They were homeless in Montreal, yet the singers of Accueil Bonneau Choir (also known as the Montreal Homeless Choir) captivated audiences worldwide — and turned their lives around.
Its repertoire — everything from The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” — has won accolades and hearts not just in Quebec but across Canada and worldwide.
The ensemble took Paris by storm in November 1998, winning over France’s distinguished newspaper Le Figaro, which praised the singers’ “fervour.” Another reviewer similarly impressed by a performance in a Toronto church last winter, commented, “We clapped along and cheered and laughed, and at the end, when they sang ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ we wept.”
JUST HOW did a group of 22 men — most with no singing experience, some with drug and alcohol problems, all living on social assistance or their wits — come to be the toast of Montreal, Toronto, Paris and New York?
The short answer is Pierre Anthian. A dental technician by vocation, a classically trained musician by calling, Anthian is also a Mormon who practises the tenets of his faith. Since the age of 12, this lean, dark-haired 40-year-old with a ready smile has devoted much of his time to disadvantaged people. His volunteer efforts have taken him from hospitals and seniors’ homes in southern France, where he grew up, to hostels for the destitute in Paris, where he lived as a young man.
In 1995 Anthian immigrated to Canada to join his brother and sister in Montreal. Within days he established a denture laboratory — and found a place to continue serving others: Accueil Bonneau, a shelter on Montreal’s waterfront that provides meals to homeless men.
For a year the young immigrant was content simply to serve meals at the shelter. “Then,” he says, “I decided to carry out my idea.”
Anthian put out a call for choir members among Montreal’s street community. The posters and leaflets stated that musical experience and talent weren’t necessary. All that was required was that potential members show up on time and sober.
At the appointed hour of the first rehearsal, three men appeared. “But the day after, seven came, and the next day, 12,” Anthian recalls. “By the sixth rehearsal, we had more than 20.” And so the Accueil Bonneau Choir was born.
With a hastily prepared repertoire of four Christmas carols, Anthian and his ragtag collection of choristers, who ranged in age from 19 to 68, took their voices to the streets — or beneath them: Their debut was December 17, 1996, at the Berri-UQAM subway station in downtown Montreal, which became the choir’s unofficial home concert hall.
THE PUBLIC REACTION was immediate — and positive. Enchanted, commuters readily parted with loose change. In the first two hours alone, the troupe earned $800. “The money fell into the cap to the cadence of our melodies,” Anthian recalls, smiling. “People were laughing and crying. It was quite astonishing.”
Throughout the following year, the chorus attracted a local following. However, it took tragedy to propel it into the national and international limelight. In June 1998 a gas explosion at Accueil Bonneau killed three, injured 16 and destroyed the shelter. Shocked, Montrealers responded generously. Within months, $2 million was raised for a new building. The choir contributed by staging over a dozen fund-raising concerts.
Encouraged by the success of his creation, Anthian initiated a bold plan to take the choir to Paris. “I hoped we’d inspire the homeless there to form their own choir,” Anthian says. “I also thought the trip would be fun for everyone.”
Through careful planning and the benevolence of others, the chorus performed in Paris that fall. Happily, Anthian saw his hopes fulfilled. A small group of homeless Parisian men formed the Chorale de la Mie de Pain after observing the choir. And the Bonneau members did have enormous fun. Only one had ever been on a plane. And they all adored Paris — the cobbled streets, the Eiffel Tower, performing at the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Many were overwhelmed by the courtesy they were shown. “They weren’t used to that,” says Anthian.
“The choir breaks down the barriers.
Passersby understand these men are trying hard to contribute”
IN A HIGH-CEILINGED room on the third floor of the new Bonneau shelter, in the Old Port, the choir members have gathered for their twice-weekly rehearsal with Anthian.
After a warm-up, the singers work through a rousing rendition of the “Theme from New York, New York,” again and again harmonizing “king of the hill” and “these vagabond shoes.” It’s an appropriate song to practise, given that the following week they’ll bus to New York City to perform in venues ranging from the UN Visitor’s Lobby to the Lincoln Centre.
During a break, Anthian, who has halved his work schedule to meet the choir’s creative and administrative needs, shares his thoughts about the men who have become his friends. “If people looked, they’d discover that many of those at society’s margins aren’t much different from anyone else,” he says. “Yes, some drink and have drug problems. Some have legal trouble. But these difficulties are often the result, not the cause, of their sad situations. Often, the men who beg or sleep in doorways have simply been unluckier than we have.”
Certainly luck has been scarce for 60-year-old soloist Claude Lacroix. One of the few choir members who studied music as a youngster, the Montrealer served in the air force and later worked as an accounting clerk. At 50, he had a wife and a young daughter he adored. “And then my baby drowned in a pool,” says Lacroix, his face crumpling at the memory that seems never to leave him. Deeply depressed by the tragedy that occurred ten years ago, he saw his marriage collapse and he lost his job. His troubles were compounded by a retreat into alcohol, and Lacroix soon found himself on the streets.
Good fortune also appears to have passed by LÃ©o Paradis, 47, from Plessisville, Que. In the early 1980s, the cabinetmaker relocated to booming Edmonton with his wife and child. “I worked steadily until the recession hit,” he recalls. “Then I was shown the door.” Returning to Quebec, Paradis, like thousands of tradesmen then, couldn’t find work. “I told myself someone must need me,” says Paradis, who has since divorced. “But now I don’t think so. The jobs go to younger men with more energy and more recent training.”
Misfortune also found Nicolas “Colas” Allaire, 66, raised in a Montreal orphanage until he was ejected at age 17. He has lived a hand-to-mouth existence ever since. It’s a destiny he finds unsurprising. “Without family, friends or formal education, I’ve drifted through life,” he says. “The choir is my first job.”
“THE CHOIR is not going to solve homelessness,” Anthian says. But he believes it is making a difference for individuals. “People with homes and jobs often ignore the homeless people they pass,” he notes. “They’re uncomfortable with people whose lives seem to lack purpose. The choir breaks down the barriers. Passersby understand these men are trying hard to contribute.”
According to Michelle Latraverse, a Paris-based public-relations consultant who helped organize the French engagement, the unusual sight of homeless men endeavouring to help themselves was the choir’s appeal. “Parisians are used to homeless people,” says Latraverse. “But they’re not used to what these men were doing.”
There’s no question that the people most profoundly affected are the choristers themselves. All members have benefited financially: Donations are split among participants. “Usually, there’s enough for meals or necessities,” Anthian says. But the benefits extend far beyond money. Members say they’ve gained a sense of order and structure. Now, instead of living a nomadic existence, all but one receive regular social assistance, and all but two have permanent quarters in rooms or apartments.
There is also a consensus that they now have dignity. Michel Viau recalls being overwhelmed by the “magnificence” of the beds at the Crowne Plaza Toronto Centre (which housed them for free). But he also remembers how good it felt to share elevators and “Good mornings” with business travellers.
“It has given me friends, hope and the confidence to look for work… I’ve signed on with a social-service agency that has provided me with temporary work
in hospitals and old-age homes.”
Ronald Levesque, a 46-year-old with a shy smile, believes the choir has given him many things. A nursing assistant for 25 years, he was laid off four years ago, and six months later found himself homeless. Remembering that when he was a boy his school’s nuns suggested singing as a way to combat sadness, LÃ©vesque jumped at the opportunity to join the choir. “It has given me friends, hope and the confidence to look for work,” LÃ©vesque says. “I’ve signed on with a social-service agency that has provided me with temporary work in hospitals and old-age homes.”
Yet all the members agree that the greatest benefit of belonging to the group is the opportunity to give. Says Lacroix, “Through the choir, I feel good that I’m doing something for others.”
“It’s hard to describe,” adds Paradis, “but when I see people smiling as they listen, I feel a great joy. It’s a kind of magic.”
Allaire, a favourite among choir members, nods. “It’s wonderful to know you’re somehow touching others. I used to be a sad man. But the choir has made me happy.”
Part of Anthian’s focus now is on the future. There’s a tour of France, Switzerland and Belgium to organize, he says. Plans are afoot to capitalize on the choir’s proven ability to raise funds for causes in Montreal and elsewhere. And, he hopes, there are more homeless choirs to inspire.
Smiling, Anthian says he also has a long-term objective. “I dream of raising enough for a retirement fund for choir members,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could give old Colas $1,000 a month for the rest of his life so he’d never again have to worry about where to sleep or whether he’d eat? Wouldn’t that be truly wonderful?”
Used with Permission from Imperial Oil Review. First Publishing – 1999 – (photo © Suzanne Langevin)
The Accueil Bonneau choir, which formed in 1996, stopped singing in June 2003. So many of the members, aged 19 to 67, had become stable and found paying jobs that the group was disbanded after 1000 performances.