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Chatting with Seniors: Gerald J. Roy

Gerald Roy has strong ties to Port aux Basques, where he has chosen to retire.

Sitting down before his interview, Gerald J. Roy immediately took a seat with a view of the window. Filled with a vitality that belies his age (he’s almost 78), he gave the impression of a man who needs to be constantly in motion, and that the small living room can hardly contain him. Indeed, not standing still has been a theme throughout his life.

In 1967, Gerald arrived in St. John’s, having crossed the island without the prospect of a job, little money, and facing traveling back home again to Montreal. It was at the Bowring Café downtown while reading a paper that he saw a job posting for a teaching job in Channel.

“I didn’t know what Channel was. I had no idea. So I had to ask the waitress in very broken English, because I could hardly speak English then. I said, ‘Where the hell is Channel?’ She told me, ‘Well that’s where you came in – in Port aux Basques.’”

He sent a message expressing his interest in the job, while noting that he did not have a teaching license for Newfoundland. Regardless, he received a telegram right away asking him to respond immediately.

“I said ‘Holy crap they really want me.’ So, I took the phone and called here, in Port aux Basques, and said ‘Look I’m not qualified to teach in Newfoundland yet, it will be sometime before I get my license.’ They said ‘Don’t worry about this, send us your acceptance by telegram right away.’”

With funds sent for his train ticket by the education department, he took the Newfie Bullet straight to Port aux Basques. Once again, he was back in motion.

“I thought it was a fast train, but in truth I found out otherwise, and landed two days later here in Port aux Basques, and came to live in this very house.”

A cozy home in the heart of Channel, he would leave here after this first stay, only to return later in life. During his first stay he boarded with the landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Piercey, and three other teachers.

Gerald then began teaching at the Junior High School, the Academy. Being the newest teacher, he was not given his choice of subject. A more senior teacher was already teaching French. Despite barely speaking the language, he was tasked with teaching English Language and Literature.

“I had to go home at night time and learn the English grammar, and the English sentence construction, so that I could go down to the school and teach that very subject to the kids. It was a devil’s own thing, I’ll tell you that.”

Being forced into this position did improve his English though and he lost much of his strong French accent. Though his teaching days are 46 years ago, he is often still recognized, though he may not recognize his former students at first.

When asked how he feels when he’s recognized but cannot reciprocate, he said, “It tells me I did a good impression on these people, otherwise they wouldn’t remember me. And I remember some of them. I remember some names. But point them out to me today, I would not be able to recognize any of them. Not for the life of me.”

One impression that stuck with him occurred in 1971 when he left the Junior High School in Port aux Basques to teach in the Codroy Valley at Belanger Memorial.

“I remember a young girl. She was sitting on the floor, funny enough, at the end of the school year, and she told me, ‘Mr. Roy, that’s what I want to do. I want to be a teacher just like you.’ That probably was the high point for me.”

That student did go on to become a teacher. However, Gerald’s teaching career was not without its lows. Though he sought to instill a love of learning in all his students, he recalled one student he could not make that connection with. Gerald remembers what the child said when asked to not drop out of school.

“He had just graduated Grade 9, and I was trying to encourage him to come back to Grade 10. And he said, ‘Mr. Roy, when I go to work on Monday for my father, I will be making about 10 times in the first month that you make in a full year’s salary here.’ And unfortunately, he was right. Today he inherited his father’s business – doing great! And he’s making loads of money and I retired with a small pension.”

By 1975, Gerald had achieved great success as a teacher, having a positive impact on the young minds of the community. But the urge to travel on and test himself elsewhere put him in motion again.

“I go back on it and I think, why the hell did I leave? And of course, the reason is simple: it was for the money. I went for bigger and better opportunities that were elsewhere.”

He then moved back to Québec and started a career in personnel management, working for various companies. He worked for organizations such as Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Glace Bay, and Electrolux Canada. He advanced quickly, but after working up to 80 hours a week, he felt that it was time again to move on.

He decided to return to return to his love of theatre and he began performing with his own theatre group in Sherbrooke, Quebec. His group performed summer stock theatre, which he participated in for seven or eight years, usually as director.

Having attained success in yet another line of work, the need to move came again. This time it was a return to teaching. Surprisingly, he found himself teaching English yet again.

He saw a position advertised by the federal government looking for someone to teach English to French speaking civil servants in the Sherbrooke area. He took the position, which in turn opened up other opportunities with the federal government.

“Because I then became a public servant of the federal government, they were sending me job postings all over the place. And a job posting came up for a Human Rights Officer, and I said ‘Hey, why not?’”

Gerald expected to be posted close to his home town in Montreal, but was offered a human rights officer position in Halifax. He moved back to the East Coast and again climbed up the ranks. By 1993, he became regional director for the Canadian Human Rights Commission for the Atlantic provinces. In 2000, he moved yet again to Ottawa as a conciliator and mediator, finishing his career when he retired at the age of 63.

He then moved back to Port aux Basques for his retirement, living in the same home he boarded in during his time teaching. That seems fitting, as he looks back on his time teaching here as the best years of his life.

Recalling his time as a school teacher, he said, “I remember these times as probably the most rewarding parts of all my years in the working environment. I’ve had a lot success in other aspects of life, in other professions, but these are probably the ones I cherish the most.”

When asked what advice he would give those entering retirement, he advised to not stand still.

“Keep busy! Darn it, keep busy! I had some very good friends with whom I worked at the human rights commission who decided to take it easy after they retired, and within maybe 10 months, a year, 2 years, they were dead.”

Gerald has lived by these words. Even in retirement he often traveled, usually down south to avoid Newfoundland winters. First he went to Haiti for 3 years. Then, assisted by his friend, Lise Laverdiere, he travelled to Panama and met a good friend in Germain Courchesne. He would spend many winters there, staying in a small house behind Courchesne’s. He then discovered Bocas del Toro, a small island in the Caribbean. Gerald would travel about the town on a motor scooter and take in the world-renowned beaches. He would also find a small French-Canadian enclave here as well.

When asked what advice he would give to the young teachers just entering the profession, his answer is to enjoy it.

“It’s not just a profession. It is a calling to mould, to create, to advance young minds. And even at high school level, they’re still young minds. They’re still forming their views of the world. Help them along that way. It’s a calling just as much as, let’s say, nursing, where you devote your life to the betterment of others.”

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