In the middle of the McGill University campus is a little sign saying that it marks a spot close to which Jacques Cartier discovered the native town of Hochelaga in 1535.
The sign lies just outside a path leading to the immense tent under which the McGill graduation ceremonies are held. Appropriately, someone --- I imagine probably some indigenous students --- have left some notices in two plant boxes under a sign that says:
HONOURING THOSE KIDS
WHO PASSED AWAY IN
A very pointed reference to the privileged position occupied by McGill graduates, compared with many others whose parents cannot afford university education for their children.
But by the time I saw the sign it read:
HONO RING HO KIDS
HO ASSED WAY IN
Evidently, vandals had been at work.
I have never understood vandalism, or the motives that could lie behind it. As much as I would welcome it if we were able to bring the whole structure of capitalism crashing down around our ears, I have never really thought that an efficacious way to do that would be to throw a brick through the window of the Royal Bank. I suppose even vandals must have a reason, probably a sub-conscious one, buried somewhere, deep in the history of their nurturing, or lack of it..
I did once have a nodding acquaintance with such an act of vandalism, but it happened in Port of Spain, Trinidad, I think it was in 1970, and I was whistled off as a reporter to cover the indignant marches undertaken there by the Black Power movement, in the course of which someone actually had thrown a brick through the window of the Royal Bank of Canada (an action with which I felt an instinctive sympathy, although I would never have had the courage or sheer chutzpah to do such a thing myself.)
I was delighted with the assignment, because ten years before, I had begun one of the best holidays of my life in Port of Spain, where my biggest pleasure had been to give lifts to some of the greatest calypsonians of all time, back across the mountains to the capital city, after spending a day at the superb beach of Maracas Bay. I always felt deeply honoured that such famous performers held in such immense esteem by the whole of Trinidad society, as these men were, were willing to cram into the back seat of the little car I hired, and to strum away and sing softly some of their calypsos, as if in payment for the lift. I was always conscious that in spite of their great artistry --- these were the men who had virtually invented a new art form --- they had been royally shafted when their original compositions had been pirated by the music industry of the western world without any acknowledgement or payment (I remember Lord Melody, still probably remembered as one of the top calypsonians of all time, as one of those to whom we offered this slight service. Twenty years later, in Antigua, I was having a lunchtime drink at a bar when a heavily-set, elderly man sat down next to me, and while chatting I started to tell him about this experience with Lord Melody. When I finished, he revealed himself to be none other than the Lord himself --- I didn’t know he was appearing that evening at a night club --- and I would have been in a tough spot if I had been making it all up. Twenty years before, his great hit had been Boo-boo Man. Now, his hit was Rasta Man, an equally tuneful and amusing ditty about social conditions in the islands.)
So, whenever I had been there, I had found Trinidad, a small nation, newly independent, pulsating with vigorous life. And during the week or so of my 1970s assignment, I tended to hangout with the Black Power leaders who gathered by day in Woodford Square. On the Friday before I was to leave, the Black Power movement had held a march into the sugar fields, which could have been interpreted as either an encouragement to the mostly Indian sugar field workers to join them in their protest, or as a provocation by which they were demanding the support of the Indians.
By pure happenstance, it was during this march that the verdict was delivered in Montreal to the case in which black students at Sir George Willams College (now Concordia University) had, in a fit of rage at perceived inequities in the system for marking their papers, smashed the computers provided for their use. The Black Power marchers were waiting for the verdict, and there was a certain amount of tension in the air. The New York Times reporter, with whom I was hanging out through most of the march, happened to be a black man, and I --- unless my memory has failed me --- was almost the only white man accompanying the march.
Fortunately for me, the verdict, when it was announced by the marchers, who heard it on their cellphones (or whatever small gadgets they were using in those days) was for acquittal, so they didn’t turn on me as the representative of the oppressors, which they might have supposed they had reason to do, had the verdict been for conviction.
I never actually covered the case, but I seem to remember that the Montreal students had a complaint against one professor in particular, whom they accused of marking them down on the basis of race. So, although their action did seem very close to an act of vandalism, in the final reckoning it escaped that charge by reason of having been provoked.
The Black Power march was on a Friday. On the Saturday, the day before I left for home, I went to a cricket match between Trinidad and Jamaica, where I was called down by some of the Black Power leaders who said I seemed to be a reasonable person, and would I sit with them. I had to defer, because I had already been invited to partake of a beautiful Indian feast during the luncheon interval by a fellow from San Fernando in rhe south of the island, who was sitting in front of me, and who had already supplied me with copious draughts from a bottle of Scotch. I do believe I have told that story in an earlier Chronicle, but I still think of it as one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life.
It is many years since I have been to the Caribbean. Not long before I left the newspaper in 1971 I was assigned to visit Jamaica because Princess Alice, who had been a royal personage living in Canada in her younger days, and was thus a friend of the proprietor of The Montreal Star, for which I worked, had made a gift of a chapel to the newly-established Jamaican campus of the University of the West Indies, and for this picayune reason, the opening ceremony of this chapel, I was assigned to visit the island and report on it. I had no objection at all. I always loved the heat of the Caribbean, and I found the vigour of the people refreshing, although it could sometimes appear slightly alarming if, as very occasionally could happen, someone could turn on us, as representatives of the former colonial powers, with a touch of hostility. Jamaica, in psrticulasr, always semed to be as place full of tension.
I could never blame them for that, because most of the people in these small islands were living in conditions of poverty, a state into which their colonial masters had firmly reduced them. The fact is, when slavery was abolished, huge reparations were paid to the slave masters, who subsequently built almost the entire wealth and might of the British Empire on the proceeds from their unpaid slave labour. All I can do now is to hope that the last thirty or forty years have at least modified substantially their poverty.
My abiding memory, however, is of the pleasure of their night clubs, where one could feel the floor and walls quivering from their vigorous dancing, and from the intense, blasting power of some of the best trumpet playing I have ever heard anywhere in the world.