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The gazebo in Mont Royal Park to be dedicated to Mordecai Richler on June 23, 2011. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
The gazebo in Mont Royal Park to be dedicated to Mordecai Richler on June 23, 2011. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Tribute

Mordecai Richler to be honoured with gazebo on Mount Royal Add to ...

Mordecai Richler will not be honoured in his hometown with a street, a library or even, as one of his friends suggested, a bar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Instead, the cranky and celebrated Montreal author is set to be commemorated in an uncharacteristically genteel way.

It hasn't been formally named or approved yet, but "Le Gazébo Mordecai Richler" could soon appear on the Montreal landscape.

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An 83-year-old gazebo that rises gently on a slope on Montreal's Mount Royal was chosen by city hall as an apt honour for Montreal's famous man of letters, nearly 10 years after his death. Its current state isn't especially homage-worthy - covered in graffiti, its ironwork is rusting, its paint peeling, and two homeless people were asleep inside it Thursday morning under a blue tarp.

But the onetime grandstand lies at the doorstep of the neighbourhood that produced Mr. Richler, and the flat-roofed triplexes of St. Urbain Street that the author immortalized in his fiction are visible through the trees just a short distance away.

And, by choosing an off-the-beaten-track spot, the city may have found neutral-enough territory to honour a man whose writings polarized the province and garnered praise as much as they infuriated Quebec nationalists.

"Our artists are always controversial. It doesn't mean we ignore them," said Helen Fotopulos, who is responsible for culture on Montreal's executive committee. "In the case of Mordecai Richler, he was a significant Montrealer regardless of your point of view, and to deny that is to deny a part of history."

City officials say they believe the structure, once refurbished, will be a fitting tribute to one of Canada's greatest authors. In a plan expected to be approved by the executive committee next week, officials would add a plaque and turn the spot into a speaker's corner where it would feature literary and other public events.

Finding an appropriate place to remember Mr. Richler proved a challenge. Two city councillors, Marvin Rotrand and Michael Applebaum, first launched the idea of honouring the author last November, and garnered more than 2,500 names in favour of the idea on a petition. The idea provoked criticism from hard-line nationalists such as the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a favourite target for skewering by the author, and which in turn, considered Mr. Richler anti-Quebec.

A proposal to rename a street or library in Mile End, Mr. Richler's old immigrant neighbourhood and the stomping ground for his fictionalized Duddy Kravitz, met resistance from the opposition Projet Montréal councillors who represent the district. They nixed the idea, citing a lack of "significant public support in our community."

Mr. Richler's family supports the gazebo proposal - even with the risk that Mr. Richler's critics could decide to take out their frustrations on the structure.

"Will it be pissed on or vandalized by the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste? I don't know," Mr. Richler's son, Noah, said from England. "It's not meant to be a provocation."

He said he considered Montreal's move "a nice gesture, a civil gesture." He said his father "was a great cultural figure who did as much as anybody to put Montreal on the map. We'd be delighted if this goes forward."

Friends said Mr. Richler would have been amused by the tribute. (Another city proposal, to name an alleyway near a couple of downtown Crescent Street bars that Mr. Richler frequented, was rejected by the family).

"I think he would have been secretly pleased, but publicly scornful," Montreal writer William Weintraub said, adding that a tribute by Mr. Richler's hometown was overdue. "But he didn't have much use for grandiosity, so he would have been faintly embarrassed."

Mr. Richler, who is buried in a cemetery plot higher up on the mountain, may have found rich material in the gazebo's history. It was created in the 1920s through a donation by a wealthy lawyer, Charles Sandwith Campbell, who wanted to bring public concerts to poor Montreal neighbourhoods. Besides concerts, it was the site of an open-air mass in 1942 for Montreal's 300th anniversary.

Long-time friend Jack Rabinovitch, founder of the Giller Prize, said the location is appropriate for other reasons - Mr. Richler attended nearby Baron Byng High School and played baseball across the street in what was then known as Fletcher's Field. If he did frequent the gazebo, he quipped, it would have been "to neck."

But the real preference for Mr. Richler, known for his fondness for single-malt scotch, may well have been elsewhere, Mr. Rabinovitch said from Toronto. Speaking about one of Mr. Richler's favourite haunts, he said, "He would have liked to have the Maritime Bar [at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel]changed to the Richler Bar."

 

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