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Homage to Richler richly deserved Add to ...

Standing outside 5257 St. Urbain St. on Friday, I thought for a moment that I could hear a smoky, whisky-soaked chuckle echoing down from the drizzling sky. Somewhere out there, Mordecai Richler is laughing.

Two Montreal city councillors have started an online petition calling for a street to be named after the celebrated author, who grew up at what is now 5257 Rue Saint-Urbain and died on July 3, 2001.

It’s impossible to know whether he would really enjoy seeing his name slapped on a street sign like one of the “idiot” politicians whose pomposity he liked to ridicule. But he would certainly relish the horrified reaction of Quebec nationalists to the notion of a Rue Richler.

The president of Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Mario Beaulieu, has said that Montreal should never extend such an honour to Mr. Richler. “For us, he’s an anti-Quebec racist because he denigrated French Quebeckers.” Quebec nationalists, he should have said.

Mr. Richler got up separatist noses like no one else with his polemics on the ugly, sometimes anti-Semitic antecedents of Quebec nationalism and the absurdities of Quebec language laws.

“It got very, very raw there for a while,” says Charles Foran, author of a new biography Mordecai: The Life and Times. “He has not been forgiven by a certain generation.”

A man whose books are known across Canada and around the world has simply “gone missing” in his native city, says Mr. Foran.

That’s a shame because, of course, Mr. Richler was a quintessential Montreal writer.

Though he fled the city to live abroad for many years, he was a Montrealer through and through.

No other Canadian writer has brought a neighbourhood to literary life like he did with Montreal’s Jewish “ghetto” – the delis, the pool halls, the cold-water walk-ups that were the backdrop for books like St. Urbain’s Horseman, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Son of a Smaller Hero and Joshua Then and Now.

That world has mostly vanished now. Schwartz’s deli and its smoked-meat sandwiches live on, Beauty’s family-run diner is still packed for weekend breakfasts and Fairmount still shovels hot bagels from its wood-burning oven, but the characters who peopled the rich little world of Mr. Richler’s childhood have died or dispersed.

Quebec nationalism accelerated that dispersal as thousands of Jewish Montrealers left Quebec in the years after the Parti Québécois victory of 1976, many of them heading down the 401 – a huge gain for Toronto, an incalculable loss for Montreal.

What a magnificent act of atonement it would be, what a grand gesture of reconciliation, if the city of his birth acknowledged Mordecai Richler as one of its own.

The thing that angered Quebec nationalists most about Mr. Richler’s attacks was the suggestion that their movement was exclusionary, regarding only old-stock French-speakers as true Quebeckers and the rest as second-class citizens.

Not so, they insist. Ours is a liberal, open, inclusive nationalism, embracing all Quebeckers as equals regardless of background. What better way to show it than to embrace their greatest critic.

Renaming St. Urbain Street might be a little much. That long, busy thoroughfare, extending far beyond Richler’s old neighbourhood, is so closely associated with his work that erasing its name would almost be an act of vandalism. A nice little Parc Richler would do. Or a statue with a cigarette hanging from its lip and a glass of Scotch in its hand.

The shape of the gesture doesn’t really matter. It’s the recognition that counts. A great and open-hearted city can’t afford to ignore one of its foremost writers just because his pen pricked some sensitive skins. Even a plaque outside 5257 St. Urbain, today a nondescript three-storey walk-up fronted by ugly pink brick, would do the trick.

“Mordecai Richler lived here.” Montreal should be proud of it.

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Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee


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