Family time and early education
The Personal Story Behind The Political Career, Part 3
[ Continued from Part 1 | Part 2 ] We did not have much in the way of family time for most of the year, making up for it with an annual drive to Florida to visit my grandparents, who had retired young and become snowbirds in a condo development called Emerald Lakes in the coastal Martin County town of Port Salerno. The yearly three day drive each way in my mother’s massive gold-coloured 1980 Ford LTD station wagon was mostly spent with me and my brother fighting, often bitterly, in the back seat. Once we arrived, we always had the time of our lives with seemingly limitless bike paths and frequent trips to the area’s beaches - and my parents got a much needed break.
Some years, we were also joined by my mother’s brothers Albert, a Montreal-based civil engineer specialising in glass roofs, and Michael, founder and owner of Felix & Norton Cookies and at the time the country’s largest importer of chocolate, with their families. Some years my mother’s cousin Ralph would fly in with his family from Paris. My happiest childhood memories are mostly built around that two week annual pilgrimage.
In 1988, a boarding school opened up in the neighbouring town of Val-Morin called Académie Laurentienne, and my brother attended, starting in grade 6. I went to the same school at the same time as my brother only for Kindergarten — when 7 Graham first cousins attended Sainte-Agathe Academy the same year briefly making our family the biggest in the school — and grade 1. With my brother in boarding school, even if only 25 minutes from home, starting when I was in grade 2, the family dynamics changed, and our relationship as brothers did not grow up with us. This lost time ended a decade later in a spectacular and childish fight during a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in front of the entire extended family at a Paris hotel over the morning breakfast, which had only included a single chocolate croissant for our shared room. We grew up rather quickly after that.
My mother sat on the Parents Committee at the school and was always at loggerheads with the school board and administration, and for reasons I did not understand at the time, I spent much of grade 2 sitting in the hall rather than in the classroom, as much to punish my mother for speaking out as anything I might have done. To this day, I cannot recall a single specific event that got me evicted from the classroom, I only remember it being a frequent occurrence.
In third grade, I switched to the French school system, attending Notre Dame de la Sagesse, the same school I had attended for pre-Kindergarten. It was both to learn French properly and to escape the petty politics of the independent but public English school I had been attending. Being suddenly cast into an all-French environment after having grown up staunchly English in a very French area, I retreated to the family computer, by then an early generation PC rather than the Osborne, in my free time and, as my only English outlet, began writing a multi-page story in Word Star about a young child named Anthony Peterson who discovered his grandfather was involved in the plot to assassinate JFK.
On my very last day of grade 3 in June of 1989, I was picked up at school and stayed in the car with my father while my mother went into the Metro grocery store across the street from the school I would be attending that fall. Across highway 117 from us, there was a train at the Sainte-Agathe train station, the only one I had ever seen there. An engine, a few cars, and a hydro transformer were sitting at the station idling, and we wandered over to see what was going on. After a while of staring at the train, the crew invited me up into the engine to look around and explained that they could not leave until someone arrived with their clearance to proceed. Days later, the tracks themselves were ripped up.
The French school system at the time divvied up schools by years, and so in fourth grade I changed schools again, to Fleur des Neiges, nestled between the Metro and the train station, where I remained for just two years, and where my daughter would, years later, briefly attend kindergarten herself until we moved to Edmonton at the start of the COVID pandemic for me to take up my first post-politics job issuing trains clearances to proceed as a Rail Traffic Controller, bringing me full circle to that 1989 afternoon.
I returned to the English school for grade 6 with an excellent teacher named John Richard, the teacher I had known as Mr Gym in my earlier years there. If you are counting, by 6th grade, I had already changed schools four times in the same town. In Quebec, high school starts in 7th grade and I stayed at Sainte-Agathe Academy, where my father had also attended high school when it was called Sainte-Agathe High School, for that year as well with another amazing teacher named Linda Waissi, who tutored me in mathematics after school.
That year, I took the American SSAT - Secondary School Admission Test - scoring in the 99th percentile in mathematics thanks largely to Mrs Waissi’s efforts and somewhere in the 50s in English, which opened the door to the potential for the financial aid and scholarships needed to afford to attend boarding school. My brother had also demonstrated exceptional mathematical abilities far exceeding my own – they didn’t require tutoring – and had left for Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts in 1991, after three years at the local boarding school. At the time, attending boarding school in Massachusetts was both closer - less than six hours drive - and cheaper than doing so in Ontario.
My parents made a play for me to skip 8th grade and attend NMH as well in 1994, but the admissions process probably wisely judged me not yet mature enough for the jump. I attended Stanstead Wesleyan College in southern Quebec, one of only three English-language boarding schools in the province at the time, instead, for 8th grade. And I hated every minute of it.
It was a profoundly conservative school, with strict uniform rules and meal protocols, four-student rooms without locks and common showers without doors or dividers. With only around 180 students between 7th and 11th grade, and a 2-to-1 male-to-female ratio, I did not develop a single friendship that would outlast my time there. I did not inherit my athletic grandmother’s sports genes and Stanstead was also too small a school for participation on their league sports teams to be voluntary. I was drafted onto the school’s Bantam level soccer team for the provincial leagues. We did not win a single game, coming dead last in the provincials, though I did learn how to kick a soccer ball.
The school had a hazing ritual of an all-day obstacle course through the woods while being harassed by older students and faculty, finished off with a washdown by fire hose, in which participation was a requirement to graduate. I had a similar experience at a music camp in Saint-Alexandre, Quebec, the previous summer, where we had been forced to eat cat food and raw eggs among other requirements in their hazing ritual obstacle course, and I was permanently turned off both places as a direct result.
Stanstead College did have one redeeming quality, that of the town it was in. It is a famous area because only a kilometre from the school is the Haskell Library, which straddles the Canada-US border, marked by a black line down the middle of the room. It was neat to be able to walk from my dorm to the United States, fill my backpack with soft drinks, and undercut the dormitory’s wildly overpriced vending machine’s $1 per can by a significant margin in selling them to my fellow students until I was told I was not allowed to compete with the school. At that point, I posted a petition in the hallway to lower the prices of the machine, and got in trouble again.
I applied again to NMH right away and was far more motivated to demonstrate that I was mature enough to get in the second time, but it meant arriving after my brother graduated, and yet again not being in the same place at the same time.
In the fall of 1995, we loaded up the family 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser and a roof pod with all four of us, most of our possessions, books, and three bikes. We left home and ten minutes into the trip, the roof of the car caved in from the weight of the roof pod, where we had brilliantly packed most of the books. We stopped at my parents’ office, jacked the roof back into place with a two-by-four braced against the floor, and drove on to Fredericton, New Brunswick in that condition to drop off my brother at the University of New Brunswick, and then carry on through Maine to drop me off to start at NMH. The following year, my brother transferred to the University of Victoria.
Each year, we became physically further apart.