It all began with a simple promise. When Irène Desormeaux fell grievously ill in 1987, she asked her neighbour, René Chartrand, to take over looking after the cats of Parliament Hill. He said he would do it until she got better. But Ms. Desormeaux never did get better, so Mr. Chartrand kept looking after the cats for more than 20 years, regularly feeding and talking to them. Visitors started coming around and eventually he became famous. In Canada, he was known as the Catman of Parliament Hill, and overseas, simply as Canada's Catman.
"He did not resent his celebrity," said Brian Caines, a retired public servant and former volunteer at the cat sanctuary, which was dismantled in 2013. "The cats became a part of his identity. He was not a proud person. He had no affectation. He knew people appreciated it, and he got satisfaction out of it. He genuinely liked people. He was very entertaining with children. He fed more than the cats: groundhogs, raccoons, pigeons, seagulls, squirrels. He'd put a peanut in his ear, and the squirrels would come up on his shoulder and eat it. The children loved that. He would play with the cats for them, and entertain them, giving them names.
"When I first started going there, he had named the cats after politicians. There was a Brian, Jean, Mila, even Kim. I remember Brian actually; he was a big orange tomcat. René had a sense of humour."
Mr. Chartrand died on Dec. 7. He was 92.
The cat sanctuary was reputed to be the second-most-popular destination on Parliament Hill after the Centre Block, mostly because of Mr. Chartrand's quirky charm. Mr. Caines first noticed the wooden cat condos because Mr. Chartrand had cut little cat faces from cat-food packaging and strung them through the bushes just west of the Speaker's Entrance.
"I thought they were Tibetan prayer flags, and went closer to see them," Mr. Caines said. "That's when I saw the houses spread around."
The structures were an act of rogue carpentry by Mr. Chartrand, he added. "There was no permission; it was easier to beg forgiveness in those days. Once the shelters were built, Public Works entered into a negotiation with René. The Queen granted him permission, [the cat sanctuary] was under the auspices of Her Majesty. There was a document that outlined what René's obligations were.
"As soon as the sanctuary was recognized by the government, they put it in the official guide of Parliament Hill. This happened in the winter. The next day, [Public Works] had plowed the access to the sanctuary."
The incongruity of the cat sanctuary with the officiousness of Parliament Hill first drew Sally Sax to it.
"There was a wonderful absurdity about it, and it was such a pleasant place to spend time," said Ms. Sax, a librarian at Parliament Hill, and another former volunteer at the sanctuary. "René had a steady stream of patter going on, always talking to the cats if not talking to the people. He was also a very good flirt. He would never hesitate to tell a lady how pretty she was. He would notice the people he was talking to. He wouldn't just say the same thing over and over again. And he was comfortable in both [French and English], so he could talk to so many people who came to visit."
British journalist Isabel George was one of many foreign visitors who went looking for Mr. Chartrand. She first learned about him when she travelled to Ottawa in October, 2000, for a project involving "a WWII hero dog Gander." She returned in March, 2001, to write a profile on Mr. Chartrand for Your Cat magazine, intrigued by the story she heard of the Second World War veteran who took over caring for the cats.
"The snow was fairly deep on the ground and although the sun was shining it was a bitterly cold day," Ms. George said. "The cats must have sensed he was on his way as their heads turned towards his approach. Within seconds of René's arrival all the cats were at his feet, tails high and meowing.
"It was an honour to meet René.… Many of us never get the chance to show that we have heroic qualities. René Chartrand was a hero twice over: for his country and as a compassionate human being."
René Chartrand was born in Hull, Que., in 1921 to Arthur Chartrand and Donalda Lacelle. He grew up fluent in both official languages, and worked in a paper mill, as an aluminum smelter and a care worker. He eventually served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, and was stationed in Gander, Nfld.
Mr. Chartrand didn't speak much about his own past, Mr. Caines said. So it wasn't until he knew Mr. Chartrand for "a fairly long time" that he got a glimpse into his friend's past.
"I told him I was from Corner Brook, Nfld., and he said, 'I've been to Corner Brook'" Mr. Caines said. "When he was stationed in Gander, he would occasionally get leave, and he and his friends would take the train, the Newfie Bullet, to Corner Brook. I asked him, what did you do? He said he would go around and meet people. And he met a woman there, a young woman with three children. He became very close to them. Whenever he went there, he would bring them food and leave them a little money. I asked him, why did you do that? He said they needed help and he could do it.
"He only said it as an aside, and when I asked him questions about it, he did not want to give too much information. But who in their early 20s would do something like that? That, to me, tells me everything I need to know about René."
A year after he had started to become more dependent, Mr. Chartrand was admitted to the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre in Ottawa in the fall of 2008.
"He had dementia of some sort, and he was not able to go back to the sanctuary," Mr. Caines said. The cat sanctuary eventually closed. Since the cats were all spayed or neutered, the colony went from 28 cats to just four, which were adopted by volunteers, including Mr. Caines. "Every time I visited him, I asked him, did you see the cats today? And he'd say something like, 'I was up there at lunch time. I will go later.'
"If René were around, the cat sanctuary probably wouldn't have closed. He would have taken it hard. [Closing it] was an easier decision to make because René was not on the Hill. It was a great part of his existence and his being."
René Chartrand, who was predeceased by his wife, leaves his children, Marie-Chantal, Pierre, Louise, Bernard and Claude; his brother, Raymond; and several grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews and nieces.
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