The Referendum

August, 1995 to April, 1996

Back in Montréal, the vacation high evaporated quickly.

"Nothing can prevail against the daily cycle of impossibly stressful work exchanged for a large paycheck which is immediately consumed by a huge mortgage for a house that has no value," is how I described our situation. Our house was on the market again, but had only attracted a few timid sniffs. It was obvious that the house would not sell until after the referendum, which was scheduled for late October of that year.

"I feel as if I have been sleep-walking for the last three to four years," I wrote. "Every project proposed is quickly dismissed as unrealistic. I have no dreams and no plans."

One afternoon while I was painting the walls of the basement stairs, I was lost in thought about Québec's campaign for independence. There were overtones of "ethnic cleansing" in some of the rhetoric, suggesting that the province would do well to rid itself of "undesirable" elements — those who were the wrong race or the wrong color, or who spoke the wrong language. And I wondered about my classmates from the COFI, and about where they had all ended up, especially the Ethopians. And that made me wonder whatever became of Mesfin Lisanu, my college sweetheart. It occurred to me that if he wasn't killed in the war, he had probably tried to return to the United States. And if he couldn't enter there, he might have immigrated to Canada. And at that moment I literally had a vision of his name in the Montréeal phone book. As if in a trance, I opened the white pages and saw his name. I slammed the book shut, went outside to get some air, came back in, and opened the book again, this time sitting down. But his name was still there.

Eventually I called and listened to a message in broken French in a voice that was oddly familiar. I told him my name and explained that I had been living in Montréal for nine years, and had found his name by accident in the phonebook. I said I didn't know if he was the same Mesfin Lisanu whom I had known many years ago at Bemidji State College, but if so, I would love to hear from him. I left my number in a few hours he called me back. And what a tale he had to tell! After flunking out of the Masters of Science program at BSU — and consequently losing his student visa — he had returned to Italy and earned a medical degree in Rome in 1980. From there he immigrated to Baltimore where he met a professor from McGill, and in 1982 he immigrated to Canada. When I moved to Montréal in 1986, Mesfin had already been here practicing medicine there for four years.

We meet for coffee at a café on Île des Soeurs a few weeks later. It was a beautiful day so I rode my bike. I wondered whether I would recognize him and whether he would seem like a stranger or an old friend. The answer came very quickly. I recognized him only because he was the only short black middle-aged man in the shopping center. Gone was that sweet smile that used to light up the world. He seemed old and hard and bitter. He was especially bitter about our break-up.

"I thought I had a friend for life," he said, adding that "our relationship had taught him something." He had apparently decided to concentrate entirely on his career, and the more we spoke, the more it seemed that he had no other interests. He was working three shifts a day, he said, because doctors in Québec were only allowed to earn $150,000 a semester unless they worked nights. We had a late lunch and he showed me his Jeep Grand Cherokee and his condo in what he described as "the most expensive building in Montréal." The condo was virtually empty except for some very expensive black leather couches. It didn't look as if anyone lived there. I said I understood that he was bitter about our break-up, but that I, too, was bitter about the fact that he left the country owing me $450. He said he didn't remember the incident but in any case, "he never would have let money interfere with the friendship."

Years later, an internet search for his name turned up a report that a Dr. Mesfin Lisanu had been convicted of insurance fraud in 1998. The news reports have since been pushed out of search results by a cheesey reputation-cleansing campaign featuring a tall, middle-aged Causasian physician and the curious headline, "Mesfin Lisanu, MD, Emergency Medicine — Leading Physicians of the World."

In early September of 1995, we visited our friends, Ivan and Bianco Stecko, and came home with an orange-and-white ball of fluff whom we would name "Shmudla" for the orange patch on his face.

The little one is the most gentle of all our cats, feathered paws always carefully without claws. He has a curiously expressive face, accentuated by the antenna-like movements of his ears and his little orange moustache. He has no concept of his small size. He continues to challenge Mourek relentless, although Mourek hardly notices when he throws his entire weight against him. He has learned to jump onto the kitchen counter by balancing precariously on the back of a dining room chair. Good-natured, bright and affectionate — it's a delight to have him in the family.

Shmudla would be at my side, through three cities, two countries and three marriages, for the next 21 years.

Another year, another reduction in force at Hoechst Marion Roussel. I survived them all, although each time our small team was shifted to a different department. There was a lot of tension between me and a colleague who had been the head of a similar service in Toronto. She cherry-picked the jobs she wanted, and took an enormous number of sick days, generally working no more than 3½ days a week. If I tried to talk to her about it, she would immediately storm out of the office and complain to our supervisor and to Human Resources.

One day, when she had taken over my last two projects, I called Human Services and asked if I could be fired, since I wouldn't be eligible for unemployment if I quit. My boss refused to fire me, and offered me full salary through the end of the year if I wanted to leave, or to stay if I wanted. They gave me the afternoon off, and I used it to go the Unity Rally in downtown Montréal, which attracted more than 100,000 demonstrators from all over Canada. I found myself walking next to a Canadian flag the width of a city street. On a commemorative poster, you can identify me by my purple raincoat.

By then I was applying for jobs all over the US and Canada, from Moncton to Halifax to Edmonton. In mid-October, the English-language alternative paper "Mirror" published a tongue-in-cheek "Guide to Fleeing Québec," and highly recommended Edmonton. "There's a sense of optimism as soon as you leave Montréal, where everyone you know is unemployed," wrote one enthusiastic émigré. A week before the Neverendum Referendum, polls were giving a 5% lead for the "yes" vote.

The referendum was held on Monday, October 30. Originally, the "yes" had a significant lead. But as the Montréal results started to trickled in, we polished off a bottle of wine and watched the "no" creep up 1/10 of percentage at a time. In the end the "no" prevailed by the narrowest of margins — less than 2%. A victory so small, it felt like a loss.

The narrow victory came as a shock to me, especially combined with Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau's election night claim that "money and the ethnic vote had combined to rob the Québecois of their dream of independence." Studies had shown that a sovereign Québec would provide increased protection for French culture, but mainly because of a mass exodus of Anglophones and Allophones.

We put the house on the market the second week in November, hoping against hope that we could sell it for enough to cover the balance on the mortgage. That Saturday, I complained in my journal some sort of "intestinal bug" that was causing chills, diarrhea and low back pain. I waited until late Sunday, and finally went to the local Clinique d'Urgence. But the clinic was already closed for the day, so an hour or so later when the pain still had not subsided, I checked in at Hôpital St-Laurent. I felt a bit silly for doing so, since all I had was a belly ache and a slight fever. The doctor drew some blood and parked me on a gurney in the corridor. He returned around 7:00, looking earnest. "Your white blood cell count is 19,200," he said. "I think you better talk to a surgeon." I was operated on that night, with just barely enough time to get a message to Jaro. I was hospitalized for three days.

My convalescence provided a much-needed break from my stressful routine. I rested. I read. I revised my resume. I expanded my job search to Albuquerque, New Mexico. And I started seeing a counselor, a hyper-competent young therapist at Victoria Hospital.

When I returned to work, I was shocked to discover someone else at my desk. Although I was only out for one week, my boss had already replaced me — with a unilingual Francophone, of course.

But something had changed. Now that I knew that, one way or another, I would be leaving both the job and the province, I was able to maintain some distance from the constant stress at work. I was more focused and less frantic. I learned how to say "no" to unreasonable demands, and I started working normal hours.

In March, 1996, we finally got an offer on the house for $101,000 — just enough to cover the balance of our mortgage and the commission. We would close on June 12, and move into an apartment in Ville Saint-Laurent on June 1.

Next