I first set foot in Ireland when my husband, Neil, was asked to write the biography of John Main, a Benedictine monk, one of the most colourful and memorable people we had ever met.
Working on that book, In The Stillness Dancing, was , I think, one of the happiest times of Neil’s entire life, combining his interest in spirituality and his love of writing.
Douglas Main, as he was christened, had grown up in London where his father was working on the new transatlantic cable. As a young member of the British Foreign Service, he was stationed in Malaya, where he met a Hindu Swami. This man was a statesman, founder of an orphanage for the four great religions of Malaya. He insisted each child keep his or her own religion. After the Japanese war, when he carried food to the exhausted railway workers, he chaired the first inter-faith conference in that part of the world. From him, Douglas learned an ancient tradition of prayer, using a mantra or prayer word.
Much later, as a Benedictine headmaster at a school in Washington DC, John Main, as he now was, rediscovered this same form of meditation in the Christian tradition, hidden away in some of the old writings.
In the early 70s Bishop Leonard Crowley of Montreal had asked Father John to create a monastery in the city. A ‘safe space’ for English-speaking Montrealers, at a time of tensions within the province with thousands of English-speaking Quebeckers leaving the province for other parts of Canada.
Neil heard about the new monastery through a friend, and dragged me kicking and screaming to an old house on Vendôme avenue, where we sat on creaky sofas rescued from the Salvation Army. I had never met a monk before and was not sure if I wanted to just now, when I was enjoying the social life of the media world Neil inhabited.
That first evening, when I heard John Main speak, I knew I was hearing the same authenticity I had experienced as a child with my grandmother. Lydia Orford Fleming was the daughter of an anglo-irishman James Orford, who bought two acres of land on Parliament street in what is now known as Cabbagetown in Toronto.
Lydia invited other Canadian families to join her in funding medical services for women in India. She dragged her two protesting youngest daughters, Agnes and Evelyn with her on a long sea-voyage to India, along with her glamorous daughter in law, Helen Hyde Fleming.
Agnes and Dr. Evelyn Fleming on either side of Lydia Orford Fleming; Helen Hyde Fleming (Lloyd Fleming’s wife) in India.
Aunt Evelyn is clearly scowling: this was not my idea, you can see her thinking. She had been enjoying a glamorous social life in London, England, as a young surgeon, graduate of Edinburgh University. She had been received at court with three feathers in her hair and a long lace train, on the arm of a handsome Middle east diplomat, whose name was Jamal. The hot clime of India triggered a painful attack of her Rheumatoid arthritis.
Then one day in London, England, she was walking down Hyde Park from her beloved Dorchester Hotel when a warm feeling like ten valiums came over her and she knew she was going back to India as a doctor. She consulted a specialist in California, went on a diet, cutting her sugar intake by half and returned to India for 25 years, with occasional furloughs home.
In India, aunt Ev trained a whole staff of Indian nurses. I grew up with a radiant photo of Aunt Ev, a young nurse in her sari and a beaming 10 year old girl standing between them on crutches, with one leg cut off at the knee. She had been left for dead by her distraught family as had a little boy, whom Aunt Ev had found by the roadside – an unrecognisable bundle.
Aunt Ev was one of the first woman to graduate in Medicine in Canada. In India she studied eye medicine under Sir Henry Holland, sewed up a man attacked by a tiger, and drove fearlessly in the Himalayas to find survivors after an earthquake.
A few minutes of heroism brought this taxi driver three years of grief
The morning of Wednesday, February 21, 1973, was cold and clear in Montreal. Shortly before 9:30, taxi driver Marcel Belisle, 36, was cruising down St. Urbain Street, keeping a sharp eye out for customers.
At the corner of Duluth Avenue, he noticed a tractor-trailer moving alongside of him. Paying no attention, he drove as far as St. Cuthbert Street, only to find the huge vehicle abreast of him again, this time blocking his view on the left. He glanced up at its cab — and couldn’t believe his eyes. There was no driver!
Belisle sped ahead of the phantom truck, stopped his car in the middle of the road, and leaped behind the wheel of the enormous vehicle as it passed.
To his horror, Belisle discovered that he couldn’t stop the truck. The air brakes wouldn’t work, neither would the emergency brake. Frantically he tried to switch the gears into neutral; they were stuck in drive. He turned off the ignition. But the huge truck, 48 tons with its load of 31 crates of mirrors, continued to lumber down the gently sloping street.
Suddenly the slope was steeper; now Belisle was rolling along between 40 and 50 miles an hour. Desperately he swung the vehicle as hard as he could onto a rapidly emptying patch of sidewalk beside Hotel-Dieu Hospital, scraping the thick stone wall of the ancient building.
Still the truck was moving, bearing down on the next cross street, busy Pine Avenue. The street was full of traffic: men, women, children, and cars. Noticing that the light was green, Belisle had but one thought: I’ve got to get across before the light changes. Uprooting a lamp post on its unstoppable dash, the truck shot across the intersection the instant the light changed.
As it sped on toward the heart of the city, Belisle realized there was only one hope of stopping it before somebody was killed: he had to cut its speed and find a level place where he could turn in. Like a hockey player throwing body checks, the big vehicle slammed into a car, damaging it badly. It then hit a large supermarket truck, forcing it into another car. Still unable to stop, the runaway mastodon, its front already twisted into a heap of scrap, hit a fourth, then a fifth car. Finally, having managed to cut his speed in half by these maneuvers, Belisle spotted a parking lot on the other side of Pine Avenue. He turned sharply to the right and headed for an empty area behind the lots chain link fence. Just as he was crunching to a halt on the parking-lot fence, he turned over yet another car, bringing the number of vehicles damaged to a total of six.
Truck driver Roland Levesque, who had observed the drama and had been following Belisle’s erratic course in his own vehicle, was the first to reach him. Despite fears that the vehicle would catch fire, he tore open the right-hand door and found the brave cabbie wedged between the seat and the wheel. Belisle was conscious — but bleeding profusely.
The first policeman to reach Belisle told him that a man had one chance in a million to do what he did and come out alive. Replied Belisle: “I was thinking of all the people who could have been run over”
Indeed, as he lay on a stretcher in the parking lot, Belisle had his first chance to think about what he had done. He had reacted instinctively. He hadn’t even wondered why the truck was moving without a driver. He had just thought of getting aboard and stopping it. Now he heard voices around him talking about it. The truck, a 1965 Mack, had been parked in front of the White Mirror and Glass Company on St. Urbain Street. The driver had left the motor running while making a delivery. He had put the emergency brake on, but it had apparently failed.
Belisle was taken to Hotel-Dieu, where he was found to have a fractured pelvis and wounds requiring twelve stitches on the thumb of his right hand, eight above the left eye, and two at the corner of his mouth, and to have lost two teeth. Shortly after his admittance, two policemen arrived and proceeded to draw up a report against him. He was actually accused of having stolen the truck!
Resting later in a private room, he realized that it was 1:30 and he had not yet phoned his wife. He was in the habit of calling her four or five times a day, for Joce- lyne Belisle, at 33, was doubly handicapped: she had heart trouble, and had lost a leg following an accident.
So he called. Before he could say much, she greeted him with the news that a courageous taxi driver had stopped a runaway truck; “the radio said he was hovering between life and death.”
“Honey,” Marcel Belisle gently interrupted. “That taxi driver. It was me. But don’t get upset. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“I can’t believe it! Are you going back to work? You won’t go, will you?”
“Tm coming home, Jocelyne,” he promised.
When he hung up, Marcel decided to go home although he had not yet had the blood transfusion that the doctors had ordered. With his good left hand he slipped his shirt on, then his bloodstained sweater and pants, and finally his shoes, which he couldn’t lace, and his boots. Only one nurse, who tried in vain to stop him, saw him as he dragged himself along a corridor to the front door.
But as he walked out the door and made his way painfully down the steps, he was surprised by several people who had been waiting for a chance to congratulate him. He smiled, accepted their greetings, and moved as quickly as he could to his taxicab, which the police had brought to the hospital’s parking lot. Dog-tired and aching, he managed to drive 15 miles to his home in Laval, where his wife and their two daughters, Joanne and Chantal, were waiting for him.
Belisle couldn’t work —his injuries were too severe —but he didn’t worry much at the start. After all, somebody representing the owners of the runaway truck had called to promise that their insurance would cover him. Within a few days, however, he was in difficulty. When he called the truck company to ask for a paltry $10 advance on his indemnity, a voice on the line told him: “My dear fellow, we have to wait for the insurance settlement. I don’t want to get mixed up in it.”
When an insurance representative did come to Belisle, it was to tell him that “he had no business getting mixed up in this; the truck would have stopped on its own” However, the agent offered Belisle $500, as compensation for his trouble.
“That takes the cake!” Belisle cried. Humiliated, and made to feel that he was somehow to blame for having risked his life to save others, he turned down “this charity.”
Because of his money problems, the newspapers kept up their interest in Belisle’s story. The insurance company decided to raise its offer to $2300. But that would be it. “Take it or leave it,” the cabbie was told.
The alternative was the costly business of going to court, and the outcome would be doubtful. An investigation had revealed some defects in the truck, but none so serious that the owners would have been required to take it off the road; there was no question of criminal negligence. Ironically, Belisle was told that if he had been hit by the truck instead of leaping into it to try to stop it, he might have had a claim against them. Since the insurer was now offering enough money to tide him over for the moment, he decided to take it and sign a release.
Happily, the lack of generosity on the part of those who benefited from Belisle’s courageous act was partly offset by public concern about him. Many individuals were moved and sent him donations of $2, $5 or $10. The total came to nearly $300. Deeply appreciative, Belisle nevertheless felt despondent. He had always been able to support his family.
In another newspaper interview, a month after the accident, Belisle expressed his gratitude and announced that he was able to resume his job and life was normal again. But it wasn’t so. Five months of treatment and convalescence lay ahead before he could take to the road again. And during those months he wasn’t eligible for unemployment insurance, nor could he get workmens compensation — because his exploit in stopping the truck had nothing to do with his work.
The only solution was to go into debt. And he did, in order to provide for his family and meet the mortgage payments until he was working again. When he finally did get back behind the wheel of his cab in August 1973, he worked relentlessly for 1 5 hours a day, seven days a week, to try to keep himself afloat. He was unable, however, to make much of a dent in his debts which, with interest, now totaled some $7000.
Many months went by before Marcel Belisle was in the newspapers again. It happened on December 13, 1974, when he went to Ottawa to receive the Star of Courage from Governor-General Jules Leger. The citation, read during an imposing investiture ceremony, spoke of “an act of conspicuous courage performed in circumstances of great peril.” From now on, Marcel Belisle had the right to add the letters S.C. after his signature.
The awards continued. In 1976 the Montreal Citizenship Council, representing 64 associations, honored him with its title of Outstanding Citizen. On May 15, accompanied by his family, he was honored at an official dinner in the Mount Royal Chalet, where 600 invited guests gave him a standing ovation.
“I was very calm,” says Belisle, “until I saw everybody standing up and cheering. Then I felt my legs shaking. But I was deeply grateful to them all, and it made me forget my troubles for the moment.”
Troubles he had. But among those stirred by the occasion was radio commentator Neil McKenty of station CJAD, who thought society owed a debt to Belisle that it had not repaid. Determined to relieve Belisle once and for all of the financial problems he had incurred by stopping the truck and injuring himself, McKenty launched a broadcast appeal for $7000—a sum that would enable Belisle to get out of debt and lead a reasonably normal life.
On the evening of Monday, May 17, hundreds of listeners responded generously to McKenty s special broadcast. In the space of three hours, $10,000 was subscribed. For the next three weeks, checks kept coming in to the radio station, reaching a total of $11,700.
Belisle caught the broadcast when he stopped in at his neighborhood garage. He immediately called Jocelyne to tell her the news, but she had already been notified by the station and seemed quite overcome. Worried about her heart condition, Marcel hurried home and drove her to the hospital. While waiting in the emergency department, he called CJAD to inform McKenty of the poignant turn of events and to thank the listeners, jocelyne recovered and together, their financial burdens somewhat lightened, they operate a small grocery next door to their home. Marcel also continues to drive his cab, while seeking a different job which would allow him to spend more time with his family.
Marcel’s ordeal will pay off ultimately in better protection for other good Samaritans. His case spurred the Montreal Citizenship Council to present a report to the Quebec justice department advocating the indemnification of persons injured in the execution of heroic deeds, in the same way that victims of criminal acts are compensated. Such protection is already law in most European countries, as well as the provinces of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Alberta.
In any event, Marcel believes he could not have behaved otherwise on that cold morning four years ago. He recalls one time, not long after the accident, when his wife was crying; she remarked how much easier life had been “before.”
“What would you have done if you had seen all those people in danger?” he asked her.
“I’d have run to help them,” she sobbed.
“That’s what I did,” he explained simply.
Reader’s Digest March 1977
Click below to hear how Neil started the fund-raising on CJAD.
Montreal’s municipal gvernment has given conditional support to the city getting its first drug-injection site — a clean well-lighted place inside of which drug users could shoot up cocaine, heroin or anything else, with a nurse on hand to supervise. Indeed city hall wants three such sites plus a large van that could travel around the city offering the same service to a less mobile clientele.
The experience of North America’s first such site in Vancouver showed that such sites could prevent overdose deaths, avert the spread of disease from dirty needles and assist the entry of addicts into detox programs.
As of now about 70 Montrealers a year die from overdoses and injection-transmitted diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C so the sooner these sites are up and running the sooner lives will be saved.
Still, there is opposition to these plans. Would you want such a drug injection site in your neighborhood? Such a site could attract people with mental health problems, beggars and sellers of drugs.
One suggestion is to put such sites inside CLSCs and hospitals. But would the addicts go to these institutions?
Would you agree to a drug injection site in your neighborhood.
Should we have drug injection sites to save lives?
After decades of denying and covering up widespread sexual abuse by its members at College Notre Dame in Montreal, the private school and its religious owners, the Brothers of the Holy Cross, agreed yesterday to pay their victims $18 million – the largest payout ever in Canada by a religious order.
Ironically, the perpetrators who are still alive are not in prison, they reside in the Order’s luxurious retirement home in Laval. So far as I know no restrictions on their movements.
Rene Cornellier, the father of one of the victims, thinks the punishment is not severe enough. His son, Rene Jr., before his death of Aids, tried in vain to convince the school authorities to put an end to the system of abuse. They did not now. Now the angry and embittered father is demanding that the names of the abusing brothers be publicly made known.
Do share your favourite restaurants with us. Some day we may be in your neck of the woods and will be looking for aa good place to eat.
I will divide my three favourites into breakfast, lunch and dinner.
For breakfast you can’t go wrong with Beauty’s (established in 1942) and located on Mount Royal Ave. in the Plateau. Catharine and I often go there early Saturday morning. We have fresh chilled orange juice, a stack of blueberry pancakes smothered in maple syrup accompanied by crisp crisp bacon, all washed down by gallons of rich black coffee. Often there is a line-up but that is samll price to pay for Beauty’s.
For lunch or brunch we head out to St. Jaques in Notre Dame de Grace to Cora’s. Cora is a French-Canadian entrepreneur who from a single site has built a chain of restaurants across Quebec and across Canada. We tuck into onion soup and fresh fruit with custard. YUm, Yum.
For dinner we fetch up aat the famous Schwartz’s (a.k.a. the Hebrew Delicatessan) on St. Laurent Boulevard just around the corner from Beauty’s. Another line-up here. When we get into the restaurant that goes back to 1928 (and does not take credit cards) we seat cheek by jowel with a group that resembles the inside of a Montreal bus and sprinkled with some gaily dressed tourists. My regular here is a medium-rare Rib Eye steak, sizzling between crisp French fries and a gargantuan sour pickle. This is the real McCoy.
A new study by the Quebec Human Rights Commission raises some troubling questions about racial profiling by the Montreal police. In 2006 and 2007 , as police cracked down on youth gangs, nearly 40 per cent of the young people in the borough of Montreal North and and St. Michel were stopped and asked for their identification at least once. Just six per cent of white youth experienced the same checks.
As Premier Charest says, it is difficult to justify ID checks of people with no criminal record and no gang links, which result in neither an arrest or a ticket. These checks are justifiably resented. Also the study notes complaints about “a disproportiante deployment of police resources” in neighborhoods with many visible minorities.
Only 6.5 per cent of permanent positions in the Montreal police force are filled with visible minorities. Contrast this with the figure 19.3 per cent in the Toronto police force.
Should the Montreal police force commit to intensive recruitment efforts among minority communities?
A homeless shelter for alcoholics in Ottawa is practicing an unusual treatment for problem drinkers. On the hour over a daily period of 12 hours they give each alcoholic a generous glass of wine. This amounts to 72 ounces or about three bottles of wine a day.
The rationale for this unique treatment (run by medical personnel) is that it takes the worst alchoholics off the streets, their lives calm down, and daily police pickups, ambulance rides and emergency room visits are replaced with harm reduction and far better care. “The alternative”said one caregiver ” “is drinking themselves to death”.
By giving them five ounces of wine an hour, the recipients no longer resort to drinking such harmful substances as paint thinner, mouth wash or aftershave. Once the drinking is stabilized, they then start to work on other aspects of their lives.
It also emerges that only one out of 55 gives up drinking on their own.
The people the Ottawa Centre deals with are those who have been on the streets drinking to unconsciousness for an average of 35 years.
A medical group in Montreal would like to see the “wet” program in Ottawa established in our city. Montreal has between 3,000 and 5,000 homeless people with each one costing the taxpayers $55,000 for healh care etc.
However, not everyone agrees with the Ottawa program. Cyril Morgan, director of the Welcome Hall Mission, says he’s “not convinced it’s the way to go.”
“It doesn’t wean them off, it pacifies them for the time they’re in the program. Once you take them out of that environment, then what?”
Would you like to see the Ottawa “wet” program in Montreal?
Should they give wine to alcoholics?
What do you think?
Research on the program has shown that health and hygiene improved and some participants even stopped drinking entirely. (I’m from Missouri on that one.)
It is estimated that 20 per cent of alcoholics require some kind of intervention to stop drinking. The Ottawa “wet” program targets four per cent of that group.
Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine has named Canadiens fans as the worst in the National Hockey League and the 11th worst in professional sports. Here is an example of the piece: “In 2003, team veteran Patrice Brisbois was heckled almost every time he touched the puck; the jeering was so intense it likely induced a stress-related irregular heart beat. How did then GM Bob Gainey feel about his bloodthirsty fan base? ‘I think they’re abunch of gutless bastards, to be honest,’ he said.
The Habs were the only club to crack the top 15 of “the meanest fans in America.”