Transcona was a small town in the mid-1950s when the Grade 1 class lined up in September at the bottom of a long flight of stairs at l’École de l’Assomption.
The repair and maintenance shops for the Transcontinental Railroad had been located in Transcona at the turn of the century and the CN shops had plenty of work for immigrants from Europe and French Canadians who were leaving the towns and farms of southern Manitoba for the city.
When the shop whistle blew to signal a shift change, Italian, Ukrainian, Polish, English and French could be heard as men passed through the gate and into the yard.
In the line being pushed straight by Sœur Marie-Thérèse, the Grade 1 teacher, were four little girls: Marlene Chalmers, MaryAnn Huard, Joan Nassichuk and Jeannette Richter. We would start a friendship that would endure six decades.
The language in class and in the halls was French, but the prescribed texts and the speech on the playground was English. Without noticing it, we were becoming bilingual in Canada’s founding languages.
It was safe in those days, for children to play outside alone. Under a pollution-free sky, wrapped in long scarves and warm woolen mittens that our babas and mémères knit, we built forts and walked on the ridges of cleared snow around Park Circle.
On Saturday, we stood in line for the matinee at the Apollo on Regent. It cost a dime and without the movie rating system of today, we went in of our own free will to be traumatized by Vincent Price in The House of Wax.
When we got older, we slung our figure skates over our shoulders and walked to East End Arena. We skated clockwise, our right leg aching from the cross-over until Mr. Golding’s voice over the crackly loudspeaker ordered us to change direction.
My mother bought a television on lay-away at Notley’s Electric and relatives without a TV became fixtures on the red velvet chesterfield in our living room.
Cigarettes were 25 cents a pack and we started to smoke menthols as they weren’t supposed to be so bad. We jammed a knife in the gap on the door-frame of my upstairs bedroom and blew smoke out of the three air holes of the storm windows.
This year Canada officially declares the four of us seniors and we got together to celebrate old times. We held our own reunion to coincide with Transcona’s centennial. We watched the extra special, super-long parade put on by Hi Neighbour Festival organizers on June 2 and attended a public open house at the CN Transcona Shops in the afternoon.
As we passed under the gates, we remembered the men with the black lunch boxes and steel-toed boots. They created the vibrant, blue-collar community that was incorporated 100 years ago.
Jeannette Richter is a former Transcona resident.
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