By Patricia Lightfoot

In the 1990s, a few weeks before moving to Montreal, my husband and I were having dinner in France with friends who also happened to be originally from the UK, and the discussion turned to what sort of country we were going to live in for the next three years. We agreed that apart from having a reputation for amiability, Canada did not seem to have a very high profile in Western Europe. Someone then asked whether any of us could name any famous Canadians. “Of course!”, we said. As far as I recall, the list was a bit like this:

  1. Margaret Atwood
  2. Joni Mitchell
  3. Neil Young
  4. Gerhard Herzberg — looking good so far!
  5. Pierre Trudeau — though not then-prime minister Brian Mulroney
  6. Margaret Trudeau
  7. Ben Johnson — the memory of the Seoul Olympics with its joys and disappointments was fresh in our minds
  8. Roch Voisine – we were living in France.
  9. Wayne Gretzky — my husband is sure that he mentioned Gretzky
  10. Leonard Cohen — we loved his songs, but I’m not sure that we knew that he was a Montrealer, but that would soon change.

Very quickly on arriving in Montreal, we embarked on a crash course in Canadian history, geography, culture, politics and sports. We walked the streets of our new city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the Plateau being a particular magnet, with our two young daughters in their strollers. We often had a picnic dinner on the “mountain,” with its views of the city, the Saint Lawrence River and of the Olympic stadium crouching like a giant insect in the East End. We listened to CBC for stories from across the country. Why were there so many Irish fishermen on the radio? Well, no, they were from Newfoundland. What or where was Meech Lake? And Charlottetown?

We read the Montreal Gazette, Mordecai Richler, Yves Beauchemin, Carol Shields, Jane Urquhart and Michael Ondaatje. We listened to the Tragically Hip, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and the Barenaked Ladies. Our first weeks in Montreal coincided with the NHL playoffs, featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and their star player Montrealer Mario Lemieux, so one of the memorable sounds of that spring was the TV announcer calling Mario Lemiooooooo or, of course, Super Mario.

Photo credit: Phil Lightfoot