Saturday, March 15, 2008

What St. Patrick's Day means in Montreal

I blog with Irish whiskey (Jamie's) in my veins tonight.

This is St. Patrick's Day weekend in Montreal, and I imagine for Boston and New York as well. For those who haven't experienced it firsthand, it is perhaps best understood by its singularly unvarnished portrayal in a noteworthy Simpsons episode.

Montreal parade uninterrupted since 1824

Unlike the other two cities' parades, Montreal parade organizers have managed not to skip a year in nearly two centuries - this despite Quebec's penchant for long unforgiving winters. I used to routinely participate with vigor myself (once, even playing mandolin on a float, with painfully cold fingers).

What is special about the Montreal version is the extraordinary cultural openness of the parade. I don't know about the other two cities, but here the event multi tasks as both a festival of Spring and of multiculturalism - in the sense that the Irish were the first immigrants that could be deemed "them" by the existing "us" community; and therefore, stand as the flag-bearers for immigrants of all races and creeds that have seen fit to settle here. To their credit, the parade organizers have maintained an open-minded (and decidedly apolitical) atmosphere for the event, always welcoming to their parade, any community group that wished to participate as "Irish for a day" in the fun-loving spirit of the thing.

The result is a scene of humanity at its very best. Not just Scots, Brits and Quebecois de souche; but Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Spanish, Jamaican, Haitian, Russian, African, Arab, Jewish and others, all participate in this annual rite of Montreal Spring. We wear cheesey green plastic hats and drink green-tinted Labatt's Blue (among other beverages) and copulate fiercely on Ste. Catherines Street. Well, maybe fiercely isn't the best word, and perhaps copulation is rarely engaged-in (in view of the young'uns), but it's not terribly far away, what with all that booze flowing...

To what end this ramble, you ask?

Well, when I was still in my twenties, I used to work at the Peel Street McDonald's, just around the corner from the middle of the parade route. We would typically double our usual business for a Sunday in March, and we would have a couple of extra multi-gallon coffee decanters at the ready.

Thus, for ten years, I was witness to the parade and the joviality of its participants first-hand. I recall one year in the early 90's where a major blizzard had dumped 30+ centimetres of snow in the preceding 48 hours. That didn't stop the city from scrambling to clear the snow, and managing to still paint the traditional green hash marks down the center of the parade route. Nor did it stop the usual thousands of Montrealers from coming out to watch.

Another year, (perhaps the late 80's?) the parade day temperature was somewhere between frigid and colder than Stephen Harper's heart. I recall us repairing to the Mad Hatter's Pub by 12:30 pm to escape the cold, where we watched the parade on TV while sipping our pints.

During yet another year in those early nineties, I was a part of a celtic band called Killick's Claw, and we played at Buster Keaton's, followed by an evening gig at the Olde Orchard Pub, where we absolutely killed (bear in mind: the sobriety of our audiences was definitely questionable).

Most Unforgiving winter since the '98 Ice Storm

With that in mind, let me just say that this has undoubtedly been the toughest winter I have ever experienced in 38 years living in la Belle Province (with the possible exception of the one featuring the Ice Storm of 1998). Adding to the fun this year, I have a young family, and Montreal's snow removal capacity has been tested to such an extent that as of this writing, the sidewalk in front of my home has been unnavigable by poussette (baby stroller) for six days now.

So suffice it to say, if there was ever a year the city was really relying on its famous St. Patrick's Day parade to let loose and give winter the royal send-off it so rightfully deserves, it's the 2008 version.

And with that, I leave you with this snippet: is there any better metaphor for the promise of the New World than what this parade means for the diverse social patois of Montreal? Where we shed all the cultural and political baggage of our fore bearers to show solidarity of purpose with our fellow immigrant clans in carving out a niche for this generation and those to follow; one that is blessedly unhindered by the divisiveness of the squabbles and internecine battles that we - or our ancestors - chose to relieve ourselves of by emigrating from these places of never-ending conflict and heart-wrenching sorrow?

Bienvenue, welcome and Happy St. Patrick's Day

So to my fellow Montrealers - one of which is a new co-worker and dual Canadian-Lebanese citizen who moved to Montreal to escape the Israeli bombing campaign of 2006 - let me welcome you to the 2008 St. Patrick's Day Parade with open arms and a slug of Irish whiskey.

To you and all other arrivals, recent or otherwise: do come as you are, but not necessarily as you were.

Smile, sing and dance in the street. It is important to respect tradition, you know.

Most of all, welcome to your new home and new future. I know you will make the most of it, and I hope we entrenched Canadians don't disappoint. In the meantime, just

Cheers to you

- 30 -

1 comment:

Simon said...

Hi Scott!! I'm a bit late on this one. But nice post. It made me feel REALLY nostalgic. I always loved the St Pats parade because it was so eclectic and fun, compared to the rather grim SSJB one. Also the parade usually coincided with Montreal's sudden Spring. If you can believe it I also felt a little jealous at all the snow you guys got this year.I still miss the little bulldozers that whiz up and down the sidewalks....unlike TO where people must clean their own sidewalksand of course they don't.
On the other hand you don't remember the rowdy gang of gay kiddy punks that used to terrorize a certain McDo do you? No? Excellent :)