As a child, Roméo Dallaire lived in temporary tarpaper barracks in a gritty neighbourhood in Montréal's east end, crammed in with his parents and two other families.
He was five before his father, a war vet, and his mother, a war bride from Holland, could finally afford their own home. They all moved into basic wartime housing – cheap, cold and uncomfortable. Outside, oil refineries and chemical plants spewed poisonous fumes over the neighbourhood.
The Brothers of St-Gabriel
Roméo went to the local boys-only Catholic school, École Napoléon Courtemanche.
For 12 years he was educated in an all-male environment by the Brothers of St-Gabriel – an order dedicated to teaching. Sometimes the brothers would drop over to visit his parents, snag a good meal and complain about Roméo's lacklustre performance in class. Among the brothers, two stood out for the young Dallaire.
Brother Hillaire taught chemistry in Grade 10 and – more significantly to Dallaire – he ran the school band.
“Hillaire had an incredible sense of organization and discipline. Scraping for money from the municipality, he built the band from a bunch of volunteers.
“We marched in the St. Jean Baptiste parade every year. I wasn't very good on instruments. I fiddled with the trumpet and the drums but I never mastered the marching and the playing, so I used to carry the flag.
“It was not just one person making the right step or playing the right note. It had to be all of us. We learned our music and the intricate choreography so that we would all succeed.
“Hillaire didn't have much of a sense of humour. He was a small man but he had such power in his eyes he could melt a snowcap! That remained a great influence on me.”
Brother Léonidas, on the other hand, was a man “from a totally different arena.” Léonidas taught Dallaire math in Grade 9, but it was as choirmaster that he made his real impression.
“He was very much an emotional, romantic type of person. He enjoyed instilling in us an enormous sensitivity to the music we were learning. There was a feeling of being enraptured by what we were doing – not just singing out a bunch of notes at the top of our lungs.”
“The two gangs were different, eh,” Dallaire remembers, “but I belonged to both of them.
“The gang in the choir seemed to be not of an intellectual ilk but,” he pauses, “more communicative in the senses – from the heart – so the fraternity was very strong.”
By contrast he remembers his fellow band members as more into “roughhousing. More a get-up-and-go gang, responding to loud sound and flash.”
Both teachers stirred a love of music in him. “There wasn't much of that at home. They significantly opened my senses and my delights.”
But more than that, Dallaire feels that these two teachers provided early models for two fundamental aspects of his own leadership style: “One, heart and emotion, the other, brash and determined.”
“Léonidas helped me enormously because he reinforced the sense of communication with other people. It's just your voice and you're standing there beside one another doing three-part harmony.” Dallaire recalls the importance of this experience of “a strong link among human beings.
“I became a soloist. That – being chosen to be a soloist and being a soloist – gave me a lot of confidence. Of course, you have the whole gang behind you and they're saying, ‘he'd better not mess that up!'”
With Hillaire, Dallaire learned a straightforward approach to getting things done. He describes Hillaire as more competitive, brash and extroverted: “Apply energy here! Learn that choreography!”
A challenge to succeed
At this time, in his early teens, Dallaire was dreaming of a military career.
Dallaire never felt any doubt about what he wanted to do. His father was a non-commissioned officer in the Canadian army; his first toy was a replica of an army jeep; and as a boy he created battlefields on the living room rug.
But he admits he was not a high-performing student – his marks were in the low seventies. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire recalls being set straight when an old friend of his dad's, a major with whom he had served in the war, came for a visit.
Dallaire heard this as a message of encouragement, not of reproach. He enlisted the help of a pal with a fiendish work ethic and surprised himself (and his family) when his marks shot up into the nineties.
He was accepted into the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean.
A note of pride
“I remember Brother Léonidas sent me a note when I graduated from military college. He was proud of me,” Dallaire says. “I met him once when I was in my forties in Quebec City. He was married then – he'd left the order. He was still involved with music.”
He thinks that Brother Hillaire has died.
“The order has disappeared,” he says. “The school and the novitiate were torn down to make room for a home for the elderly. That's the plight of so many of those religious orders.”
École Napoléon Courtemanche was “better than some of the private schools today. My children went to private schools and they rarely had a band and a choir. I always thought that was an opportunity lost.”
Brothers Léonidas and Hillaire, through their music and by example, gave Roméo Dallaire opportunities that shaped his character as a military commander and as a conscience for the world.
Senator RomÉo Dallaire
Appointed to the Canadian Senate March 24, 2005
In 1993 Roméo Dallaire went to Rwanda as commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. He was witness to the genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days.