Griffintown, Point St. Charles and Goose Village in any Montreal bookstore. Newspapers in town have taken no notice of it. But for anyone interested in the social history of Montreal’s storied English-speaking tenement neighbourhoods, his book, Community and the Human Spirit is well worth ordering on line. Like Patricia Burns’ Shamrock and The Shield Which was published ten years ago, Flavell captures a chorus of voices to chronicle a time and place that no longer exists – not just the Irish.
Like Burns, he conducted a slew of interviews with people who grew up in the three tough slum neighbourhoods that used to be in close proximity to each other at the east end of the Lachine Canal. The railway tracks along Mullins separated the French from the Irish For the most part the Italians gravitated to Victoriatown, or Goose Village, which was razed in the 1960s.
What they had in common was the church - St. Ann’s in Griffintown, St. Gabriel’s in the Point, and the dedicated clergy who ran the schools. In some instances the priests and nuns appear to be as tough and as resilient as the congregations they served, “never shy to use a strap or other forms of corporal punishment.”
Flavell is a sociologist not a historian. His book “tells the stories of the importance and the meaning of community as well as the strength of the human spirit.” Among those he interviewed are a colourful lot natural storytellers like former Montreal Police Chief Bob Cote who grew up in The Point, Joe Berlettano who worked for many years running camps for Catholic Community Services, (now Collective Community Services), Margaret Healy, the den mother of the local Irish community , firefighter Joe Timmons and police officer Mike Spears.
Rivalry between the three neighbourhoods was intense and brawls between French and English, Catholic and Protestant are well documented. But as Mike Spears recalls, “Nothing serious, the odd punch in the head – or run like hell. You won some and lost some, but there was no hatred. Just something to do.” Football coach Patrick Duffy concurs. “There were no guns involved and only in the rarest of circumstances would you have a situation involving a knife.”
The gut spirit of the robust neighbourhoods is evident in Ed Dizazzo’s assessment. Goose Village, he says, “Taught me the power of community. The isolation formed an inter-reliance on everybody, Surrounded by the river, the coal yards, the meat packing plant the railyards and the towering grain mills, they all served to create what was a virtual island save for Bridge Street, which was the only way out. There was ‘a just us; feeling in the villiage.”
Police officer Mike Robert Cote, Chief Inspector with the Montreal Police Department grew up in Pointe St. Charles during “the golden years” after the War, when economic conditions began to improve. Cote began his career at Station 11 doing beat patrol. “Back then we didn’t have the drug problems that we have today. Back then it was beer and wine.” The Village was next to a meat processing plant, which Cote says led to some ridiculous situations. “Sometimes a cow or a bull would escape, that meant we were about to go on what we called an urban safari. All the police in the area would immediately rush in. Of course to us it was always a bull, because a bull is far more impressive than a cow when you are on an urban safari. Fifty years ago we didn’t have the complex police procedures that we have today. I can tell you, whatever the bull weighed when it got our, it weighed considerably more when we returned it to Canada Packers with all the lead we pumped into it.” Maurice Harkin, who now lives in Ottawa, contributes a vignette about the Corpus Christi processions. “In preparation for the event, the people of Griffintown washed down the exteriors of their houses and hung flags and religious artifacts from the windows. They lined the streets and looked out all the windows. It was quite an event back in those days.” Gordon McCambridge, a school principal, says when he was growing up in the area, “everyone was up to something,” and recounts the story of a ragman who stopped to relieve himself behind a house. When he got back to his cart, “his horse had been removed from its harness, turned around and reharnessed backwards facing the cart.”
The neighbourhoods, of course, are being gentrified, and only a few vestiges of what once was remain. The residents who lived there may have been dirt poor, but they were rich in so many other ways. It was a caring place where people looked after each other and where no one locked their doors. AS carol Bellware points out, “There were a lot of poor people, but we made do. The Point was about simple people living simple lives. People cared for each other . We learned on our own.”
Gordie McCambridge a school principal for many yearsleft Griffintown years ago but returns to the area to look around for old times sake. “In some ways I find those walks enjoyable,” he says. “ In other ways I find them sad when I think of what we had at one time down there. The sense of community that we enjoyed in those days won’t ever be replaced. It can’t be.”
Community & The Human Spirit
Oral Histories from Montreal’s Point St. Charles, Griffintown and Goose Village
By Dave Flavell. 357 pp,