MONTREAL - From the safe distance of his office in Halifax, John Walker agrees with the axiomatic aspect of life in Montreal: There’s never a dull moment.
No sooner does the casserole cacophony subside than the thunder begins and the skies open, unleashing a monsoon that washes over a grisly real-life CSI, with a dash of Dexter.
And that was just one week. Who knows what awaits us when the Formula One circus revs into town.
Walker is a 59-year-old Montreal expat who makes documentaries that have won Genie and Gemini awards. He got his start as a photographer, doing studio work for Chatelaine, Maclean’s and the Montreal Star in the early 1970s. Walker branched out into sound and cinematography at the National Film Board, Montreal’s great finishing school for aspiring moviemakers.
Walker will be back in town on June 14 when the Alouettes play their first exhibition game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Molson Stadium. He and his crew will be shooting footage Walker needs for the documentary he’s making about the 1969 Grey Cup.
The finished product will be part of Engraved on a Nation: Stories of the Grey Cup, the CFL and Canada. The eight-part series was commissioned by TSN and will be telecast as a lead-up to the 100th Grey Cup game.
The 57th battle for Canadian Football League supremacy took place on Nov. 30, 1969, at the Autostade, arguably the ugliest installation built for Expo 67. Cold and uninviting and located off the beaten track in what had been Goose Village, the stadium was packed with more than 33,000 fans watching Rough Riders vs. Roughriders, Ottawa vs. Saskatchewan.
Walker lived in Montreal. But he wasn’t at that game.
“I didn’t know anything about football,” Walker cheerfully acknowledged during a phone conversation. “But they very clearly wanted filmmakers, not sports experts.”
In recent years, sports and the people who play them have been the focus of excellent documentary film projects. The 24/7 series on HBO and ESPN’s 30 for 30 have brought cinematic artistry to bear on preparations for the NHL Winter Classic, as well as individual athletes.
When done right – and most of them have been terrific – the films have offered sports fans and non-fans uniquely personal perspectives on the men and women behind the SportsCentre highlight reels and rows of numbers on the stats page.
“Fundamentally, sports documentaries are about character and people,” Walker says. “It’s not about the games.”
Walker said the TSN series was inspired by 30 for 30. He says the ESPN series included “amazing films” made by independent directors who don’t necessarily have sports backgrounds.
Walker’s documentary will look at the 1969 Grey Cup game in a social, political and cultural context. It was an interesting time, even by Montreal standards.
The previous year had seen clashes between police and students in the streets of Paris. The Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia’s brief taste of freedom, was in 1968.
While the rest of Canada was still riding the wave of Trudeaumania, Quebec was experiencing a surge of sovereignist sentiment. The Front de libération du Québec had set off bombs at the Stock Exchange and the home of Mayor Jean Drapeau. It was the year of McGill français and the police strike.
Fearing the potential fallout of any large public gathering, city hall banned Montreal’s Santa Claus parade. And the ultimate celebration of pure Canadiana was coming to town.
We tend to think of hockey as our national sport. But in 1969, Canadian content in the NHL was the Canadiens and Leafs periodically refighting the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
“Football was always a more national sport, East vs. West,” Walker says.
He cites the Grey Cup’s sky-high television ratings as evidence of the game’s national appeal – particularly in contrast to the viewership for another all-American Stanley Cup final.
Walker sees his documentary as “an ironic national unity story.”
“Growing up in Quebec, I was interested in politics,” Walker says. “What I found interesting in researching the film was how football, in the late 1960s, was seen as an anglo game.”
CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur realized he had a problem in Montreal. Alouettes fans were still bitter about the banishment of Sam Etcheverry and Hal Patterson, and French-speaking Montrealers were indifferent to Gaudaur’s league.
Moreover, Montreal had a mayor who dreamed big. After the success of Expo, Drapeau saw Montreal as an international city that merited consideration for a National Football League franchise.
If the NFL expanded to Montreal, Toronto would be next. And that would be third down and very long for the Canadian league.
“Trudeau is elected prime minister, and he has the same problem,” Walker says. “You lose Quebec and you lose the country.
“So there’s Trudeau, an arch-enemy of the FLQ and a symbol of federalism, doing the ceremonial kickoff at the 1969 Grey Cup game. It was a crazy idea, in some ways, to hold the game in Montreal.”
Walker has been able to draw on rich archival material. The game was covered by nine cameramen, shooting 16-millimetre colour film in the pre-videotape era.
Saskatchewan fans came to town with their cowboy hats. The ban on parades was suspended for the Grey Cup, and the event turned into a good old-fashioned Montreal party – albeit one preceding a game played under watchful security at the Autostade.
“I think Montrealers were relieved that they could have fun in the middle of this crisis,” Walker says.
We could use some of that again.The Autostade was a cool looking joint in it's day,but totally impractical.It did host many sporting events,but also was the venue for 'Pop Festivals' that was what they called music shows,before they called them 'Rock Concerts' I remember a 12 -14 hr straight through 'Pop Festival' as it was billed,with groups playing nonstop,Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels,was one of the main groups to play,and guess what,........the 'Who' also appeared a very young 'Who' with soon to be dead Keith Moon, as the drummer,& a young and very arrogant Pete Townshend..etc etc ,..Dean Hagopian was one of the MC's for the event..this was a year or so before Woodstock & Monterey ,at the time it was the longest running show of it's kind...all i all it was a cool show................. HF&RV - Les