I was born and raised in Montreal. My mother was widowed at an early age and left with four young children. We did not have the means, the need or even the desire for all of the “things” we take for granted today.
One thing we did have was “public transportation.” My mother did not drive and so she availed herself and taught us the benefits of public transport. So it is with this in mind that I can tell you a true story about what is now called “VIA Rail”:
My mother’s siblings all resided in Toronto, where she was born and raised. As a youngster, a summer vacation would often take the form of a great adventure by train with my mother from Montreal to Toronto to visit my Uncle Fred, whose home we would occupy while he was away. (This is fodder for yet another story!)
My mother always booked her seats in the Club Car, which provided single seats and where she could spend her time quietly to herself or chat with other passengers. But what I remember most vividly was the way she was always welcomed on board the train when we boarded in Montreal. For reasons I would not understand until much later, the conductors, attendants and porters would always show my mother what I would term today as deferential treatment. It was not until some years later that I would learn why.
To understand was to know that, while some of the train staff were what is termed today as “African American,” back then they were referred to as “darkies” — a term my mother found incredibly distasteful and insulting. So she would always endeavour to learn their names: Charlie, Bill or Louie; it did not matter and, if she did not know their name, she would address them as “young man” or “sir.”
It is also true that in those days some of these men stayed in their jobs for their entire careers, so they got to know their passengers. My mother was one of those passengers.
My mother liked her brandy to sip and would always carry a flask with her when she took the train. Of course the rules were the same then as they are today — thou shall not bring your own alcohol on board. That said, not only did everyone look the other way but once she was seated, a whiskey glass (oh yes, real glass!) with ice would magically appear on the small round table in front of her. At some point, she would unwrap her thinly sliced cucumber sandwich on thinly sliced brown bread — crusts removed — and wrapped in wax paper and enjoy her dinner.
I had peanut butter and jelly!
It was then that I learned how well my mother was known and respected. One of the attendants would come by and ask “Mrs. Mowat” or “Ma’am” if everything was good, or to find out if she needed anything. Upon arrival in Toronto, the porter would always bring my mother’s bag to her and assist her to be the first to disembark from the train.
This was RAIL SERVICE back in the 1950s.
Here we are, 60 years later in an economy that is becoming ever more difficult for people of all ages to make ends meet, and more now than ever before, we absolutely need and deserve these transportation services that are affordable, available and timely. I have mentioned before that I rode the rails from St. Marys to Toronto for eight years. I was happy to get up at 5 a.m. to get the train!
If it is all about the money (and it is always about the money!) then I think it is time for our politicians and VIA Rail to do an “Appreciation of the Situation,” apply some common sense, and for once, “think outside the box” instead of trying to “Situate the Appreciation.” In case you are not familiar with the term “Appreciation of the Situation” just ask a retired or serving member of the military. There are lots of them living in a town close to you!
Hugh Mowat, St. Marys