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October 26, 2007

Mattawa's Dr. Firmin Monestime Remembered

 

Thirty years ago tomorrow October 27, 1977, Mattawa's remarkable medical doctor, Dr. Firmin Monestime, mayor and powerful personality died at the age of 67.  Recognized as Canada's first black mayor he is remembered today for being an outstanding doctor, leader and family man. 

Dr. S.F. Monestime.

All of Mattawa's businesses and schools closed for his funeral.  The Monestime family through his Russian wife Zena and their children were adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church and several church officials and a church choir from Toronto and Ottawa were present.  Clergy from the local Roman Catholic, United and Anglican churches were involved.  Members of Parliament, local and regional politicians and members of the medical fraternity were present.  A large honor guard of local groups attended the funeral.  The Haitian Ambassador was present to recognize a successful native son and several Haitian friends and relatives attended. 

The Mattawa Museum has a display on his life and one on the Russian heritage of his wife.  A book on Dr. Monestime's life is in development as is other recognition of his contribution. 

Among the many achievements of Dr. Monestime is the Algonquin Nursing Home which he founded and is a living tribute to his leadership.  His wife was administrator of the home until 2005 and their daughter Vala is the current administrator. 

Dr. Monestime and family.

Dr. Monestime was born in Haiti in 1909 and went to school with Dr. Duvalier who later became Haiti's infamous dictator.  Dr. Monestime specialized in rural medicine and wrote 3 books on the subject.  At one point he was the medical officer on the international route between Haiti and the other half of that Caribbean island, the Dominican Republic.  In 1937-38 the Dominicans massacred 50,000 Haitians and Dr. Monestime was the only doctor on duty.  He was presented with the Legion of Merit by Haiti's president for his work. 

As he became more disillusioned with life there he began to write critical articles and radio shows.  He eventually resigned from his civil service position and looked for another country where he could practice.  Since he spoke only French he moved to Quebec City.  In Quebec he began a long struggle to have his degree updated, to learn English to get immigration status, and to get citizenship. 

In 1951 Dr. Monestime and another doctor were heading to Timmins looking to start a practice there when they stopped in Mattawa for lunch.  That was the start of his Mattawa life because the owner of the restaurant, a former patient, talked him into staying and supported his transition. 

In 1953 he married Zena Petschersky who had fled communist and nazi regimes in Europe and who he met in Ottawa.  They eventually had 3 sons and a daughter.  In 1956 he took a year off to do postgraduate work in Scotland.  In 1963 he ran for municipal council and won and in 1964 he ran for mayor and won.  After taking a year off for health reasons he again became Mayor and remained so, often by acclamation, until his death.  In the early 1970s he became active in provincial Progressive Conservative politics and became a National Director of the party and became an unsuccessful candidate for the party's Presidency. 

Dr. Monestime display in Mattawa Museum.

In 1975 he built Mattawa's private Algonquin Nursing Home which is highly respected in the seniors' community.  Also in 1975 a provincial township was named after him for his outstanding service to the province. In 1976 a surprise 25th anniversary party recognized his place in the community. 

The one real tragedy in his Mattawa life was the shooting death of his son Fedia in February 1977and what he considered the unjust acquittal of the perpetrator. 

I have had several conversations with people over the years about Dr. Monestime and have been told consistently about his down-to-earth joie de vivre, his engaging personality, his medical skills and his political acumen.  No one ever indicated that his colour was an issue.  This is a credit to him and to the people of Mattawa. 

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