The Personal Story Behind The Political Career, Part 1
As we go are in the holiday season, I want to take some time to reflect on my upbringing and how it guided me into public office in the first place. It is a question I am often asked in some form or other, and the answer is complex and non-linear — and will take several essays to try to answer. So we’ll start from the beginning.
I have enjoyed a great deal of luck and good fortune in my life. I cannot pretend that my successes have been based purely on hard work and pulling myself up by my bootstraps. People who tell you that is how they succeeded, with few exceptions, believe either that they were entitled to their advantages, or are completely oblivious to the head start from which they have benefitted.
I started life deep in the woods in the small town of what was then called Sainte-Lucie-de-Doncaster, now Sainte-Lucie-des-Laurentides, Quebec. I was born in the regional hospital in nearby Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts at 1:13 am on July 29th, 1981, just a few hours before Prince Charles married Princess Diana at Saint-Paul’s Cathedral in London. My parents were, so I have been told, unimpressed with the nurses’ calls to name me Charles in honour of the occasion in spite of not having a name picked out for me. They already had a son, Jonah, and therefore assumed their second child would be a daughter. I was to be named Rebecca de Burgh Graham, until I emerged off of expectations and interrupted their plans.
It is a pattern I have kept up over the years.
My father, Naming the Laurentians and Insatiable Hunger author Joseph Graham, had lived on the property where I grew up since the late 60s, when his mother, Alpine ski champion Patricia de Burgh Paré, had parcelled out land to her children. A real estate agent, she had acquired much of the land around an 800-metre long lake in Sainte-Lucie as the commission in a real estate transaction. The lake was known as Lac Tourangeau in English and Lac MacShane in French. He built a small 10’x10’ cabin in the forest near the lake and, as he tells it, ran a single extension cord through the woods from his brother’s house to run either his radio or his typewriter, but not both at the same time.
In the 70s, he moved to the tiny Eastern Townships township of Foster to become the manager of the gentleman farm run by his uncle, Imasco chairman Paul Paré.
My mother, Sheila Eskenazi, meanwhile, had moved to Sainte-Agathe to work on her drafting business, specialising in reinforcing steel for concrete, picking up some work with my uncle Stuart, a home-builder, whose outside electrical outlet provided my father with a radio. Her father, Turkish-Jewish immigrant Beno Eskenazi, was a civil engineer in Montreal, and was one of the lead engineers of Expo 67. He had insisted that my mother be an architect because “engineers do all the work and architects get all the credit.” That my mother had also been a stunt motorcyclist for the Montreal Alouettes likely wasn’t quite what he had in mind but provides great insight into her ‘type A’ personality.
For reasons that will never be clear to me, my mother decided to move to the Eastern Townships town of Foster, not long after my father, though they had never heard of each other to that point. My uncle called his brother to let him know that someone interesting was coming his way that he ought to meet. Somehow that worked out and the two unrelated families, each with history going back to the start of the 20th century in the Sainte-Agathe area, merged through marriage in 1976.
My father’s father, Jack Ross Graham, had started flying around 1931 at the age of just 14 years old, and flew for his entire career, dying at 42 in 1959 of a pulmonary embolism, likely caused by the less-than-ergonomic cockpits of the era as he took up long-haul flying between Montreal, where he managed Timmins Aviation at Dorval airport, and the southwestern United States. He had served and been decorated as a pilot in the Second World War, but with his untimely death, the details and the stories were largely lost.
His death when my father was only 10 also caused my parents to work to prepare myself and my brother to be independent as early as possible, lest the same thing happen to us, and a big part of our upbringing had that as a fundamental tenet.
My mother’s mother was Goldie Wolofsky, granddaughter of Hirsch Wolofsky, the founder of der Keneder Adler, the first Yiddish-language daily in Montreal, for whom a park is now named in the city. Goldie attended McGill in the time of tight quotas on Jewish students, it is said, to acquire her MRS, and I knew her as a loving and doting grandmother.
In 1978, my parents moved back to the Laurentians, moving into my father’s 10x10 cabin in the woods with my newborn brother. With them, they also brought a 1948 Massey-Harris tractor, 300 chickens, a cow, a dog, and my mother’s cat Pusser who had never fully accepted my father into the family.
Sainte-Lucie had not been a farming town since efforts most of a century earlier found the soil too poor to be viable, and so their collection of animals was a bit of a shock to the few neighbours, but my parents shared a dream of building themselves a homestead. By the end of the year they had succeeded in building themselves a house, with a four-sided roof the shape of a barn, uphill from the cabin, and set about making themselves a life and a family deep in the Sainte-Lucie backwoods, miles from the nearest paved road.
By the time I showed up 3 years later, the cabin had become, and remains to this day, their chicken coop. In the late 70s, my great grandmother Lucy Griffith wrote her memoirs with the help of her son, Montreal lawyer Antoine Paré, and the family wanted to publish it for internal distribution under the name The Seeds. My parents took on the job of doing the physical publishing and in 1981 acquired an Osborne computer and the machinery needed to print and bind the hundreds of copies of the book needed to distribute it to the family, creating a publishing company for the purpose.
This put them at the forefront of technology. In 1981, few families had any kind of computer in the house.
By the mid-80s, my parents had started a small real estate brokerage named Doncaster Realties with an office in the village of Sainte-Lucie, working off of an electronic client database on the Osborne named dBase. By the late 80s, they had acquired a house on Sainte-Agathe’s Rue Principale (Main St) for use as their office. They had a fax machine - only the second one in town - and by 1987 purchased a car phone likely worth more than the red Chevette in which it was installed.
By the necessity of their business projects, we would be a technological family long before it was the norm, and it would have a huge impact on both my life and that of my brother.