When I was a child, my grandmother would always take us to downtown Montreal a couple of weeks before Christmas. We’d ride the train from the Strathmore CPR station in the west-island to Windsor Station, then the street car (yes, Montreal once had street-cars!) to the Eaton’s store on Ste. Catherine Street. I well remember their old-fashioned elevators with the very pleasant female operators who would call out each floor and the merchandise located there-on, in both english and french; "Second floor, deuxieme etage, furniture and appliances, ...." To a child of the 50's, it was an almost unbelievable world at Christmas time. I very much doubt if any retailer today goes to the tremendous pains that the Eaton’s staff went to to make their store the very special place that it was, especially at that time of the year.
Eaton’s was indeed a very unique Canadian icon; a family-owned business that, quite unlike present-day "retailers", seemed genuinely interested in making the shopping experience a pleasant and interesting pastime, rather than a chore. It was Eaton’s that gave jobs to many who were down-on-their-luck during the Depression. It was Eaton's who sponsored and promoted the annual Santa Claus parades in both Montreal and Toronto, an event that no child would ever want to miss. It was Eaton’s who devoted an entire floor of their down-town store to children’s toys. I only remember the boy’s-stuff, of course, but such a display of Meccano, toy steam-engines and model trains has never been seen, before or since, as the wonder-land of Eaton’s during the 1950's. They even had a small-gauge railroad that would carry the children on a magical ride through Toyland, and they would all get a little gift from Santa at the end of the trip.
After visiting the Eaton’s store, we would go to Murray’s restaurant on the ground-floor of the Laurentian Hotel on Dorchester Street. There, along with my younger brother, I would partake in a tall glass of Honey-Dew and a piece of apple pie with vanilla ice cream, while my grandmother enjoyed her afternoon cup of tea.
Another Christmas tradition happened when we gathered around the radio to listen to the Queen’s annual Christmas message. She was a very young Queen back then. In fact, I vaguely remember the Queen when she was still just a Princess, and King George was still the monarch of the Commonwealth. As a child, I didn’t really understand the words of the Queen’s speech, but even then I could comprehend the strength of character that she exuded, and could see the respect that my parents, grandparents, and indeed every other anglophone Canadian showed to our Queen.
Times have changed. The old Forum where, as a ten-year old, I watched "The Gumper" get knocked out cold by a slap-shot from "The Pocket Rocket", is gone. Is nothing sacred?
Eaton’s was obliged to drop the apostrophe-S from their name to conform with Quebec’s language laws. It was a small, but highly symbolic change that foretold the exodus of thousands of anglophone Quebecers from that province. Later, the famous Eaton’s Catalogue went by the wayside, and then Eaton’s itself declared bankruptcy and is now but a pale shell of its former grandeur, displaced by the soul-less Wal-Mart’s and Best Buy’s of a more mercenary retail world.
But the Queen lives on, a piece of granite in a river of change. In these days of instability around the world we need to hang on to our memories of happier days and our hopes for the world of the future. The Queen is one of those icons of stability, strength, morality and goodwill which we, as Canadians, should be especially proud.
Here's one of my favourite, truly Canadian, stories. Written and narrated by Roch Carrier, "The Sweater", is another Canadian icon. Enjoy!