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Contested Commemoration Montreal History

Oscar Peterson & Commemorative Path Dependency

Oscar Peterson was a jazz legend and the pride of Montreal, but why are people so insistent he have a transit station named after him?

Above: Oscar Peterson gives Dick Cavett a piano lesson.

There are many interesting things about the above clip, not least of which is a late-night host asking a master pianist technical questions for the appreciation and benefit of a general audience. It’s an excellent demonstration of just how phenomenal a pianist Oscar Peterson truly was. He’s also effortlessly charming and funny too.

If you’ve heard of proposals to name or rename something after Peterson you’ve doubtless also heard quite a bit of opinion on the matter. Before we jump into the Oscar Peterson commemoration debate, please take a minute to watch the above clip and/or listen to Mr. Peterson’s music while you read this article. There seems to be a rather sizeable gulf between the number of people who have an opinion on naming something after Oscar Peterson and those who actually know the music he recorded and performed. To facilitate a greater appreciation of Oscar Peterson, his music and performances will be included sporadically throughout this article.

As a public historian, Montrealophile and jazz enthusiast, you probably wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that I’d support the public commemoration of not only one of the city’s greatest cultural exports, but one of the towering giants of jazz music. That’s an important thing to remember about Oscar Peterson: he wasn’t just our hometown hero participating in the Golden Age of jazz; he was a superstar of international renown.

That said, I’m not convinced naming a REM station or a public plaza, or re-naming a Métro station, is the right way to go, commemoration-wise.

Origins of the commemoration debate

The Oscar Peterson commemoration saga is now over 12 years old, and it has a very specific and interesting origin story. The first appeal to rename Lionel-Groulx Métro station for Oscar Peterson came about in early 2008, shortly after Peterson passed away, and started online, on that well-known social media platform that started out as a means for a lonely nerd to objectify the women on campus he didn’t have the stones to go talk to (my elderly Italian relatives call it the boo-ka-di-facci; on principle, I won’t refer to it by name).

The Montreal Gazette picked up the story and ran with it early on. The proposal was made by Michael Citrome, who, five years earlier, was a regular if short-lived personal finance and lifestyle writer for the newspaper. One of his published articles from 2004 actually shares space with an advertisement for an Oscar Peterson concert DVD, back when newspapers paid freelancers to write about stuff with advertising revenue. In the Gazette’s articles concerning the original proposal to rename the station, Citrome’s prior relationship with the paper wasn’t mentioned. The initial petition earned about 5,000 signatures.

That aside, in 2008 there already was a rather fitting commemoration: the concert hall at Concordia’s Loyola Campus had been named for Peterson during his lifetime.

Above: the breathtaking C Jam Blues session, from the mid-1960s

Citrome’s proposal argued that Peterson deserves a greater degree of commemoration and that Lionel Groulx deserves far less. Renaming the Métro station would allow the city to kill two birds with one stone: eliminate the controversial place name and replace it with someone who was from the neighbourhood, better known and, most importantly, not alleged to be a virulent anti-Semite and fascist apologist.

Who was Lionel Groulx?

The Abbé Lionel Groulx was a Catholic priest and Quebec historian who popularized a very specific type of conservative, ultramontane Quebec nationalism. He wrote prolifically and is credited with reinvigorating interest in Quebec’s early history, particularly the French Colonial period, which he wrote about in glowing, heroic terms. Groulx is commemorated in different forms: he has a CEGEP, a mountain and a street in Montreal named for him. According to the transit commission, the Métro station is named for the eponymous nearby street, and not the man himself.

In 1992 a political science PhD by the name of Esther Delisle defended her thesis at the Université de Laval in Quebec City. What would normally have taken just a few months had been dragged out for over two years: Delisle’s thesis claimed Groulx – and several other prominent Quebec intellectuals in the 1930s – harboured a deep resentment of the Jewish people (among others) and were far too supportive of fascism and fascist movements in Quebec and Europe. Her thesis might have been considered pioneering academic research had it not occurred in Quebec in 1992. Delisle’s thesis was pilloried in the press before she even had a chance to defend it. She was told in no uncertain terms she was committing career suicide, and that she would never teach in the province. Ultimately her thesis was approved, but only by the narrowest of margins.

Delisle argued her research demonstrably proved Groulx was antisemitic but this hinged on demonstrating patterns in writing style that appeared in articles, essays and letters published in Le Devoir not under Groulx’s name. Delisle argued Groulx used pseudonyms and this is a major point of contension. Groulx also said many things over the course of his career, some more damning than others, and some that seemed to contradict his other statements.

Though the debate as to just how antisemitic Groulx truly was continues, even those critical of Delisle tend to agree in principle Groulx was an anti-Semite (or Catholic supremacist) whose worldview is very much at odds with contemporary Quebec society. One of the earliest proposals to rename the Métro station apparently came from Jack Jedwab, though this is said to have been made ‘off the cuff’, back in 1996. Jedwab didn’t propose a new name at the time, but questioned the sense of having something named for Groulx. The reaction to Jedwab’s comments were swift and weren’t particularly open-minded. At least one scholar indicated re-naming the Métro station would open Pandora’s Box, and that history ‘can’t be judged by modern social norms.’

Sound familiar?

Above: Peterson performing his trademark Boogie Blues Etude, mid-1970s

The issue of course isn’t that re-naming one thing leads to re-naming everything; that’s a specious argument. Rather, the issue is that commemoration hasn’t kept pace with the society and culture that lives with it. In 2020, much like in 2008, 1996 or 1992, Montreal isn’t nearly as ethnically, culturally, linguistically, racially or religiously homogeneous as it was during Groulx’s lifetime or during the French Colonial Era. You don’t have to be a public historian to guess – correctly – that the overwhelming majority of our local commemoration tends to be of French-speaking, presumably Catholic, white men. This is as true of our Métro stations as it is of our streets.

Extant commemoration of Oscar Peterson

Though the 2008 proposal fell flat, local lobbying in the Sud-Ouest borough was successful in convincing the city to rename Campbell Centre Park for Oscar Peterson in 2009. This was a good compromise, as the park was located pretty much in the middle of Little Burgundy, the neighbourhood Peterson grew up in, and you could make the argument a park would be enjoyed by more people than a Métro station. At the time the city promised future concerts but to my knowledge that part of the plan never materialized. It’s worth noting too that the Campbell of which the park was originally named was the same Charles S. Campbell who bequeathed $1 Million in 1924 for the construction of playgrounds and bandstands in parks all over the city, including the (in)famous Mordecai Richler Gazebo. Campbell’s descendents were actually contacted by the city in order to get approval for the name change, something that would be impossible with Lionel Groulx. Also worth noting is that sveral of the bandstands still exist, and Parc Charles S. Campbell is a lovely little park in the Gay Village.

So Peterson is already commemorated in Montreal, and in two really appropriate ways as well, and yet there persists a desire to rename Lionel-Groulx Métro station for him.

The persistent calls to rename the Métro station obviously stem from Montrealers’ growing discomfort with a Catholic supremacist anti-Semite being so prominently honoured in a city that sells itself on openness, acceptance and a ‘come as you are, do as you feel’ style of life. Montreal has changed, its commemoration hasn’t. Naming a major Métro station after a priest in 1978 makes sense when you consider that Cardinal Léger blessed the Métro and went for the inaugural ride with mayor Jean Drapeau when the system opened in 1966. I can assure you, if the REM is ever completed, no one at the CDPQ will be calling the Archbishop to bless it. Time’s change.

An interesting consistency throughout all this has been the STM’s steadfast opposition to renaming the station. Over the years the STM has relied primarily on the argument doing so is costly, as it requires updating maps and signage. In 2008 the STM said there was a moratorium in place on renaming stations, though this didn’t stop the STM from appending OACI to Square-Victoria in 2014. Even though this might seem like a very minor change, it still would have cost as much as giving the station an entirely new name.

Above: Peterson performing in Berlin, mid-1980s

Renaming Lionel-Groulx, round two

The most recent effort was started this year by Montrealer Naveed Hussain, who argues that there should be a greater representation of BIPOC individuals in Montreal’s toponymy. He has repeated an earlier argument that Peterson deserves something more than a park or a concert hall, and that a major transit station in the pianist’s neighbourhood is a more fitting tribute. Over 26,000 people have signed the petition as of this writing, and if you like you can do so as well by following this link.

As they have in the past, the city and transit agency pointed out this was no easy task, that it’s costly, that it’s complicated and that there’s a moratorium in place on Métro names. The STM insists Métro stations are named for well-known geographic references, though in this case Lionel-Groulx Avenue is a nondescript residential street located across from the station’s entrance. The land around the station – including the vast bus terminus – dominates the southwestern corner of the intersection of Atwater and Saint-Jacques. If the STM wanted to ensure Métro stations were based on geographic references, they could conceivably name the station after the neighbourhood it’s in, but here too this causes a problem: the area is arguably best known by its English name – Little Burgundy – as it was historically home to the city’s Anglophone Black community. The neighbourhood’s original French name – La Petite-Bourgogne – is certainly the option language hawks would prefer, but is less ideal given it’s less reflective of the Anglophone community that has the strongest historical ties to the neighbourhood.

Such is the complicated psychogeography of Montreal.

It’s comical how both the city and the transit agency will contort themselves to avoid stating the obvious: this has nothing to do with commemoration and everything to do with how transit is funded. Montreal depends on provincial funding for mass transit, and any kind of public debate over Lionel-Groulx station in Montreal may spiral out of control and become a political crisis in Quebec City. Until Montreal figures out a way to fund its public transit without provincial money, these are the weirdo kinds of considerations that actually enter into the conversation.

Because of this impasse, alternatives have been proposed, but not alternatives to addressing the problem of having a a Métro station named for an antisemitic nationalist. Rather, additional commemorations for Oscar Peterson have been proposed! These now include the Place des Festivals (home to Jazz Fest and every other large outdoor performance festival) and an incomplete REM station that will be located under McGill College Avenue, integrated into McGill Métro station, and a short walk away from McGill University (it’s unlikely people will refer to it by any other name but I digress).

The funny thing is that Peterson is fairly well commemorated in Canada. In addition to the park and concert hall in Montreal already mentioned, there’s a statue at the National Arts Centre, the concert hall at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, a public school in Ontario, a star on the Canadian Walk of Fame and a hall a the University of Toronto in Missisauga. This is excluding all the honorary degrees, awards, prizes, distinctions, grammys, orders and medals awarded to him during his lifetime and posthumously.

Above: Peterson performs the bossa nova classic ‘Wave’

Contested Commemoration & Path Dependency

At a certain point we need to start asking ourselves why we want to commemorate Oscar Peterson, and whether we’ve become locked-into a ‘path dependency‘ type problem. Do we not have enough things named after Oscar Peterson, or is there insufficient commemoration of people who aren’t white, Christian, presumably heterosexual men? Do we need to name something after Oscar Peterson, or do we need to not have something named after Lionel Groulx?

And is transit infrastructure really the best way to go here? Remember, this whole idea is rooted in renaming a Métro station, not commemorating Peterson per se. Transit stations are doubtless super useful and used daily by, literally, millions of people in Montreal. But they’re also places of frustration, congestion, service interruptions, delays, frayed nerves and serve as de facto homeless shelters. Ask yourself a question, would you like to have a transit station named after you? It might not be as appealing as it first seems.

Municipal politicians are not typically fountains of creative thinking and innovative ideas, and we see a good example of this in public commemoration. It’s always streets and parks, places and spaces, and rarely a monument of some kind. Oscar Peterson was a pianist, why not name the public piano program after him. Why not fund a free piano instruction program, and name that after him?

Montrealers need to ask themselves why – when it comes to better honouring Oscar Peterson – transit infrastructure seems to be the only viable option. Renaming a Métro station is an entirely separate matter. Furthermore, if the aim is to increase the visibility of all the important Montrealers who are not white, Christian, French-speaking men, then we need to start thinking about all the people worthy of commemoration who have not yet been commemorated at all.

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