Thursday, February 25, 2010

THE RICH AND THE POOR 29th installment

Old Brewery Mission of Montreal 1910. Fundraising poster.

Yesterday, the press carried a story about how the U.K. government is set to apologize to the Home Children, those children of the slums, orphans and such, sent out of England in the 19th and 20th centuries to, mostly, work on farms. Of course, child labour, was common in those days.

This fits nicely into my next installment of Flo in the City, my novel in progress based on the letters of because I will have Marion talk about the children she is teaching in her inner city school.

It is unlikely that any of these children were Home Children (although some may have been). Her students were empoverished students of immigrants, whose parents worked in the factories along the canal, in the "City Below the Hill."

As I have written before, Montreal, in 1910, had the highest infant mortality rate of any place in the world outside of Calcutta. This was also an era of incredible immigration.

The reason Flo got a job in the city, (when she was given a free education specifically so that she would return to her rural roots and teach) was because teachers were needed in the city to accomodate this huge tide of immigration.

Flo, wrapped into her warm lambskin coat, which had seen two previous incarnations in the Watters household, tossed snowballs to Floss as the two proceeded along College Street. Mother was at church, or more precisely, at a Missionary Society meeting where they were tabulating the receipts from their Christmas Bazaar.

Mother's feud with the ladies of the Missionary Society had been all the talk at Christmas. "Mrs. Leaman told me about St. Paul's admonition and I said, "We don't live in St. Paul's time, or we'd all be out in the fields shepherding cows and sheep. Well, that sent her sulking."

And then Edith had livened things up with stories about the French Canadian family she was living with. How they ate a large meal after Mass on Christmas eve called a Reveillon and how they gave gifts at New Years, which was a bigger celebration than Christmas. "The Crepeaus are like the Hills," Edith had said."The house is always filled with visitors." She purposely did not mention the priests who were a fixture in the four storey greystone on Sherbrooke, near St. Laurent, where East met West in Montreal.

Alice, Edith's student, was 8, a high strung but beautiful girl, with emerald green eyes and Titian hair and a soft, creamy complexion.

The family's attention had been riveted by Marion's description of her city school. When in the mood to talk about her life, which was not that often, had a knack for finding the funny side of any story, however sad.

"My first day at school, I had 50 students and each parent came up to me with some advice about her child and after they were gone, I didn't remember one piece of advice from the other," she said, with a loud chuckle.

I guess parents are the same everywhere, Flora thought. But then Marion told her a story about a sad little girl to came to class each day with her face and hands absolutely filthy.

"I am supposed to send such children home, to be washed," Marion said, but that makes no sense to me. Chances are the only one at home is an older sister, charged with taking care of her younger siblings, for the mother is at work. I see no point in humilating the child by sending her out of the room to wash, either. So I just march all the children to the bathroom and make them all clean up. I build an arthmetic lesson around hand-washing and hygiene."

It was just like sister Marion to make the best of any situation. She was turning out to be a fine teacher. Flo wondered what she would have done, likely she would have just followed the rules and sent the girl home and felt terrible about it. What hard lives these children lived, she thought.

Why was the missionary society raising money to help children in other lands, she had wondered, when there was so much suffering right here in Canada, in Montreal.

And truth be told, her family's money problems (always looming large in the background) seemed somewhat trivial at the moment.

Flo found herself standing still on the corner of Main street, looking out at the Salmon River which was frozen over, with a half formed snowball in her mittened hands. Floss barked to get her to throw the ball.

Well, Richmond, at least, had few very poor people. Or was that true?

She patted the snow into a nice round shape and flung it towards Floss, who leapt into the air and caught it in her mouth, obliterating it with her sharp white teeth.