I feel old again. It’s a reoccurring notion I’ve had every year at this time since I turned 60 – and now I have a really special birthday to look forward to next year, which will officially stamp me as an old-age person. Then I won’t have to feel old again, I’ll just be old.
Last month around my birthday, I was with my brother cleaning out our parents’ locker in Montreal. They are moving to a residence where they will soon celebrate their 68th wedding anniversary. As for their locker, oh my, what a trip that was.
My parents’ place was filled with photos of their eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. What I never thought about was how my parents had no family pictures of me and my siblings in their condo. They never took a lot of pictures and there was never any great collection.
But there was a dusty box in that locker room with some priceless ones, including my beautifully framed high school graduation photo from 1968. I hadn’t seen it in more than 40 years. I was 17 and I can’t recall ever looking like that. With jacket and tie and nice, relatively short hair neatly groomed, I must say I looked pretty good. Not at all goofy, there is nothing about the picture that made me cringe.
And, while I had completely forgotten about that photo, the next few discoveries were even bigger surprises.
How about 1971? I was 20 and studying journalism at Carleton. I found an 8-by-10, black-and-white photo of me sitting on the hood of my first car, an old green Renault. But what I really noticed was my Fu Manchu moustache and a full head of curly black hair. It is probably at least 45 years since the French stopped exporting Renaults to Canada and almost that long since I had any curly hair.
And, speaking of hair, there was my university graduation photo from 1974. The big moustache was still there along with my shoulder-length hair. The ‘60s were over, but the spirit lived on.
The next one left me speechless. I had absolutely no memory of it. No memory of ever having given it to my parents. If I did, I would have retrieved it long ago.
It, too, is a black-and-white 8-by-10. It was taken by professional photographer in the Quebec National Assembly in 1977. The photo is of me and René Lévesque. The background is clearly a corridor in an ornate parliamentary setting. I have a microphone in my hand. He has a lit cigarette between his fingers.
Being of similar height, which didn’t happen often with me and politicians, Lévesque and I are close together, looking intensely at each other or, perhaps, even through each other. It captured a moment in time in my life that said so much to me.
It told me how blessed I was, at only 27, to be at the forefront of one of the greatest political stories of our time. The coming to power of Lévesque and his separatist Parti Québécois government was historically huge.
Quebec and Canada were on a collision course and, in those years, it seemed the separatists had the momentum. There were lots of people, serious people, who thought if all the pieces fell into place, Lévesque and the independence side could win the 1980 referendum.
That first independence referendum was 35 years ago this month. And, as we recall, Lévesque’s side in the end lost and lost pretty badly. The margin was 60 per cent for a united Canada – but the changes he made to Quebec remain enormous.
He changed how Quebecers saw themselves. With a tough language law, which gave French Quebecers the assurance they were number one, the Lévesque government removed the collective chip that had been on their shoulders for more than 100 years. It wasn’t just the language law, other new laws and changes instilled a new feeling of pride and ownership in being a French Quebecer.
One day, when I had shoulder-length hair, I learned that today’s news is tomorrow’s history.
And the irony of history is that René Lévesque lost the referendum because he governed so well that he actually made his people happy – happy enough to want to stay in Canada.