Historians on the move

Karen Herland

Jasmine St-Laurent (left) and Nancy Rebelo sample some classic Portuguese queijada de natas from a Main bakery.

courtesy nancy rebelo

Jasmine St-Laurent and Nancy Rebelo have produced an audio tour that tells the story of Montreal’s St. Laurent Blvd. in the voices of the immigrants who gravitated to it. Their tour, which follows the 55 bus route, includes a guidebook for “history geeks and their teachers.”

“We didn’t want the tour to be about places, we wanted to hear people’s voices,” Rebelo said.

“For many people, the Main was the go-to place. You could find people who knew the food you eat and who could help you find a job and a place to stay,” said St-Laurent.

The two came to Concordia with an interest in education and history — Rebelo had a BA in High School Education; St-Laurent has been working with youth groups for years.

The public history program helped St-Laurent to think about how history could be built from various points of view. “Instead of seeing history at face value, I understood that there was always a story about history, that it was contested.”

It was Steven High’s class that helped them develop a way to combine those interests with their own backgrounds as second- and third-generation Canadians — Rebelo’s parents are from Portugal, and St-Laurent’s maternal grandparents hailed from Italy and Poland.

“His class was like a think tank. He encouraged people to work together,” St-Laurent said.

The tour takes the listener up the Main and through four different cultural neighbourhoods— first Chinatown, then the Portuguese and Jewish communities and finally Little Italy. The narratives are woven together with the voice of a 55 bus driver, describing his adventures on the route. Traffic noises are audible along the way.

Rebelo and St-Laurent started out just sitting on the bus, watching the scenes pass by. Then, using community leaders and word of mouth, they found people to tell their stories. Although Rebelo’s family has been active in the Portuguese community centred around Rachel St. since the 1980s, St-Laurent found Palmira Lima Ferreira to tell the story of the Portuguese immigrant experience.

Both women say they underestimated the amount of work it would take to edit interviews of up to two hours down to seven-minute capsules. Background information and photos are available in accompanying guides.

To download the tour and materials, go to storytelling.concordia.ca/workingclass/project55/index.html Current efforts to give the Main a facelift which diverted bus traffic off the street have been suspended for June. “The Main changes all the time,” St-Laurent said.

Rebelo will be returning to the Public History program in the fall to do her PhD. Both women would like to do other tours of more recent waves of immigrants.