Montreal Road’s Hidden Treasures

A clear, chilly Saturday morning in Vanier. A tour bus from Prince Edward Island rolls down Montreal Road from one of the numerous hotels, bound for Parliament Hill. It’s early enough that some of the tourists are probably still asleep. Not a bad thing either; there’s not much to see. Two porn theatres, a few greasy-spoon restaurants; two job placement centres, one of which had a queue even on a Saturday morning. Whatever the Maritimers came to see, this wasn’t it.

   Or was it? Anyone who was awake as the bus rolled past Hannah Ave. would have spotted the crates of vegetables in the ScotiaBank parking lot. The Vanier Farmers Market has been blooming here on Saturday mornings for the past year. “It’s a great improvement to the community,” says Giselle Lacombe as she avoids kicking a crate of carrots. “It helps out our local merchants, and it’s definitely a meeting place.” Lacombe has fallen in love with the farmers market since she was recruited to work it a year ago.   “I live in the West End, but I was the only French person the farmer knew, so he asked me to do this.”

   Bilingualism is definitely an asset here, where the green-and-white Franco-Ontarian flag flies in front of many businesses and the centre des services communautaires offers many services in French only. Montfort Hospital, the only francophone Canadian teaching hospital west of Quebec, is just down the road; the fight to keep it from closure by Queen’s Park in the 1990s was widely seen as a French-against-English battle. However, without rejecting its Francophone roots, Vanier proves there’s room for at least two cultures in a Canadian city. “It’s a historically French neighbourhood, but it’s very multicultural,” says farmers’ market manager John Becker. Indeed, the church across the street houses five different congregations and holds mass in English, French, Spanish and Inuktitut.  The Mennonite congregation is having its first charity flea market on the lawn. “Vanier doesn’t have the best reputation,” says volunteer furniture saleswoman Donna Mah, a new arrival from Calgary. “But it’s changing its image.”

The sun climbs higher in the sky. The tourists, without stopping to look at any of this, are on Rideau Street. It turns out the queue outside the employment centre at the Centre Francophone wasn’t for job placements, but for the bowling alley in the basement! The place is crowded now, with bowlers of all races and ages. “We always have our regulars—the younger people on Saturdays, Wednesday nights the elderly people, sometimes the handicapped,” says Nathalie Proulx, the chatty snack bar manager. “There’s always someone,” she says. “Toujours, toujours, toujours.” She’s a former bowler, but quit three years ago because she more enjoyed talking to the clientele. She now serves up hot dogs and poutine six days a week. “Sometimes there are nights where people speak English,” she says in French. “Sometimes I don’t know some word, so I ask them ‘what does it mean?’ and they tell me. And when I was little people laughed at my English, so I never laugh at anyone trying to get by in French.”

To discover what makes Vanier work, just look inside two stores along Montreal Road. Paul Lalan and Harlemm might as well be from different planets. Lalan is a middle-aged, French-speaking Congolese immigrant, a man of few words,  who owns Gigi’s   African Market at the corner of Lajoie St. Harlemm, who uses only one name, is a heavily tattooed self-described “punk rocker” who works the cash at the Salvation Army. They are both in Vanier for the same reason, however: they fit here. “Everyone knows me here,” Lalan says. “We’re like friends and family.”

“No one judges me,” says Harlemm simply.

 

<i> <font size=”-2″>Kicking myself for not asking to take pictures of these guys, especially the two shopkeepers. Cool assignment, renewed my belief in the ‘everybody’s got a story’ theory</font></i>

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