A colleague, Gaetan Fournier, died in his sleep last Thursday, hence I felt the need to update this 3-year old post that I had written about him.
Gaetan represented everything I abhor but I still went to the funeral. His “conjointe’ tearfully told me he died of cardiac arrest, in his sleep. His last words were, “I ……. can’t ……….breathe…”. She said he was all bluster but a kind man within.
His passing reminded me of my own brush with him and so here is the account of it ……………..
Today was Le Brut’s last working day. Gaetan Fournier, dreaded forklift driver and certified redneck, scourge of anyone who was even a little brown, Le Brut to his redneck groupies at work, has finally retired, after almost half a century of forklift driving. I am actually going to miss him.
Folks like Gaetan are in a minority now, thank the Lord. There was a time when even the US was playing catch-up with Canada in racism, no kidding. Considering how rabidly racist the US is even today, that is saying a lot. We all know now about the horrors of Canada’s residential schools for native children.
But let me hasten to add that today racism in Canada is not a rule but an exception, and at least not as ‘physical’ as in America. Yes, you shall be slighted, folks shall smirk at you and even deride you, but at least you won’t get shot at or punched in the face.
In America, if you are a black man, the cops will fill you with a heavy metal called ‘plumbum’ in Latin, just because you were walking out the front door on your way to work.
Racism is out there everywhere, like it or not, chafing at the bit, barely reined in by the law. And so it is, here in Canada as well.
There are a few racists I’ve crossed paths with since coming to Canada, some real slick and silky. They keep their true feelings well hidden, unless they are among their own. They’ll be easygoing with you, seemingly engaging and friendly and have you fooled. “Archie, need any help, gimme a call, hear?” It’ll take a while for you to realize that they have no intentions of helping you and before you know it, you’ll be an expert at watching your back. And then something will happen, some small passing remark that tells you how they really see you and your kind. These are more often well-educated guys with university degrees, bigotry deeply ingrained in them. After some time, you stop being hypersensitive to the comments that they pass.
There are others – barely literate – the frothing-in-the-mouth type, the ones that are known here in North America, as rednecks.
Like Gaetan Fournier, the guy I spoke about in para-1. If you greet these guys in the corridor, they’ll look the other way or just grunt. If as a part of your work you need to talk to them, they are usually surly, resentful, dripping with sarcasm.
The rednecks are never alone, but always in wolf packs of two or three other similarly oriented folks. Alone, they won’t bother you, just walk by you, their faces sullen, twisted in a perpetual scowl. In a pack, they are vicious. Not overtly threatening, but snappy. As you pass them, they’ll sneer behind you and say something really nasty that will be just within your hearing range. They are the true Trump constituency, trust me.
If you go up to these guys for some help, sure, they’ll ‘help’ – by deliberately misleading you. The one thing I learned is this – never try to reach out and be friendly with them. These guys have their minds made up already. To them , you are an arsehole. They do not understand warmth and friendliness. You try to be chummy and they’ll be even more vicious with you. They are predators. They hate what you stand for. They despise your DNA.
Unless you happen to make contact on a purely emotional level, as I came to realize, quite by accident one day. Let me back up a bit and give you the background…….
As a predator, Gaetan was in a class of his own. The guy’s neck really was red. Close to 67 now, he joined work when the Vietnam War was at it’s peak, business was booming and you didn’t even need a high school diploma to get work. Yeah, war for North America was good for business, as it still is.
Gaetan could barely write. He drove a forklift around at the loading docks. When he spoke, he growled and bitched about everything, while his jaws seemed like they were biting, chewing, spitting, all at the same time. Fridays, if you were at the loading docks, you’d get a whiff of whisky on his breath. All in all, he was a filthy, uncouth, lumbering mass of belching bad breath.
One time I was at the loo. Alone.
Gaetan was on one side and Kurt, one of his cohorts, on the other. Hubert, the other sidekick in the trio, wasn’t around. The two began talking loudly, both facing me, deliberately spraying me with saliva while they exchanged all sorts of profanities in French about folks who come to Canada just to find a pot to piss in. My fingers trembled as I tried to tuck my richard back in and get the zipper on after I was done.
I forced myself to calm down and left, went to the paint shop washroom and washed my face there. I could have put in a dialog report. The two would probably have got suspended. The company had zero tolerance for this sort of behavior. But I knew that complaining would only make matters worse. They would be back after the suspension, even more vicious than before. They could get at me in millions of different ways.
Until Christmas eve 2010…..
The grocery chain store, IGA, is one of these massive sprawling joints. Organized chaos. I was done filling my shopping cart and on my way to the check-out. I was crossing the aisle that had toys on the shelves, when I noticed this little girl wondering around, lips trembling, a panicky look on her pretty face. I bent down and asked her,”êtes-vous bien? Puis-je vous aider?”(Are you OK?, Can I help you?).
“Mon grand-père” was all that she blurted out. Flaxen-haired, she looked like an angel. I realized she was lost. I took her by the hand and led her to the store manager’s office. On the way, I stuffed a bag of cookies and a juice box from my cart in her tiny hands. I explained to the store manager that she was looking for her grandfather.
A half hour ticked by and at last, the repeated announcements over the PA system worked. The frantic grandfather came charging into the manager’s office, looking like he was about to lose it. He had been having a smoke outside and hadn’t heard the announcements the first couple of times.
It was Gaetan. He gaped, when his eyes settled on me, the way Macbeth must have, when he saw Banco’s ghost. When he heard I’d brought the little girl in and generally kept her occupied while reassuring her that her granddad was on his way and everything would be just fine, his face was a contorted vortex of emotions. He had a confused scowl as he swung her onto his shoulders. Then, turning to leave, he paused and in an unintelligible whisper he said, “Mèrci”, swung on his heels and left.
Fast forward to the next time I crossed paths with Gaetan Fournier, January 2011. Again, it was in the loo. I was peeing and Gaetan and his sidekicks strolled in.
While Gaetan held back, the other two came up to the urinals right next and proceeded to unzip and let loose.
“Le laisse seul.” The words came in the form of a grunt, from behind, in that typical Quebecois drawl. They meant – ‘Leave him alone’. The two goons paused, zipped up and moved over to a far corner to pee.
There were no wisecracks this time. Just four human beings peeing themselves silly. They were silent all the while and even their pissing wasn’t as noisy as before. Gaetan gave me a nod as he stepped off the urinal, as though to say,” You take care now.” And they were gone.
He looked good, sans the sneer.
The Gaetan incident made me feel like someone who has been chosen for special protection. While other dark-skinned immigrant employees got hell from him, my problem with Gaetan got resolved quickly and permanently, through a chance encounter with a little girl inside a grocery store.
This sort of thing has happened to me before. I have gotten out of jams by sheer fluke. I remember once being in a train in India and realizing my wallet had been filched with my ticket in it. Right then, the TC came checking and after checking the passenger sitting right next, he inexplicably wheeled around and proceeded toward the next car.
If I didn’t suffer from all the usual physical trials and tribulations of a 63-year old, I’d have thought I was a human guinea pig being tested by the Almighty with assorted minor day to day miracles.
At the funeral, I also came face-to-face with a slim young man, sharply dressed in a well-cut black suit and black dress shirt, as is wont in funerals. On the shirt was pinned a sticker that said “famille”, to identify him to visiters as a member of the berieved family. Due to the color of my skin, I was the odd man out and he smiled at me, his eyes sombre. He was what Gaetan might have looked at his age. I looked around to see if I could find the little angel I met at the grocery, but children are usually not brought to funerals here in Quebec.
“You must be Gaetan’s son,” I said in English. He nodded. The writer in me couldn’t help myself and soon after the ice had been broken, I said to him,”How was Gaetan as a father?”
He thought for a while and said,”Loving…fun…………..goofy.” Those were all the adjectives that I would never have applied to the Gaetan I knew at work. To us, he was as loving, fun and goofy as a bad tempered shark. But ask Idi Amin’s son or Stalin’s daughter the same question and I bet you’ll get a similar response.
In death, how will Gaetan be judged, by the Greatest Judge of all? A bully who preyed on immigrants and other dark-skinned folks? Or a loving father? I am guessing he will be deemed the same as us all.