18 Feb 2012
Flying the Empress of Honolulu - a Catalan family in 1960s Canada
In late October 1960 the Empress of Honolulu flew my family and I across the Atlantic. I was not quite four-years old and it was my first time flying. The Empress of Honolulu was a DC-6B piston-engine airliner of Canadian Pacific Airlines and it was from her cabin that I had my first glimpse of Canada. That was during a stopover in Gander, Newfoundland, to refuel because the Empress lacked the range of the newer jetliners. It was grey and snowing as I looked out through the cabin port and I could see men in parkas working around the aircraft. It looked so very bleak, cold and so foreign. Too young at the time to fully appreciate the purpose of our trip, I did wonder what we were doing in Gander. Now, so many years later, I try to imagine my parent’s thoughts and feelings at that moment. They must have been very anxious as they looked out into what seemed like an abyss. The day before in Barcelona a group of family and friends had seen us off before taking the train for Madrid, and there to board the Empress. Having made the decision to emigrate and leave Spain my parents knew they were unlikely to ever again see those people. That first glimpse of Canada already in the grip of winter could not have put them at ease. It must have been stressful and emotional. For my mother even more so as she was pregnant with her third child. It had been a difficult decision but my parents felt that Spain with its limited prospects had no future for them or their children.
My parents had been raised and schooled in Catalonia in the years before and during the Spanish Civil War. They had suffered in the war but no more or no less than most. My father, who was from Igualada, had been too young to serve in the Republican army during the war but did work with his father, a mechanic for the army. After the Fascist victory my father was conscripted into the Infanteria de Marina and was then sent to Mallorca. He was present in September 1943 when part of the Italian fleet escaping the Germans sailed into Palma. After his military service he worked at various jobs while studying to be an architectural draftsman. My mother's family had an estanc, or tobacconist’s, on Carrer de Urgell in Manresa. During the war the searches of the family home looking for hidden relatives or religious imagery caused her much anguish. She barely survived an aerial bombardment when a wall nearly fell on her. After the war my mother helped to look after her own ailing mother while working in the estanc. My parents met in the early-1950s and after their wedding in 1956 they settled in Manresa. Neither was happy with their lot and at some point they decided to emigrate. At first they hoped to go to Australia but could not afford the expense. Coincidentally, at about that time Canada agreed to accept a small number of Spanish emigrants. My parents applied and were accepted but it must have been an act of desperation as they knew little about Canada.
If they even thought about it, Canada was a land of misconceptions in the minds of most Europeans, my parents included. My father once told me that his image of Canada before emigrating was based on the 1936 Hollywood musical Rose Marie. In that film Canada was depicted as a country of a few towns surrounded by immense forests and populated by singing bar girls, lumberjacks, Indians and scarlet-jacketed Mounties. The reality was somewhat different. In the years after the second world war Canada's economy was booming. The war saved Canada from the ravages of the Great Depression. Despite having a population of only 11 million in 1939 about one million men and women served in its armed forces. Canadians were proud of their role in the world war. Canada had profited by the establishment of new industries that had supported the war effort. After the peace returning veterans could look forward to civilian life with plenty of jobs to go around. So many jobs in fact that Canada needed immigrants to work in the oil fields of Alberta, build roads and dams in British Columbia and Quebec, manufacture cars in Ontario and harvest wheat in Saskatchewan. For war-weary Europeans, Canada seemed like the promised land with its peace, security and the prospect of employment. In the 20 years after the end of the war almost three million immigrants were accepted by Canada. It was a time of optimism and confidence in a future that seemed very bright. The contrast with the Spain of the 1950s could hardly have been greater. Twenty years after the Civil War, the mood in Spain was sombre with shortages of goods and food, and high unemployment. The economic situation was so dire that the Spanish government encouraged emigration. Spain remained under the control of one of the last fascist dictatorships that had blighted Europe and had become a pariah amongst western nations. Life for minority groups within Spain was even tougher. The languages and cultures of the Catalans and Basques were aggressively repressed by the Franco dictatorship.
Soon after we arrived in Montreal my father found work as a draftsman in an architectural office. A few days before the Christmas holidays the company’s owner and secretary absconded with the payroll. The holidays looked to be very bleak. However, on Christmas Eve we had a visit from a pair of representatives from a charity organization. Someone had alerted the charity that a family of recent immigrants had just lost their only means of support. Groceries, some toys and twenty dollars in cash were left. My parents were taken aback by the gifts. On New Years Day a police car rushed my mother to hospital where her second daughter was born. After the holidays my father used the cash from the charity to pay for bus fare and look for another job. He soon found one. A previous employee of the firm, another Spanish immigrant, had made such a positive impression that my father was hired partly because he too was from Spain. That anonymous Spaniard became part of family lore. So after a hectic start to life in Canada and the experience of a Montreal winter the new year turned out to be more settled and positive.
In 1960, Montreal was still Canada's largest city and retained its status as the country's economic and cultural centre. A Catalan could not avoid comparing the cities of Montreal and Barcelona as the two are in some ways similar. Both are bilingual cities surrounded by hinterlands that are almost uni-lingual. Throughout the post-war period both cities attracted immigrants, Montreal from all over Europe, Barcelona from southern Spain. However, there were significant differences between the two cities. Barcelona was under siege by a dictatorship that asphyxiated Catalans and their language. Simply speaking Catalan in public could get you in trouble with the authorities. The Spanish government encouraged Andalusian emigration to Barcelona partly for valid economic reasons but also in a perverse attempt to drown Catalan culture. In Montreal, French and English were spoken everywhere and the casual visitor would have thought that the two were on equal footings, but in fact there were tensions between the “two solitudes.” Montreal was still the centre of corporate Canada but that was an almost wholly Anglo bastion. Even in the small towns throughout Quebec, where the population was almost entirely Francophone, if there were major industries the "bosses" were usually English-Canadians or Americans. The lack of economic and political power was a source of resentment among Quebecers. Just after the second world war French-Canadian society began to react against the dominance of English-Canadian society and the stifling influence of the Catholic Church. This development, which eventually became known as “la Révolution Tranquille,” slowly gained momentum but it moved inexorably and reached a head during the 1960s. The objective of this “revolution” was exemplified by the slogan "maitres chez nous."
My parents considered it important that our family adapt to Canadian life, as far as they were concerned they were there to stay. It helped that my mother had some school French but both my parents eventually learned Montreal’s two languages. Certainly, knowing Catalan helped with the French--the two languages have many similarities. Although my parents made a commitment to their new country but that did not mean discarding their Catalan identity. At home because my parents spoke Catalan my sisters and I learned to speak it. Castilian was never spoken. Unfortunately, even though my sisters and I could speak Catalan we could not read it. Our identity as Catalans was almost totally dependant on the spoken language and we had little opportunity to speak it outside of home. We knew a small number Catalan families in Montreal but we saw them only occasionally. My parents loved books and we had hundreds at home in four languages but only a couple of dozen or so were in Catalan, among them a set of Mervalles de Catalunya. A trans-Atlantic telephone call to family in Catalonia was a rare and expensive event. There were letters from family and friends but I could not read them. Those letters could just as well have been from strangers so little did I know of the people writing them. For my sisters and me our knowledge of Catalan culture and history was dependant on what our parents told us. We grew up hearing about Catalonia's struggle to maintain its identity, stories of the civil war and my parents’ interpretation of those events. From them we learned snippets of family lore--one of my grandfathers had been an anarchist, another a guardia civil and a third had been a founding member of the Igualada Football Club. On my mother's side there were relatives who were farmers and others industrialists.
Our connections with Catalonia were tenuous and it was mainly through my aunt, my mother's sister, that kept us informed of events “back home." In addition to my aunt’s letters, she would occasionally mail us packages of Spanish newspapers and magazines. The Canadian media rarely carried Spanish news. Sometime in 1963 we were surprised when, in addition to the newspapers and magazines, my aunt sent several records. Those records were quite a novelty because they were in Catalan--the Spanish government's restrictions on Catalan had extended even to recordings. The recordings were a varied lot, children’s stories, non-political comedy, and several music records. The image on the cover of one of the music records made a lasting impression on me--a young man leaning against a brick wall and holding a guitar with a little boy in the background looking up at him. Of course the record was Raimon's EP featuring his iconic Al Vent. Raimon’s Dylan-esque message of freedom was unlikely to be understood by a seven-year old boy living in Canada but my parents understood--perhaps Raimon was inspired by Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind. Growing up in Canada I was under the influence of Anglo-American culture. I can vividly remember the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the broadcast direct from New York City in February 1964. It was a Sunday night and the three or four Catalan families that had gathered together for supper watched the show on a black and white TV.
When we arrived in Canada I was too young to start school but I began to learn French because our neighbourhood was mostly French-speaking. When I was old enough for school my parents had three choices. They could send me to a Catholic French school, a Protestant English school or a Catholic English school--all publicly supported schools. For a couple of reasons they chose the Catholic school where they spoke English. First, we were nominally a Catholic family and for my mother religion was important. My father could compromise on this issue, in Canada he would even attend Christmas and Easter masses, but he had strong anticlerical tendencies that had been keenly developed in Spain. The choice of English was a little more calculating. There was little doubt that most of the political and economic power was in anglophone hands and it made sense to tie your future with that group. Most immigrants made the same choice. And so, as I started school I had to learn another language.
In 1964 my parents bought a house in a new subdivision in Pierrefonds in West Island Montreal. For a young boy it was a great place to grow up in. At that time the subdivision was surrounded by woodlots and farms with the fields marked out by ancient field-stone walls. Just down the street there was a big farm field which in the spring the farmer ploughed with a horse. The poor horse worked two weeks every year and then spent the rest of the year as picturesque field ornament sometimes pestered by my friends and I. The farmer grew cash crops and my mother would buy vegetables from his roadside stand. In the winter another part of the farmer’s property had a pond that would freeze over. Montreal winters were cold and there was always lots of snow. The neighbourhood kids would clear the snow from the pond so that we could skate and play ice hockey. Of course, we followed the fortunes of "les Canadiens," Quebec’s hockey team--in the same way that FC Barcelona is Catalonia’s football team--and in those days the Habs seemed to always win. In the woodlots--they are all gone now--climbing trees and playing in the woods was standard deportment for my friends and I. In the winter with all of the snow we built elaborate snow forts.
One day in 1965, the whole family, dressed in our Sunday best, drove our second-hand 1959 Pontiac downtown to a government building. Before a judge my parents repeated a pledge and we were each given a document affirming that we were citizens of Canada. We were no longer “Spanish.” For my parents their break with their country of birth was legally complete. It would have been an emotional moment for them because, by then, they felt really at home in Canada. As an immigrant family we were part of a third reality of Canadian society that would eventually lead to the concept of multi-culturalism. Even though we were outsiders we had been welcomed and accepted. My parents were grateful for that. By then we were a typical middle-class family, we just happened to speak Catalan at home. In Pierrefonds our next door neighbours on one side were Filipinos, who also spoke Spanish, on the other side was an Anglo-Canadian couple. Other neighbours included French-Canadians, English, Germans, Italians and blacks from the Caribbean. There were Catholics, Protestants and Jews.
In 1967 Canada celebrated its centennial since confederation. There was a mood of optimism and celebration throughout the country. At first the tensions between English-Canada and French-Canada seemed to be forgotten during that happy year. Every town had its "centennial project" whether it was building a new public arena, a new park or organizing some special event. The largest event was in Montreal where all summer the city hosted Expo '67 a spectacular world's fair. (I was disappointed that Spain did not have pavilion.) Canadians, and many foreigners, made the trip to Montreal to visit Expo. I went to the fair several times either on school outings or with my family. It was very exciting for a ten-year. However, when the centennial celebrations came to an end there was a sense that something was amiss. It was a mood that, even if I could not understand it being so young, that I later learned extended into the politics of the country as a whole. During the summer the visiting French president de Gaulle acerbated the political situation when he blurted out “vive le Quebec libre.” De Gaulle managed to at once inflame separatists and offend Canadians who recalled all their war dead buried in France. The tension in Canada grew and in Quebec the Quiet Revolution became louder and louder.
The following year was, in my opinion, pivotal in the eventual resolution of the tension between the “two solitudes.” That year Pierre Trudeau, an intense French-Canadian intellectual, was elected Prime Minister of Canada. A passionate federalist and perfectly bilingual, Trudeau believed that Quebec’s interests were best served as part of a truly bilingual Canada. Trudeau went to Ottawa as head of a group of like-minded Quebec politicians, some of whom could not speak English. The problem was that while the federalists envisioned a Canada that was truly bi-lingual from sea to sea, in reality the country was far from it. Pitted against Trudeau’s so-called “wise men” was a strongly nationalistic Quebec provincial government. One of the provincial ministers, a fiery ex-journalist René Lévesque, quit to form his own party, the separatist Parti Québécois. This set the Canadian political stage for the next decade. In a way it was a race between the two groups. The federalists racing to legislate and promote real bilingualism while the PQ attempted to convince “le Québécois” of the benefits of independence. As Catalans we could empathise with the aspirations of the French-Canadian minority but we also admired the democratic nature of Canada. To those who had experienced Europe’s wars and upheavals, like my parents, the other Catalans in Canada and the other European immigrants, the hint of political violence was unsettling.
Starting in 1963 there were a number of violent incidents that underlined the social and cultural conflicts brewing in Montreal, and in Quebec. Most of the incidents were relatively minor. A shadowy left-wing group called le Front de libération du Québec had placed small bombs in mailboxes and office buildings. Other incidents were more serious, for example, the rioting that normally accompanied the St Jean Baptist Day celebrations in Montreal. One of the most violent incidents was the October 1969 burning of a bus garage and the subsequent rioting that resulted in two deaths and millions of dollars worth of damage. The garage was located in downtown Montreal near my father's office. When he got home that night he seemed upset and disturbed by what he had seen. My parents discussed what was going on. And, I think, that they compared that and other events with what they had seen, albeit on a greater scale, thirty years earlier in Spain. They talked about moving from Montreal. A few weeks later my father made some trips to Ottawa and Toronto looking for another job. In early December we boarded the train to Toronto. We moved from “French-Canada” to “English-Canada” and in a sense we had once again emigrated.
The differences between Montreal and Toronto were dramatic on several levels linguistically, culturally, politically and even climatically. On Toronto streets you were more likely to hear Italian, Polish or any of a dozen other languages before you heard French. Toronto winters were insipid compared to Montreal’s. It was a great disappointment for me to leave Pierrefonds, it had been a wonderful place to grow up. For me the move to Toronto was almost traumatic. We went from living in a Pierrefonds that was still very rural in aspect to living in Parkdale, a tough downtown Toronto neighbourhood. By the time we left for Toronto several other Catalan families that we knew had proceeded us. Toronto was also full of anglophones who had recently quit Montreal.
The climax of the FLQ's bid for violent revolution and Quebec independence came in October 1970. A Quebec government minister and a British diplomat were kidnapped by separate FLQ cells. After a few days the minister was killed. It was an intense shock to a country where the only previous political assassination had occurred in 1868. Fortunately, the Englishman was released unharmed and his captors allowed to leave for Cuba. The extent of the FLQ’s operations were unknown and so the federal government, under Trudeau’s direction, took a controversial hard line and suspended civil liberties. Although there was concern about the government's imposition of war-time laws most Canadians, including many Quebecers, supported Trudeau. However, Quebecers were shocked by both the violence of the FLQ and by the Canadian government's response. Canadians were not accustomed to see soldiers with machine guns patrolling their streets--that was something that only happened in other countries. The “October Crisis” precipitated unforeseen reactions. On the one hand Quebecers, both federalists and separatists, firmly rejected violence as a means to an end. On the other hand Quebec separatists were more determined than ever to use the ballot box to meet their goals.
From Toronto we watched these developments with trepidation, anxiety and, after some time, relief. A few years later, in 1980, a separatist Quebec government under Lévesque put the question of separatism to a referendum and it was rejected. During the decade that started in about 1965 the uncertainty of the the political situation in Quebec, along with the assertion by Quebecers of their economic and cultural rights caused many anglophone Canadians to feel uncomfortable in the province and many of them left. Among those anglophones who left Montreal for Toronto was my wife’s family. Many of the big corporations moved their headquarters from Montreal to Toronto. As a result Toronto became the principal city in Canada especially in economic matters. It is a position it retains to this day but is now being challenged by cities in western Canada. In hindsight perhaps my parents, and all those others, overreacted to the events in Quebec. Perhaps more anglophones should have learned a of bit of French. At the time the unrest seemed very familiar to people who had experienced other civil conflicts.
My parents made a good choice in Canada. As country it has its problems and its own weaknesses but it inherited a strong parliamentary system and a tradition of respect for the rule of law. Its founding was based on compromise between mostly Protestant English-speakers and mostly Catholic French-speakers. In times of trouble the tradition of compromise has served Canada and its people well. That tradition helped when Canadians chose to embrace both multi-culturalism and bilingualism. It is a route that implies understanding and respect for those who are of a different race, religion, culture or speak a different language. The choice was made using open debate, the ballot box and in two official languages.
I often think of that day in October 1960 while the Empress of Honolulu waited patiently as the ground crew looked after her in Gander. I remember the gloom as I looked out through the port at the windswept snow and the gray sky in the half-light. In the end it turned out alright and the Empress was looking after a small boy and his family. Not long after we arrived in Canada my father--my parents both prided themselves as an amateur artists--painted a portrait of the Empress of Honolulu. Using a postcard as a model for his watercolour, the portrait depicted the Empress in flight with the sun glinting off her fuselage and engine nacelles. For many years the painting was stored in my father’s portfolio and it was a long time before I had it framed. Of my parents' paintings it is my favourite because of the memories it invokes. Other immigrants recall the ships they sailed on when they travelled from the old world to the new world, but I remember flying the Empress of Honolulu.
(This post is a reworking of an article I wrote for the Catalan-language magazine L'Avenç. That article was somewhat shorter and, of course, was directed to Catalan speakers.)