By Ashlie Bienvenu
I remember first looking at the title of the class after registration, “Working Class Public History,” and not knowing what to think. The title could encompass so many different subjects, time-periods, and places and this made me unsure of what I was getting myself into.
However, the course had been a mandatory class to graduate so I needed to take it, ambiguous name and all. It was sometime during the summer when we received our course syllabus and I remember being so relieved to look through what our class was going to be about. As I opened the attachment and started reading I realized that our class was going to be centred around Point St. Charles. I sprang up from my chair and ran to tell my father that I was going to be studying a place that he had once lived as a child and where we had spent two years of my childhood as well. This sparked many stories of our memories of the Point, as well as my grandmother’s memories of nearby Goosevillage.
Our first class involved taking the Lachine Canal tour which contained the history of both the St. Henri and Point St. Charles districts along the Canal. While the tour was very enlightening, it was even more so when I brought the booklet and my experiences home. It was there that my father explained his experience of driving his bike to work every day along the bike path, which runs parallel to the Lachine Canal. My maternal grandfather also relayed his experience of growing up in St. Henri, where he used to live and the school, now demolished, which he used to attend. However, the story that struck me the most from his experiences was when he told me he used to go into the factories’ train depots, where they unloaded their shipments, and take the wooden pallets to use to heat his house when he was a child.
During our class experience we all had an insurance map which we used on a daily basis. I remember coming home after one of our explorations around Point St. Charles and showing my father where we had walked. He took the map and started pointing to various places all over the paper: “this is where your grandfather and uncle Gervais went to the bar;” “this is where your great-grandfather would get his cold cuts and he would go across the street after to a bar that’s here and have a drink before going home;” “this is where the ‘Ma Tentes’ (our great-great aunts) lived;” “this is where I lived with my aunt for a while, there was a bar about a block away from us where a member of the Italian mafia was shot on the steps;” “your uncle used to take me to this bar, I was underage but they never said anything because my uncle basically kept them in business since he drank there so much,” “this is where St. Gabriel’s church was, me and your mother were married there and you and your brother and sister were baptised there, and you had your communion there;” “this is where we lived when you and Lexi were young. We lived there for about two years. It was across from a school.”
I also got the opportunity to go through some old pictures from the Point and Goosevillage that were later used in our booklet. While going through these pictures and asking family members to look at theirs, I stumbled across old pictures of my great-grandfather working in the CN rail yards. Before I had found these pictures I knew that he was from Goosevillage but I never knew what he did for a living, or that the fact that he was later let go from the company was because he had failed his physical due to polio, which had given him limited use of his right arm.
I also got another lesson in my history when taking the beta walk with my mother. While her roots were mostly in Verdun, she was still a link to my roots in the Point, re-telling memories I was too young to remember. Only half listening to the audio-walk, I listened to her comments as we took the walk. She pointed out the church she was married in and where all of her children were baptised; and as we passed by a depaneur she mentioned that this was the store we used to walk to, since it was nearby the place we used to live. As we neared the corner of Rue Soulanges and Centre she grinned and asked if I wanted to take a detour and see where we used to live. So we paused the audio walk and continued to our old house on Grand-Trunk. As we stood in front of our old residence with a new painting of horse on the gate to the back yard my mother was shocked by how different it was. You couldn’t even see the backyard anymore because another building had been built in the open space. She became disoriented for a minute and started to doubt whether this was the same place where we had once lived but she said “no, this has to be the place, they must have added on to the building or something, because you used to be able to stand here and look in the back yard and see our little pool and across from here you could see the window of the lady who owned the iguana.”
Therefore, not only has this class been a great insight into the working class, southwest area of Montreal, it has also been a great insight to my own personal history and roots. It has sparked many conversations in my family and uncovered many forgotten memories. I feel that this course has given me a greater knowledge of Montreal and its industrial southwest district as well as my own history and identity.