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A graveyard, a soldier, a mysterious connection and a long-awaited meeting

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On a cloudy December afternoon, Maggie Allison stands over the grave of Pte. Richard Staples at Prospect Cemetery in Toronto.

She talks to him, as she often does, and tells him she is about to meet his great-niece, Catherine Staples. While Staples and Allison have exchanged emails, they’ve never met in the five years Allison has been caring for the grave.

A weathered photo of Pte. Richard Staples as it appears at his gravesite at Prospect Cemetery in Toronto.
A weathered photo of Pte. Richard Staples as it appears at his gravesite at Prospect Cemetery in Toronto.  (Sergio Arangio/Special to the Toronto Star)

According to Allison, who is in her 40s, she found Richard’s grave by accident while on a late-afternoon jog through the cemetery in October 2013.

Something pulled her to an unkempt grave in a poorly maintained section of the cemetery. And she had a strong emotional reaction — the discovery made her break down crying. But Allison still doesn’t know why, since she had never heard of him and has no apparent ancestral connection.

“I just felt this overwhelming feeling of finding something that I had lost,” Allison said in an interview in November. She has been drawn to his grave ever since, bringing flowers each season and keeping his plot tidy. She even planted a cedar tree next to his gravestone.

Allison was determined to find out everything she could about Richard, who died in 1916. Information was scarce until a post on memorial website Find A Grave in October 2015 provided details of his trip to Canada and enlistment in the military.

The post lead her to Richard Staples’ great-niece, Catherine Staples, who had also found the post and had commented on it. Allison then sent her an email in explaining the story.

Over the next three years, they kept in contact, always intending to meet, but never finding the right opportunity. They’ve even narrowly missed each other a few times while visiting other family in the cemetery.

As Allison and Staples finally meet, their eyes light up, with smiles galore and arms outstretched. They share a hug as if they themselves were long-lost relatives.

“It was like I was hugging a part of Richard,” Allison later says.

For Catherine, the whole experience has been surreal. When she first read Allison’s email, she was shocked and surprised.

“My first reaction was ‘my God, this is so special,’ ” says Staples, 69. She has a keen interest in genealogy and had been scouring Prospect Cemetery for months before Allison reached out, looking for a shabby grave rather than a well-maintained one.

“I’m being rewarded for all my hard work of searching for ancestors. It was really special.”

The post on Find A Grave and an entry on Veteran’s Affairs Canada’s virtual war memorial explain that at age 16, Richard came to Canada from England in 1914 with his parents and two siblings, one month after World War One started. Records indicate he and his father were shoemakers. He enlisted in the 169th Battalion in February 1916. Though the age requirement was 18, recruiters would often overlook the ages of young recruits to fill their quotas, particularly after 1916.

Staples was stationed at Exhibition Place in Toronto, which was used as a military training camp during the war, when he contracted pneumonia. He died on May 16, 1916.

A weathered photo of Pte. Richard Staples as it appears at his gravesite at Prospect Cemetery in Toronto.
A weathered photo of Pte. Richard Staples as it appears at his gravesite at Prospect Cemetery in Toronto.

Along with his death his family had also received news of a relative killed in action. According to a report at the time, Richard’s stepfather, Henry, had also enlisted. He had previously been discharged from the British military for “having a nervous breakdown.”

In Staples’ research, she found that Richard’s name was originally Eugene Edward when his birthfather Thomas Edward was still in his life. When or why he changed his name is a mystery. While it was not uncommon for children to take their stepfather’s name, he changed his first name, as well.

While there are large gaps in the information, Allison and Staples speculate on the kind of man Richard was.

“I think that he was just like a really sensitive, sweet man,” says Allison. “Do you get any feeling, Catherine?”

“I have a good feeling because maybe he was following in his dad’s footsteps,” says Staples.

They both appreciate being able to learn as much as they have about his life, crediting that to the community of World War One enthusiasts who dedicate much of their time to uncovering the stories of forgotten soldiers.

Find A Grave is one of their many outlets for connecting people with their lost relatives. Owned by genealogy company Ancestry, the site claims to have over a million contributors of virtual memorials and thousands of contributions are made per day.

Margaret Rose Gaunt, who posted Richard’s Find A Grave information, is one of them. She wanted to learn more about her uncle, who was killed in Normandy in June 1944. Gaunt made a post on the Canada Remembers Facebook page in 2010, which was met with many comments from war enthusiasts. One even visited her uncle’s grave in France and photographed it for her.

Gaunt then resolved that she’d pay the favour forward. She says it’s a noble hobby, having made over 1,800 contributions to Find A Grave alone.

Part of what makes this important to her, she says, is the fact that she was adopted by her uncle and didn’t know who her birth parents were until she was in her 40s. And so, she feels a duty to connect people to their relatives.

“They gave their lives for our freedom and they need to be remembered,” says Gaunt, 75. “And if you can touch somebody else, that makes it all worthwhile.”

Staples and Allison now share the upkeep of Richard’s plot. They admit it’s a strange situation, but they have a mutual respect for each other’s connection to him. Their next goal is to spruce up his ragged section of the cemetery.

Allison also hopes to one day solve the mystery of why Richard changed his first name.

“I’ve asked him but I get no response,” she says with a laugh.

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Anglais

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

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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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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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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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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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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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