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Naveed Hussain – seen here outside the Lionel-Groulx metro station in Montreal on July 9, 2020 – launched the petition as a 'COVID passion project.'

Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and

In 1940s Montreal, Oscar Peterson and Lionel Groulx walked many of the same streets but lived in very different worlds.

For the jazz pianist – Black, anglophone, married four times – the city was a ville ouverte of nightclubs and boogie-woogie, immortalized in his raucous composition Place St. Henri, named for the working-class neighbourhood where he was born.

Groulx was more familiar with the swishing sound of cassocks and the scratching of pens. The wartime Montreal of this nationalist priest and scholar was Catholic, francophone, conservative. He celebrated French Canadians as a people and denigrated the economic power of anglos and, more notoriously, of Jews.

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These disparate figures collided last month when Naveed Hussain, a local nurse, started a petition to rename the Lionel-Groulx metro station after the man Duke Ellington called “the Maharaja of the keyboard.” Amid a North American reckoning with racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, the call to honour Mr. Peterson received 22,000 signatures.

But Mr. Hussain’s project has run into bureaucratic resistance and intellectual dissent in a province where Groulx’s defiant nationalism is still celebrated – and his anti-Semitism has been a subject of bitter controversy.

A counterpetition has earned the support of more than 10,000 people, and academics have lined up in the press to defend the legacy of a man whom the late politician and journalist Claude Ryan regarded as “the father of modern Quebec.”

The subway stop has become a microcosm of larger debates about historical memory in a province that still grapples, more than most, with which version of itself to remember.

Oscar Peterson’s widow says she is heartened by petition to change Montreal transit station name

Eric Scott, a Montreal filmmaker whose 2002 documentary Je me souviens looks at Quebec’s far right in the 1930s, argues that rechristening the metro station would be a victory for the province’s progressive character. “Groulx represents the resistance to it becoming so,” he said. “Oscar Peterson represents what it could be.”

Many defenders of Groulx, meanwhile, say attacks against him come from a kind of anglophone arrogance that discounts his role in reviving the pride of a downtrodden people. They say it also smacks of a double standard while well-known racists such as James McGill continue to be celebrated in the city.

“As a historian, Lionel Groulx attempted to give a meaning and purpose to French Canada’s existence,” said Luc-Normand Tellier, emeritus professor of urban studies at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), who wrote an opinion piece opposing the proposed name change in Le Devoir this week.

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Mr. Hussain, who launched the petition as a “COVID passion project,” said he understands the reverence some Quebeckers have for the bespectacled cleric. But he remains driven by a love of Mr. Peterson’s fluid, luminous piano playing and his role in the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s – not to mention the fact that the eight-time Grammy winner grew up near where the Lionel-Groulx station is now.

“I’m going to keep pushing,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Groulx’s writings have resurfaced and caused a scandal. In the early 1990s, a young scholar at Laval University named Esther Delisle wrote her doctoral thesis on widespread anti-Semitism among Quebec’s prewar intellectual elite, including Groulx.

During a campaign to boycott Jewish shops and buy from Catholic merchants, Groulx denied being anti-Semitic but said that “to resolve the Jewish problem” it would suffice to tell French Canadians: “Do not buy from the Jews.”

In 1954, not 10 years after the discovery of the Nazi death camps, he again rejected the label of anti-Semite while writing of “the Jew’s” ostensible hunger for money, “an often monstrous passion which lacks all scruples.”

Dr. Delisle’s thesis, later published as the book The Traitor and the Jew, caused an outcry in Quebec’s academic and journalistic circles – even more so when novelist Mordecai Richler cited her findings in a book of his own as evidence of the racist roots of Quebec nationalism.

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She attributed the anger in part to Groulx’s influence on a generation that shaped modern Quebec, from writer André Laurendeau to Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, who unveiled the Lionel-Groulx metro station in 1978. (The station was named after the avenue on which it’s located.)

The Oscar Peterson mural in Montreal.

Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and

The province was, by that point, virtually unrecognizable from the pious rural enclave that Groulx lionized in his work. But in the aftermath of the Quiet Revolution, when Quebec rapidly modernized by nationalizing sectors of the economy and strengthening the place of the French language, Groulx came to be seen by some as prophetic.

He was writing at a time when his fellow francophones felt embattled on all sides: The hanging of Louis Riel, a wave of French-Canadian expatriation to the United States and an Ontario law sharply limiting French instruction in primary schools amounted to a series of slights and outrages that seemed to threaten the survival of the language in North America.

Groulx’s efforts to rally his people still have resonance today, because of continued concerns about the future of the province’s official language and identity in an overwhelmingly English-speaking continent, said Jonathan Livernois, professor of literary history at Laval University. “There’s an insecurity that remains despite everything in Quebec,” he said.

While Groulx’s defenders emphasize his nationalism and deny that racism was at the heart of his work, critics say the two strains of his thinking are not so easy to disentangle. Citing books such as The Call of the Race, Jack Jedwab, president of the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration in Montreal, accused Groulx of espousing a restrictive ethnic nationalism that he said still exists in pockets of Quebec.

“Yes, he rallied them. But it was a sort of clerical fascist perspective on things,” Mr. Jedwab said. “If we put the politics aside, we should change the name. We should have done it a long time ago actually. But the politics are going to be toxic. You risk being spun as anti-Quebec. It’s hard to have a rational debate.”

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In 2008, a similar grassroots effort to rename the metro after Mr. Peterson fizzled. But there is little debate about the legacy of “the man with four hands,” as Louis Armstrong called him. Mr. Peterson is widely regarded as the greatest jazz pianist of his generation and beloved at home and abroad by figures as diverse as Jean Chrétien (a long-time friend) and Nelson Mandela.

He rose to renown from humble beginnings in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Little Burgundy. His father was a train porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway – one of the few professions open to Black men at the time – who insisted Oscar learn an instrument.

It is Mr. Peterson’s own compositions that Mr. Hussain most admires – songs such as the civil-rights anthem Hymn to Freedom, inspired by the Baptist church music he grew up hearing, and Place St. Henri, a vibrant ode to his hometown from his landmark Canadiana Suite album.

So far, Mr. Hussain’s push to rename the station has been met with a tentative response from officials. A spokesperson for Mayor Valérie Plante said the city would have to analyze potential effects and consult the public before any name change. The spokesperson noted that the neighbourhood already has a park named for Mr. Peterson but added that her office would work with the transit agency to honour the pianist in some way.

The Société de transport de Montréal (STM), meanwhile, noted that someone will have to formally submit a petition before it’s considered. Also, the agency has had a moratorium on station name changes since 2006.

But even if Mr. Hussain, a native Montrealer, recognizes he’s fighting an uphill battle, he says he welcomes the conversations that will take place along the way – about the greatness of Mr. Peterson and the nature of identity in the place he called home.

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“Montreal is joie de vivre,” he said. “If you listen to [Mr. Peterson’s] rendition of Place St. Henri, you’ll hear the hustle and bustle of the city.”

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