Friday, August 30, 2019

My Log 753 August 24 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 188 Remember the name Gerry Fortin; he and I wrote a book about his life, and in the coming months I will publish occasional extracts from the book; it tells the history of modern Quebec as seen by a committed working man

Gérard Fortin --- 1
From the book Life of the Party, by Boyce Richardson and Gérard Fortin, published by Véhicule Press, Montreal, 1984

I would like my select band of readers to remember the name Gérard Fortin, an old friend of mine, unfortunately  no longer with us, about whom I wrote a book in 1984 called Life of the Party.  I have been re-reading the book, which was read by hardly anybody at the time, and I have once again found Gerry’s story both so amusing and so inspiring that I have decided to drop extracts from the book into the Chronicles from time to time in the coming months.
Gerry was no saint, and never claimed to be. He was a rough, tough-as-nails son-of-a-gun, born into poverty, virtually uneducated,  who spent the better part of his life as a dedicated worker for the Communist Party, and ended it as a militant for the independentist Parti Québecois. But he had the sort of self-deprecating  humour that is so often lacking among people of the left, and he could keep us all laughing at his tales of his misspent life. That is why I suggested I might record the story of his life. Actually, although I wrote the book, we launched it as co-authors. He told it to me, and I wrote it. It was published by Véhicule Press, of Montreal, and neither of us, nor the publisher, ever made a nickel out of it. I think the publishers  still have copies in their basement.
Underneath his physical and mental toughness, Gerry was a sweet guy. He recalls in the book that when, getting along in years, a woman friend called Marge suggested they should get married. “I managed to put her off, telling her I wasn’t the marrying kind, I had no money, little prospect of ever getting any, that I wasn’t exactly a good catch for any woman. ‘Still, Gerry,’ she said gently, ‘you are the nicest man I’ve ever met.’”
A year or two later, when he was 33 “and had been strenuously avoiding permanent relationships with women ever since I was seventeen,” he narrowly escaped death when he accidentally ran his car into the river, and when he saw how Marge had rallied around, he said to himself “Jesus Christ, maybe I should marry her.”
He adds: “I decided to make the move. I asked her if she would marry me. Well, she started to laugh. She laughed until the tears were rolling down her cheeks. ‘If I said, yes, Gerry, you’d run out of this apartment before I could say goodbye.’ So that was the end of my first big decision for matrimony.”
He later did marry, and settled down with his wife Marie-Paule on a piece of land near L’Annonciation, in Canton Marchand, on the road north from Montreal into the Laurentiens, between St. Jovite and Mont Laurier. There was a leftist connection even to the land he settled on. He bought 13 acres from a remarkable, eccentric man called Major R.T Lafond, who had arrived back from the First World War with a British accent, become a physical instructor  in Montreal high schools (Pierre Elliott Trudeau was one of his pupils), and had bought himself 320 acres of land in the Laurentiens to which, when Duplessis padlocked the Communist Party summer camp, he welcomed the Party as tenants. In long discussions, they convinced him to join, and for years he was one of those stalwart members (Gerry being another) who stood for Parliament and collected the usual 100 or so votes. Until he died in 1981, his very presence infuriated the local clergy and police, as he walked the village streets, always wearing a pair of yellow shorts he had brought back from the war, never ceasing to advocate his strident anti-clericalism.
To record Gerry’s reminiscences, I would drive over from Ottawa, through the back roads, across the country north of the Ottawa river, coming out at about St.Jovite. I would  leave home at 7 am, arriving at 9 am. Gerry would be up, jigging around in a pair of briefs, preparing breakfast, after which we would get down to work over the tape-recorder. He had recently been through some tough times. Employed  as a sanitary  inspector by the local municipality to enforce new regulations requiring cess pools in all residences, he ran up against a group of sore-asses who took against him so furiously that they burned his house to the ground. He told me that my forcing him to confront his past with  my questioning, rescued him from a deep depression during which he was thinking of killing himself.
At about 11 am, after working a couple of hours, he would say, “time for a petit gin,” open a new 40-ouncer, and we would carry on with the work and the drinking until 11 pm.  Gerry, among other remarkable attributes, was the biggest drinker I have ever met in my life. After a day of drinking I would arise the next morning feeling on the point of death, only to find him, up at 7 a.m. jigging around the kitchen, looking as if he never touched the stuff. It was, however, the demon drink that caught up with him eventually: a few years later, suffering from a shoulder complaint, he was put under anaesthetic for an operation, and he never succeeded in coming out of it. He died at the age of 70.
Gerry was born into an illiterate family south of Quebec City in 1923, and the book opens with one of his first memories. His mother married at 17, died at 29, and left behind her 11 children. The parish priest had told his parishioners they must go to the Fortin home and decide which of them would take over the raising of which children. So, there they stand on Page 1, all dressed in their best, as the neighbours say, “I’ll take this one,”  or “I’ll take the baby”, and so on. 
The beginning of the tumultuous, fighting life that was the essence of Gérard Fortin, a devoted son of Québec.

1 comment:

  1. Just saw this comment on another forum that I think you could relate to, Boyce ... "Jon Hardy Ah, the myth of the "free market place." I, too, like free markets, when we have small enterprises well regulated that produce something worthwhile. But private business never has and cannot tackle everything needed by the public and is at odds with us when not given limits. It's overriding purpose is to produce profit for its owners, whatever the cost. Further, it's well known that capital over time centralizes into fewer and fewer hands, concentrating wealth and power. It never stays a system of small shops. Markets aren't free where dominated by monopolies and oligopolies, and we aren't free either. Enormous wealth concentration clearly is incompatible with democracy, and its wealthiest use their wealth and power to divide us by race, class, religion, national origin, gender, etc. to keep themselves in power."