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Shaver: MLK riots and the Quebec referendum

“We very much felt the weight of history on our shoulders, that if the outcome was not favourable to the federalist side, the judgment of history would be very, very severe.” – Former Premier Jean Charest, commenting in the 1995 Quebec referendum

“We very much felt the weight of history on our shoulders, that if the outcome was not favourable to the federalist side, the judgment of history would be very, very severe.” – Former Premier Jean Charest, commenting in the 1995 Quebec referendum

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” – Dr. Martin Luther King

Many of us recall pivotal points in our lives. For me, it was the Martin Luther King riots in Baltimore some 54 years ago.

Many of you have read my op-ed articles in The Red Deer Advocate and elsewhere. Perhaps you might not know the back story. Why did I leave the United States after 24 years?

Born in Montreal, I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio at age two years, and then to Topeka, Kansas. My father, a neurosurgeon, had severe hypertension. Effective drugs were not available at that time, and he died at age 51 during my first week in high school. As he could not qualify for much insurance, my mother learned how to drive a car and returned to nursing after 16 years. I was fortunate enough to receive scholarships to Princeton University and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Although I disliked the city of Baltimore, I thought that I would reside permanently in the mid-Atlantic area.

Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Shortly thereafter, riots erupted in many cities including Baltimore. There were 11,000 troops, 1200 fires, 5800 persons arrested, and a 4PM curfew with National Guardsmen on jeeps patrolling the streets.

It was too dangerous to remain in my medical fraternity row house. Some three weeks previously, I had been broken into, but had been all alone on the third floor with no phone and no gun. When I hailed a passing policeman at 2AM he curtly advised me, “We don’t have time to investigate trivial complaints like this. Just get yourself a gun. Shoot first, and ask questions later.”!!

I therefore slept in the infirmary of the Homewood campus in a much safer part of the city. Eventually, for the first time in its history, the medical school cancelled exams and advised us all to go home. Several of us went in a convoy to the airport and rented cars. I remember driving back into the city though dark, deserted streets, hearing snipers firing from rooftops. When I left for Canada the next day, I recall the many cars with bumper stickers reading “America – Love it or leave it.”

My mother had returned to Kingston, Ontario, and arranged a research position. About a month later, I met my future wife – a Queen’s graduate from Ottawa. We married just before my last year at Hopkins, and then moved to Toronto for my internship and residency. However, even in the early 1970s, houses in Toronto were not affordable, and we moved to Ottawa in 1974.

I appreciated the fact that compared to the United States, Canada was a safer, more inclusive society, with more racial tolerance, fewer guns, and a lesser drug problem.

Three days of anarchy in 1968 had left a permanent mark on my brain, so when the Quebec separatist movement gained momentum, I feared that similar violence would occur in Canada, and felt motivated to act. Quebecers needed a new reason to be reluctant to give up their Canadian citizenship. I telephoned hospitals around the country and discovered that virtually all had a special rate for “Non-residents of Canada” which Quebecers would be after separation. At that time, interprovincial hospital charges were quadrupled for foreigners, and were in the order of $3000-$5000 per day. Quebecers with pre-existing diabetes mellitus, cardiac disease, malignancies, etc. might find it impossible to purchase private travel insurance to travel to other parts of Canada on business or vacation, or to visit friends and relatives in other provinces. To my knowledge, no politicians had thought of or used these arguments.

I had never taken a journalism course. However, my op-ed articles and letters were published from Vancouver to St. John’s. I cound speak and write French, but not perfectly. Therefore, I paid out of my own pocked for half a dozen different articles to be translated professionally into French. All appeared in Le Droit, and two in Le Devoir with not one word removed.

In the end, the separatists were defeated in the 1995 Referendum, but by a margin of only 55,000 votes, or 1.16 per cent. I hope - but will never know for certain – that my articles played a role.

It scares me to consider how easily this might not have happened. What if I had attended a medical school in a city that did not suffer the MLK riots? I would likely be living in the United States, but would have a different wife and family. I would never have written over 900 published articles. Also, quite possibly, Quebec would be a separate nation, the Atlantic provinces and possibly several western ones would have been annexed by the United States, and the Canada that we know and cherish would no longer exist.

Ottawa physician Dr. Charles S. Shaver was born in Montreal. He is Past-Chair of the Section on General Internal Medicine of the Ontario Medical Association.