The first time I was ever on the St. Lawrence River was with my father. He would load my mother, my older sister, and me, into his motorboat and navigate from the Verdun Yacht Club to one of the river’s many offshore islands for a picnic. In one of my favourite photographs, taken on the Verdun boardwalk near where he moored his boat, my father wears a fishing vest and hip waders, my beautiful mother is smiling, my three-year-old sister Liz grasps a flower in her fist, and there’s me at six months, sitting up in a baby carriage wearing a white angora hat. From our early family photographs you’d never guess that we didn’t live in the countryside, that we lived instead only a few kilometres from downtown Montreal, which, at that time, was Canada’s largest city.
My father’s lifelong passion for the stretch of the St. Lawrence River between the Island of Montreal and the south shore, from the Port of Montreal to Lachine and beyond, became the backdrop against which our lives played out. The locus of our family geography, the river was an ever-changing constant that flowed through our lives, sometimes even past our front door. How the river looked and smelled and sounded, in every season of the year, was an elemental force that drew us and held us and shaped us. The living, watery story of the river, and my early life living near it, flowed into me.
It’s easy for Montrealers to forget that they live on an island. The Island of Montreal— Île de Montréal in French or Kawenote Teiontiakon in Kanien’kéha or Mohawk—is formed by the confluence of the Ottawa River to the north and the St. Lawrence River to the south. After the rivers merge, the St. Lawrence—fleuve Saint-Laurent or Ken’tarókwen— flows northeastward to the sea. The river was named in 1535 by French explorer Jacques Cartier, who sailed up the river on the feast day of St. Lawrence, the patron saint of archivists and librarians, like me.
Montrealers frequently orient themselves to Mount Royal, an iconic visual landmark topped by a thirty-metre illuminated cross that is visible for miles, and the river, with its limited direct public access, was largely neglected and unappreciated. In The Seven Rivers of Canada, author Hugh MacLennan wrote, “yet the St. Lawrence is more than a river, more even than a system of waters. It has made nations. It has been the moulder of the lives of millions—perhaps by now hundreds of millions—in a multitude of different ways. At some point in my middle years, I realized that I myself belonged to the people whose lives the river has affected.”
Our family also belonged to the St. Lawrence River.
Check out our summer issue for the full story, out in July, 2023!