The best thing our 1968 move back from London, England to Montreal bought us was the extra space in the big house we bought in Outremont, with its backyard, such a relief after bringing up three little boys in a smallish upstairs apartment. (I have dealt with that in my previous Chronicle).
However, the house was just the beginning of the extra space we were able to purchase. I had some time to fill in after we arrived back before the house I had bought was ready to move into, and a young woman, Merrily Weisbord, who had followed my weekly articles on the London theatre, and had interviewed me on a previous visit, suggested we might rent one of the small cottages her family had in a property they owned about 40 miles north of the city. So off we went, and we found this remarkable establishment, known as Weisbord Acres, halfway along the road between Shawbridge and St. Hippolyte. This was more than just “a property” ---- it was more of a social centre, and it had what I thought was a rather romantic origin, having first been established in I believe the 1930s, as a Communist camp, used as a family recreation and educational centre.
The way the story was told to me was that the grandfather of the present generation of younger Weisbords had been a sort of Russian peasant by origin, and his belief was that when times went bad, as they were certainly going in the early 1930s, the only sure defence was to have a plot of land on which one could grow potatoes. His wife apparently was a Communist intellectual, so between them they bought quite a considerable area of bush-covered land, on which they established one of several camps that were built at that time by various left-wing groups scattered around the Laurentiens north of Montreal. On the upper reaches of the land there was --- and is --- a small lake, from which a small stream runs down towards the road. They dammed this stream and created a more accessible lake running alongside the road, around which, by the time we arrived in the late 1960s, the later generations of the family had built comfortable and well-appointed homes surrounding the lake.
In from the road, however, the atmosphere of a family camping place had been preserved, with about a dozen small cottages in which friends of the family normally passed their summers. They had also built an immense communal barn that became the centre of all the activities of the yearly camp. The parents got together every year, hired four counsellors, and they were responsible for providing programmes for the children of the various families. In this atmosphere, whole generations of young people had for many years passed almost idyllic summers, which certain of the adults, especially a dentist by the name of Ralph Silverstone, who had a large family of kids, had been careful to record on camera, his record of past years being always one of the most popular events in the big barn each year.
Of course, the Communist connection had long since fallen by the wayside. The children of the original owners became Communists after the war, but in 1956 Khrushchev’s speech about the crimes of Stalin led to massive defections from Communist parties throughout the world, and in Montreal these men and women had gone into various businesses which by the time I made their acquaintance, appeared to have earned them an affluent lifestyle.
After we had spent the greater part of the first summer there, the older Weisbords told me that a house on the road had been burned down, and if I was interested they would be agreeable to selling the land to me so that I could establish a summer cottage there. That seemed like a good idea, so I bought the land and bought from a source in Vancouver what was known as a Pan-a-bode cedar log building that fitted together in a tongue-and-groove fashion without using any nails. The cedar logs were thick enough that we were assured no additional insulation would be needed. We hired a local contractor to put the building together, over a basement containing a furnace, which meant that we could use it for winter weekends as well as summer. We drew our water from the lake --- not an ideal arrangement, but one that served for the limited amount of days we were spending there.
In London, our children had become accustomed to our taking them for a month-long camping holiday to France every summer; so when that was replaced by a number of summers at Weisbord Acres, I think we could say they had had in their early years an upbringing that exposed them to plenty of sunshine and open air.
As our peripatetic life developed, our children had plenty of opportunity to understand what it was like to be members of a minority, an excellent thing for kids to learn as they grew up, I always thought: first, Canadians brought up among middle-class English in London; second, Anglophones educated in French schools in Montreal; later, foreign kids among the easy-going New Zealanders during our 18 months of residence in my home country; and, since during our six years of membership we were the only non-Jews in the settlement of Weisbord Acres, I suppose one could count this as a further experience of the kind, although I believe none of our fellow members of the community were what might be called observing Jews, and the question of their Jewishness and our non-Jewishness never came up between us. I always thought these experiences were good for us all, especially for our kids, who thoroughly enjoyed every summer they spent at Weisbord Acres. It became a kind of tradition that on the night before Christmas each year, we held a little party for the community in our log cabin at which we all shared one of the delicious hams from the restaurant Petit Poucé, a few miles north on the route through the Laurentiens. I discovered recently that this restaurant still exists, though, like everything else in life, their specially-cured hams have become pretty expensive these days.
I especially remember one summer when among the four chosen camp counsellors were a young black man from the United States, Charles, and a ridiculously handsome and charismatic Cree boy, Gilbert. The kids took to both of these lads, but especially to Gilbert, like a duck to water, and their relationship with these counsellors I always considered to be a major addition to their youthful educations. As it happens, both of these young men within a few years were sentenced to terms of imprisonment, but for me that never dimmed the value they gave our kids during their counsellorship at the camp. Charles was found to have been on the run from the law in the United States when he took the job, which explained why, on the days when it was our turn to give him lunch in our cottage, he seemed to be so nervous under my nonstop questioning --- a habit from my journalistic training --- as to his background. Gilbert had already been part of the Indian film crew established by the National Film Board, and had also studied at the National Theatre School. Eventually he retired to his community in James Bay following the settlement the Cree made with the government over the hydro-electric scheme built in their traditional lands, where he married the prettiest girl, produced six children, ran the gas-station (a fate no one would have ever guessed for him), and later was caught in some sexual offences for which I have to say in his defence, his experiences as a small boy in the residential schools had prepared the way.
Our tenure at Weisbord Acres ended when we moved to New Zealand in March of 1975. Not everything had always gone smoothly: I remember another community member and I were united in some fairly brisk disagreement with other members of the community before we left.
I sold my cottage to a friend who later enlarged it, and made it the centre for his own children’s happy summers in the Laurentien bush. Typically, I messed up the sale: just before my friend came to view the place, and convinced he would never want to buy it, I signed up with a real estate agent to take care of it in my absence. So I had to pay six per cent of the sale price to the agent, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the sale. Just another triumph in the sales history of one Boyce Richardson, who somehow or other has almost always managed to smudge the impact of any major money exchange he has ever been involved in.