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Montreal’s Black Watch regiment treasures WW I Victoria Cross




Standing inside the Royal Bank’s vault on the second floor of Place Ville Marie, Col. Daniel O’Connor, honorary colonel of the Black Watch of Canada, holds a dark blue safe deposit box.

Compared to the other treasures locked away in this vault, the contents of O’Connor’s box are relatively scant.

All that’s inside is a bit of slightly oxidized bronze and a few papers.

But when O’Connor opens the box, the man next to him, Black Watch honorary Lt.-Col. Bruce Bolton, lets out a gasp.

« There it is, » he says. « It makes your heart palpitate. »

Col. Daniel O’Connor, left, and Lt.-Col. Bruce Bolton set eyes on Fisher’s Victoria Cross for the first time in more than a decade.

The regiment agreed to show the original to CBC Montreal as it prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War on Nov. 11.

Around 100 Black Watch members will take part in a ceremony next Sunday in Mons, Belgium, a town the regiment helped liberate just hours before the Armistice.

For Bolton and O’Connor, it’s the first time they’ve set eyes on the medal in more than a decade.

It is the first Victoria Cross ever awarded to a Canadian-born soldier serving in a Canadian unit, Lance-Cpl. Fred Fisher.

« He never got to wear it, » Bolton and O’Connor say, in turn.

They don white cotton gloves before lifting the medal from its case.

One side is embossed with the words, « for valour. » A date — April 23, 1915 — is engraved on the other.

Fred Fisher graduated from Westmount Academy in 1912. (Westmount High School archives)

Fisher was just 19 — a quiet, slightly uptight kid from Westmount, Que. — in the middle of the killing fields of the First World War.

The son of a banker originally from St. Catharines, Ont., Fisher had been an avid athlete at Westmount High School (then known as Westmount Academy).

He was a decent hockey player and swimmer. As captain of the high school football team, he had a reputation for being « hard as nails, » according to the school newspaper.

Fred Fisher, 2nd row, 2nd from right, was on the Westmount Academy championship-winning Football Club in 1910. (Westmount High School archives)

The war started the day after Fisher’s 18th birthday.

Two weeks later, and just before he was supposed to return to his applied science studies at McGill University, Fisher enlisted with the 5th Regiment, Royal Highlanders of Canada, better known as the Black Watch.

This painting of Lance-Cpl. Fred Fisher hangs in his alma mater, Westmount High School, which was called Westmount Academy when he attended. (CBC)

It was the preferred unit of Montreal’s Anglo elite.

Most of its officers were millionaires.

As his battalion trained in southern England, Fisher stood out from his fellow soldiers.

One officer described him as « a quiet chap, who never drank, nor swore, nor played cards, and some of the fellows may have thought he was a prig. »

He was given the chance to learn how to use a relatively new weapon of war, the machine gun.

By the time the First Canadian Division was posted to Ypres in April 1915, Fisher headed a small detachment that operated a Colt-Browning .303.

The machine gunner at Ypres

On April 22, 1915, the Germans pumped 160 tonnes of chlorine gas into the air at Ypres, a light breeze carrying the greenish-yellow cloud toward the Allied lines.

It was the first recorded use of the gas in the war, and troops panicked as they began to be asphyxiated.

An Algerian contingent protecting the Canadians’ left flank was hit particularly hard and fled their position, leaving the Canadians exposed to the advancing Germans.

Fisher signed up shortly after his 18th birthday, putting his studies at McGill on hold. (Veterans Affairs Canada)

A battery of 18-pound field guns, essential for keeping the Germans at bay, was at risk of falling into enemy hands.

When the battery commander issued a desperate plea for help, Fisher volunteered and headed for the front lines in the early hours of April 23.

Fisher and his team set up their machine gun in an abandoned building and opened fire on the Germans closest to the battery, forcing them back.

But he also attracted enemy fire, and four of his crew were killed. Fisher hustled back to the Canadian lines to find reinforcements, took up a new position and resumed firing at the Germans.

Fisher’s covering fire allowed other Canadian soldiers to dismantle the field guns and retreat to safety. That’s what earned him the Victoria Cross.

As fighting continued along the Canadians’ exposed flank, Fisher’s detachment was redeployed to a trench.

As he crawled out to set up the machine gun, Fisher was struck by a bullet.

He died instantly.

His fellow soldiers buried him in a makeshift grave, but his body was never recovered. He is one of roughly 27,000 Canadian soldiers, from all wars, for whom there is no known grave.

Fisher’s Victoria Cross was sent to his parents. Later that year, they received a handwritten letter from King George V.

German prisoners shown with gas masks in April 1915 at Ypres. Allied soldiers had no such protections against the gas attack. (Canadian Press)

« It is a matter of sincere regret to me that the death of Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher deprived me of the pride of personally conferring upon him the Victoria Cross, the greatest of all Military Distinctions, » the letter read.

Fisher’s mother was fond of wearing her son’s medal, the Toronto Star noted in 1916.

After she died in 1946, Fisher’s family gave the medal, as well as the king’s letter, to the Black Watch.

‘The heart and soul of a regiment’

The storied regiment has kept Fisher’s Victoria Cross in a bank vault for the past several years, taking it out only on special occasions — an increasingly rare occurrence because the medal is considered a valuable collector’s item and there are always security concerns.

Fred Fisher won the Victoria Cross for his valour when he and his machine gun unit helped Canadian soldiers retreat to safety at a battle at Ypres. He died later in that battle, on April 23, 1915. His body was never recovered. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

A replica is housed in the regiment’s headquarters on Bleury Street.

Fisher’s Victoria Cross continues to have a hold on Black Watch members, past and present.

« Seeing this and touching it is probably one of the most important experiences of my life, » said Bolton, who has been involved with the regiment for more than 50 years.

« Memorabilia such as this become the heart and soul of a regiment, » O’Connor said.

Fisher’s Victoria Cross helps younger Black Watch members identify with the regiment’s long history, which reaches back to 1862.

As a reservists, active Black Watch soldiers hold down day jobs and serve part-time at night or on weekends.

But many have seen combat in recent years in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan, providing reinforcements to regular forces.

« They do so with pride, in part because of memorabilia such as this and the history of the regiment, » O’Connor said.

Fred Fisher’s McGill University student record indicates details of his death in action on April 23, 1915, and mentions that he was awarded the Victoria Cross. (McGill University archives)


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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal




MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise




Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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