H. Nigel Thomas
But for the colourful Victorian rowhouses that surround it, and the literary culture in which it is steeped, le Square-Saint-Louis would be just another green space. It was how it first appeared to me when I arrived in Montreal in 1968 and attended French classes nearby. It is located just north of Sherbrooke Street, between Saint-Denis Street and Laval Avenue, a few metres from the Sherbrooke Metro station, on the site of what was once Montreal’s reservoir. The square dates to 1876 and is named for two businessmen brothers: Emmanuel Saint-Louis and Jean-Baptiste Saint-Louis.
There are always people relaxing there. Ample seating is scattered throughout. The fountain at the centre is surrounded by benches and seems to be the preferred spot of readers. In the early years I numbered among them. Massive maples create a canopy of green through which dappled sunlight enters. Beneath them, the traffic on St-Denis is barely audible, the summer temperature is several degrees cooler, pigeons saunter, and numerous squirrels chase one another, indifferent mostly to us sitting around.
The Square took on a deep meaning when I discovered that it held statues of two of Québec’s important early poets : Louis- Octave Crémazie and Émile Nelligan, whose statues are on its eastern and western sides, respectively. Crémazie (1827-1879) was a poet, book seller, and founder of l’Institut canadien de Québec. His statue was installed in 1906 and bears the inscription “Pour mon pays mourir,” taken from Crémazie’s poem “Drapeau de Carillon,” which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Montcalm’s 1758 victory in Northern New York.
The Nelligan statue faces Laval Avenue, where Nelligan lived until 1899. The panel at the entrance focuses primarily on him and the poets of his entourage. It mentions his earliest works, composed before age 20, after which he was hospitalised until his death in 1941. He was the first Québécois poet whose work I read, a year after my arrival in Montreal. His work took on greater significance later when I too became interested in the etiology of mental illnesses.
For me the Square has become emblematic of Québécois artistic culture and politics. There are, for example, the many Quebec artists who lived in the adjoining streets. They include, the poet-politician Gerald Godin and his partner, the musician Pauline Julien; poet Gaston Miron; as well as the controversial cinematographer Claude Jutras whose former home is now the headquarters of l’Union des écrivaines et écrivains du Québec. I take my visiting Caribbean friends there and use the occasion to introduce them to the interconnection between Québécois politics and literature and to show them the homage Quebec pays to its artists.
H. Nigel Thomas was born on the Carribean Island of Saint-Vincent-et-les-Grenadines. In 1968, he immigrated to Canada. In 1988 he began a career as assistant professor of U.S. literature at Université Laval and held the rank of Professeur titulaire when he retired in 2006 to devote himself to writing full-time. His body of work includes novels (Spirits in the Dark, 1993; Behind the Face of Winter, 2001; Return to Arcadia, 2007) ; short stories (How Loud Can the Village Cock Crow?, 1996; Lives : Whole and Otherwise, 2010) ; poetry (Moving through Darkness, 2000) and non fiction (From Folklore to Fiction: A Study of Folk Heroes and Rituals in the Black American Novel, 1988; Why We Write: Conversations with African Canadian Poets and Novelists, 2006).